Its raining umbrellas

Written by M Sarita Varma | Updated: Jun 12 2014, 05:41am hrs
Gujarat, which has given the country its new Prime Minister, has been sweating it out to shield the southern state of Kerala from the just arrived monsoon too. In Keralas R250-crore umbrella industry, a good many of the 84-lakh-odd umbrellas ready for the seasonal market have their vital partsribs, shafts and handlessourced from Gujarat.

Earlier, it was from China that the southern state sourced the ribs and chrome-plated shafts for its umbrella industry spread over Thrissur and Alappuzha. At one point, many umbrella SMEs even had tiny umbrella assembling facilities in China. As the import barriers grew, the Chinese sourcing became cumbersome and uneconomic. It is now the turn of the cottage industry in Umbergaon in Gujarat to feed the umbrella units in Kerala, reveals a close look at the supply chain of the assembling units.

We still get the monsoon-resistant umbrella cloth from Taiwan, says KN Marsook, chairman, Colombo group of umbrellas. There is a current trend of using fibreglass ribs, as they are lighter and do not rust. But then bulk sales are in two-folds and three-folds, that have sturdy metallic ribs and shaft. Many firms buy them from Gujarat, he adds.

Talking about the new west-to-south sourcing in the umbrella ribs, there seems to be some strange connection between West Bengal and Kerala that goes beyond their waning Left politics commonality. According to 80-year-old Sadananda Shenoy, who spend his prime years marketing umbrellas brands from Kerala in east and south India, it should be Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh or Rajasthan with the mercury flaring up in the summer season that should be the umbrella markets. I know plenty of outdoors people in households from hot Ramagundam, Chennai, who do not even consider buying an umbrella. On the contrary, in Kerala and West Bengal, there is an almost cultural passion for umbrellas, observes Shenoy.

While West Bengal cherished traditional umbrella brands like Citizen, Garden and Hindustan, in Kerala, at one point, there were about 40-odd umbrella making units. However, even though close to 1 crore umbrellas are sold every year, the business has little ambition to scale-up and become rain-gear suppliers to the nation. One reason could be skilled labour scarcity.

Colombo Umbrella Mart in Kochi was the first to introduce the folding umbrella, followed by three-fold umbrellas and four- by five-fold umbrellas. Although Colombo Mart still offers about 100 varieties, the firm has diversified to other sectors like furniture.

Thanks to the 3,000 mm rainfall that Kerala receives every year, currently about 10 umbrella manufacturing firms are afloat in the state. These are mainly in the Thrissur-Kochi belt. However, it was left to an Alappuzha-based entrepreneur to transform the tall, shadowy rain-gear in the corner of the room from a mere commodity to a value-added and branded product.

At present, 70% of the business pie is happily split between the two grandchildren of the pioneer umbrella industrialist, the late Thayyil Abraham Varghese, fondly nicknamed Kuda Vavachan. It was he who brought the umbrella industry from north of Kochi to the historic Iron Bridge Junction in the tourism-propelled Alappuzha town, adding to its tourism charm.

Often, the seasons varieties are launched by competitive cousins Davis of Popy Umbrella Mart and Dr Abraham Thayyil of Johns Umbrella Mart. The marketing thrust is always on innovation, both in functionality and fashion, but the ads unerringly grabbed the news of the moment, grabbing the customers attention. For instance, when Tata made a market splash with the Nano car, Davis was quick to get his Popy Umbrella to launch Nano umbrellaNano claims to be the smallest umbrella. Dr Abraham, a surgeon and the business brain of Johns Umbrella Mart, responded with a corresponding Atom umbrella.

Although umbrellas are growing as a pet co-branding product among paint firms and automobile manufacturers, the scaling up of the units in Kerala is not seen feasible. Umbrella-assembling is largely labour-intensive. Manpower-addition, according to most company managements, could cause unionisation and labour unrest. A good many of these firms take refuge in outsourcing part of the production, to keep the stock flow smooth.

Nevertheless, we do export to Gulf countries and Maldives, utilising the trade connections of Kerala diaspora in these countries, says Premananda Prabhu, partner, Hindustan Umbrella Mart. In fact, Hindustan Umbrella Mart, Stag Umbrella Mart and Sun Umbrella Mart used to be the leading umbrella makers once. Most of these family concerns have now taken to retail trading of umbrellas, rather than manufacturing.

Contrary to earlier days, when people preserved a much-repaired umbrella as a family hand-me-down, there is a growing appetite for contemporary styles and technologies in umbrellas. The current seasons toasts are the 16-rib umbrella, the ladies umbrella with ribs covered with petal-cuts that make it look like a flower, says Marsook, whos also vice-president, Umbrella Manufacturers Association.

UV-ray resistant umbrellas are almost a must now in college campus, forcing families to cough up R250-350 in their monsoon budgets. The umbrella ad campaigns have packed in so much health-consciousness among youngsters that, in a middle-class household, a R150 per piece Chinese imported umbrella available in Mumbai and Delhi markets would not be accepted.

Come school season and innovation-loving children are the best salesmen. When Popy came out with an umbrella with a torch, compass, whistle, and thermometer, Johns Umbrella retorted with one that gets the umbrella go shake-dry after a wet spell. An umbrella with ribs, resisting the winds, is the toast of the season. And the ribs of the most umbrellas made in Kerala, this season, come from Gujarat.

Kerala is yet to be part of the Modi Cabinet, after shying away from sending any BJP member to the 16th Lok Sabha. All the same, as the South-West Monsoon storms into Indian peninsula through its usual Kerala gateway in June, it would be the strange onus of the umbrella-ribs from the Prime Ministers homestate to touch the Malayali lives on a rainy day or two.