In a society where respect and employment opportunities for the disabled and the less privileged are limited at best, there is a dire need of social enterprises that cater to the disadvantaged. Be it women suffering from domestic violence, individuals suffering from physical or mental disabilities, dignified existence is a universal right.
Unfortunately in Pakistan, official quarters have neglected this disadvantaged section of the populace. According to the last census held in Pakistan in the late 90s, some 5 million individuals were disabled.
Poverty level hovers at around 34-37% of the Pakistani population. And then there is the domestic abuse component. Lack of awareness about the problems faced by victims of domestic violence as well as societal apathy both combine together to make life miserable for those who fall in this demographic.
All hope is not lost though, with the rise of social enterprises by conscientious Pakistani entrepreneurs. Elika Studio is one of them.
Elika Studio is a Pakistani social enterprise that seeks to lift marginalized artisans out of poverty by connecting their brilliant craftsmanship to formal markets. With a collaborative, revenue-sharing model, the folks behind Elika leverage public and private partnerships to create and sustain a lasting social impact for the disadvantaged segment.
We sat down with Kanza Azeemi, Founder and Managing Director of Elika Studio, and had a Q&A session about how the power of markets can address pressing social issues and how Elika Studio can contribute to tackling the longstanding issue of poverty and marginalization in Pakistan.
Does Elika hire artisans limited from one city or numerous?
Currently, our social impact is limited to artisans within Karachi only but we have plans for expansion to other cities.
Give an overview of how Elika goes about bringing disabled individuals to employment.
We collaborate with public and private Vocational Training Centres (VTCs) that offer textile related training (for instance, block printing, ralli work etc.) to disenfranchised communities.
The products – mainly home textiles that include cushion covers, table runners, placemats – made by artisans (marginalized women or disabled individuals) at our partner institutes are sampled by Elika Studio.
We prioritize quality and believe that artisanal products should not be bought for charity but for their aesthetic appeal and good quality.
Hence, we work with VTCs to improve the quality of the products so they can compete with commercial goods in formal markets and provide new designs as well as tweak their current designs so they can appeal to an international audience.
The products are then listed online at our website. Orders for products are directly forwarded to the respective artisans at our partner VTCs, who then handcraft the products for customers and get fairly paid for their work.
How has the experience been with local artisans and Elika? Any issues that have cropped up in the Pakistani context?
We try to fully engage the artisan in the entire process to enable their social inclusion and to enhance their self-confidence and sense of community. Most of our artisans own mobile phones and are updated with orders and payment status via SMS/call. Such use of mobile technology heightens their level of independence.
Cultural and familial restraints on women in Pakistan do not restrict our female artisans as they can work from their homes if employment outside home is not allowed.
One thing we were pleasantly surprised to see was that Elika’s goal is to ship products globally. Can you tell us a bit more about going international rather than staying limited to Pk?
Since the beginning, Elika Studio’s focus has been on connecting Pakistani artisans with international markets. While our online clientele is mainly Pakistan-based, our offline channel has won us praise across three continents. We have organized trunk shows and exhibition internationally for example in Istanbul, Turkey where we collaborated with a Turkish non-profit to showcase our products.
— Kanza Azeemi (@kanza_azeemi) March 18, 2016
We also collaborated with and organized a trunk show at Studio-X, a Columbia University Open Space in Istanbul where visitors were fascinated with the meticulous detail of our handcrafted goods and were inspired by stories of our empowered artisans.
We are continually looking for opportunities to market our artisanal products beyond borders and are encouraged by the response we’ve had so far.
Any future plans that you wish to share with our readers, regarding Elika’s initiatives towards uplifting more disadvantaged communities?
At present, we are working to optimize our social impact within Karachi. In the future, we will collaborate with VTCs or NGOs in rural areas of Sindh and other parts of Pakistan to reach a larger number of artisans that we can empower. While the richness of traditional crafts in Pakistan is fascinating, the state of impoverished artisans is upsetting. At Elika Studio, we are working to transform that state.