How this khadi brand harnessed solar power to create thousands of women entrepreneurs

Ease of Doing Business for MSMEs: Greenwear has so far created 1,180 women entrepreneurs and supplies fabric to brands like W and Aurelia.

Pathak bought 10 solar charkhas from his own money and engaged women artisans in Bhagalpur (Bihar) which is famous for silk textiles. (Image: pixabay)

Ease of Doing Business for MSMEs: Lucknow-based Abhishek Pathak developed an interest in fashion and textiles in his graduation days at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) in 2011. That interest later drew him towards understanding the life and work of rural women in the khadi sector who had to toil for hours every day spinning charkhas for an earning as petty as Rs 60 per day. These artisans’ minds were rich but their pockets were empty – was the thought Pathak had meeting them back in 2016.

“I was fascinated about khadi with it being a household-based task with a circular model of economy but never understood why khadi wasn’t successful. When I met spinners, I found that charkha was hand-driven but a woman cannot run her hand for 8 hours a day to produce around 50-60 grams of cotton yarn that had a market value of Rs 10-20 to earn Rs 50-60 per day,” Pathak told Financial Express Online. 

Further knowing about the supply chain of khadi, Pathak got to know that the entire process of production was automated except spinning because surprisingly according to khadi’s definition, the material has to be handspun and handwoven instead of electric spun to be called khadi. “Because of this definition of khadi, I thought the women were getting exploited,” Pathak added. 

During his visit to the Delhi trade fair in 2016, Pathak came across a solar charkha model at MSME Pavillion. That was the eureka moment for him to realise that how solar charkha can help reduce drudgery for women. The reason why solar charkhas weren’t adopted was due to the same reason that anything not handspun wasn’t khadi. In the same year, Pathak launched Greenwear as the brand name for the KVIC body Bhartiya Harit Khadi Gramodaya Sansthan which he had joined as its chief executive officer.

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Pathak bought 10 solar charkhas from his own money and engaged women artisans in Bhagalpur (Bihar) which is famous for silk textiles. Apart from reprieving the women artisans from hand spinning khadi, poverty alleviation and women empowerment were other reasons for Pathak to adopt solar charkhas for women. However, the cost was the challenge. 

“Solar charkha costs Rs 45,000 including standalone charkha cost of Rs 22,000 and Rs 23,000 for solar set in comparison to electric charkha for Rs 26,000. However, the solar charkha project was included in Prime Minister Employment Generation Programme (PMEGP) as a special project in FY17 for which Rs 80,000 support was offered to borrowers. This included Rs 40,000 charkha cost and another Rs 40,000 for raw cotton. On the other hand, there was a 35 per cent subsidy for rural women under the scheme. Applying through the Gramodaya Sansthan, saved women the raw cotton cost as well. The overall cost of charkha was reduced to Rs 8,000 that was financed from banks and women had to repay that in three-five years at a monthly EMI of Rs 400-500. This was affordable for them as they managed to earn at least Rs 5,000-6,000 per month,” explained Pathak. 

Greenwear was incubated by the Indian Institute of Management-Calcutta Innovation Park (IIMCIP) and Villgro Innovations Foundation. Last year, Greenwear received its first Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from impact investor Upaya Social Ventures. It was also among the six companies selected for the ‘Powering Livelihoods’ programme by Council On Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) and Villgro Innovations Foundation in 2020 to boost rural economy. In 2019, Greenwear became a legal entity and has so far created 1,180 women entrepreneurs with charkhas procured under the Gramodaya Sansthan. Greenwear currently supplies fabric to brands like W and Aurelia. By 2025, Pathak wants to engage 5,000 women in the solar charkha supply chain. The company currently has a turnover of Rs 2 crore and it plans to launch retail stores in three years.

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