Can CSR help the handcrafted toy industry?

This winter Delhi’s children had something new to look forward to. The Dastkar Nature Bazaar had a host of colourful games, toys, clothes and fun knick knacks made
by traditional crafts people.
Unlike the past where these handicrafts exhibitions only saw tourists and a small local presence, this time there were children and parents ready to jump right in and explore some new things.

This change, according to Shalini Dutt of Leela Design, who designs and manufactures handcrafted toys, is because ‘newly designed hand crafted toys which are eco friendly and safe are increasingly seeing a revival in demand both from parents and children.’ This thought is echoed by Anurag Rana who says, ‘Like any traditional hand crafted products, toys too are an outcome of local materials, blended with creativity and necessity. Design inputs and usability research have given a new lease of life to traditional crafts.’

The resurgence of hand crafted toys is at a point in time where plastic has permeated almost every product in the toy industry, an evolution accelerated by mass production, technology and design. Parents, taken aback by the toy scandals of the past few years that involved large toy manufacturers, have started scouting for options. Children too seem to be looking for something unique that their friends don’t have. Hand crafted toys seem to have hit this sweet spot.

The market opportunity is huge with the growing children’s market in India. The young parent is always on the lookout for toys that are safe, easy to maintain and are innovative. Children too have a big say in the parents decision making. The unique and colourful hand crafted toys connect with children and adults like no other.

Toys and the ever growing market are the epitome of socially responsible business. Today most toys are well researched and developed according to the age of the child. But handcrafted toys are also developed keeping the environment in mind. They are more than just toys as they provide employment opportunities and continuity of crafts in their natural environment.

Toys from Channapatna are a classic example. Channapatna  village  in Karnataka used to make a small range of wooden toys and women’s bangles. With the help of design intervention from NID students and graduates the toys have evolved into beautiful signature pieces and are being exported across the world.The entire town makes toys today. The wood is available from the nearby forest while food grade colours and lac came with the need to make the toys appealing. Without deign inputs or evolving market needs there would have been little opportunity for these wonderful toys.

Dastkar Ranthambore (childrens toys and furnishings)
Many years ago displaced villagers from the Ranthambhore tiger sanctuary with the help of Dastkar worked hard and over the years developed a  range of well crafted tiger toys and birds, furnishings and clothes. Dastkar has reached out to children with the plea of saving the tiger as well as giving a decent earning opportunity to the local villagers.

Leela Toys
Leela toys are handcrafted crocheted toys. They came out of the need to do something innovative and contemporary yet eco friendly. Women across north India knit their own sweaters and crochet little infant clothes, make caps etc.  Observing this skill a team of textile designers got together and created beautiful environment friendly infant rattles and toys. The toys were a niche range not seen in the Indian market and soon created a new market. These toys are well researched and designed to improve infant motor skills.

An opportunity for CSR departments to empower women and generate livelihoods
Each year state governments allocate large funds to some brilliantly worked out projects to enable artisans, however there is little focus on excellent craftsmanship, and the government cannot be expected generate markets. This is where corporate India can step in by giving emphasis to packaging, branding and quality. CSR departments of Indian corporates can also, through such initiatives achieve corporate goals of womens empowerment, livelihood generation and community involvement.

1. Women Empowerment
For the women employed by Dastkar and Leela Design selling products stitched /knitted at home is a boon from heaven. In large sections of society where highly skilled women may be house bound, toy making is not just an opportunity to supplement the family income but a way for them to feel empowered.

2. Generating Livelihoods
For companies with plants in far flung places handcrafted toys could be an interesting way of generating livelihoods for local communities. A program consisting of design inputs, training and link ups to markets could yield long term results.

3. Community Involvement
There are so many craft groups that need hand holding and can really come up to excellent range of contemporary products however this can only happen if the connection is made between the corporate world and rural artisan. This connection can be made through designers, social groups and individuals who work with the craft groups and have the window to the outside world.

Article coauthored with Utkarsh Majmudar and originally published in Economic Times.

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