Skills in the hills: What's it like running a social enterprise in Nepal?
More and more people are moving away from their homelands to seek viable employment, skills are being forgotten and the artistic traditions of the Himalaya are fading. Not if Jyoti Upadhyay has anything to do with it. Elissa James from Iris Lillian, goes to meet her.
Sun 30 Apr 2017
As a Welsh-Nepali, Jyoti Upadhyay has married her background in anthropology with the need to revive the rich cultural treasures of her beloved Nepal by launching Kaligarh: a jewellery brand based in Nepal and the U.K.
Kaligarh, which means ‘artisan’ in Nepali, works with small-scale craftsmen and women in the Kathmandu Valley to bring their handmade creations, and the traditions of their ancestors, to the rest of the world.
Devastating earthquakes in 2015, a monsoon and a trade blockade threatened to stymie this budding social enterprise. However, these challenges only served to strengthen the resolve of Upadhyay. The survival of Kaligarh through such political and environmental turmoil is testament to her commitment to change.
Elissa James: What motivated you to launch Kaligarh?
Jyoti Upadhyay: The Valley of Kathmandu has been a hub of artistic activity since the 12th century, so when I moved to Nepal in 2009, I became fascinated with the craftsmanship here.
As I travelled around Nepal in my first few years, I realised how much diversity there is in terms of traditional jewellery and dress. But people’s tastes and lifestyles are changing rapidly and this means that many skilled artisans do not have enough work. I wanted to create new opportunities for them while preserving their unique skills. I spent a year researching different crafts and their makers. I knew that an organisation like Kaligarh would benefit the region so once I formulated some semblance of a business model I decided to move forward and test the market.
By working with artisans one-on-one, Kaligarh aims to help them retain a positive sense of identity while enhancing their incomes and creating jobs
Most young people in Nepal seek to go abroad to work due to a lack of opportunities at home. Modern labour migration is happening on a big scale and has enormous social implications that I don’t think we really understand yet. So creating job opportunities is definitely important to me. Kaligarh is doing this on a micro-level right now but with time I hope we will take on more artisans and apprentices.
EJ: How do you meet and select the artisans?
JU: I took my time walking around the Kathmandu Valley speaking to craftsmen and women. Over time I built up relationships and an understanding of who is good at what and what the different artisans enjoy doing. I took a very individual approach to developing these relationships and of course these relationships have deepened, as I got to know their families as well.
EJ: How many artisans do you have at the moment?
JU: There’s regular work for eight artisans at the moment. Three are full time. Then we work with several women to make our handmade packaging.
I’ve always been more interested in quality than quantity, so having a meaningful impact on the lives of a small group of artisans is important to me. I started Kaligarh with a background in international development, where the goal is always to claim the highest number of beneficiaries for a project. There’s an incentive for organisations to inflate these numbers, to get more funding or to seem more important. So often people become abstract numbers. We take the opposite approach at Kaligarh. The people we talk about are real and we think that ‘small’ is as important as ‘big’.
EJ: Do you employ the artisans?
JU: Three of our artisans who didn’t have their own studios work in our lovely new workshop in Kathmandu, while the rest work in their own spaces. Most traditional artisans in Nepal prefer to work as freelancers on a piece-by-piece basis rather than as employees. The independence is central to their sense of identity and dignity. A lot of the artisans work in their own workshops, where their fathers and grandfathers had worked. These are studios which have been in their families for a long time and I’m very hesitant to take people out of this environment and into one big workshop.
EJ: What does an artisan’s day look like?
JU: Lifestyle is such an important part of being a traditional artisan: there are friends and family who are always popping in and chatting throughout the day and getting small things fixed. Their children come to the workshop at the end of the school day, roll about on the floor doing their homework or their dog is sitting beside them while they work. Ethical production and fair trade in our context is about so much more than paying premium wages – it’s about supporting artisans and their families to live in ways in which they’re comfortable, that takes account of their desires and changing needs. A satisfactory work/life balance is so elusive in modern economies, but here in Nepal, in our artisans’ studios, it seems possible. Why not support that?
EJ: Are you wearing any Kaligarh jewellery today?
JU: Of course! Today I’m wearing the Lapis Ring. The stud motif comes from a traditional choker that used to be worn in the Southern part of Nepal by the Tharu community. Lapis lazuli is so vibrant and summery, and I’m yet to find a person it doesn’t suit.
Elissa James is a lawyer, writer, photographer and the founder of IrisLillian.com, a website for the modern working woman who styles her career and life, her own way. This is one of a series of guests posts called #pebblesmakeripples - if you have a great idea for an ethical guest post then get in touch.