fighting the odds

At a time when most handicraft and garment industries in Nepal are going bust, only a few have dared to dip their hands into this sector. Sabita Maharjan, who runs Kirtipur Hosiery Industry (KHI), is one of those few exceptions, who has not just defied the odds but served as an inspiration to upcoming women entrepreneurs.

When Sabita Maharjan first started her knitting industry 17 years ago with her friends, she had just fled from domestic violence and abandoned her drug-addicted husband. There was a child to be taken care of and it was difficult for her to live hand-to-mouth.

Times having changed; Sabita is much better off now. She continues to battle through obstacles in her life with the same courage and determination that has brought her so far. Sabita’s personal experiences have prompted her to work for other women like herself who find themselves in vulnerable situations. Her business, Kirtipur Hosiery, currently employs 120 women from her locality, many of whom are victims of domestic violence too. Alongside her business, she also runs knitting and adult literacy classes for women in Kirtipur. Besides this, she empowers women through her cooperative by providing them loans to set up small-scale businesses. Sabita’s foray into the handicraft and garment industry goes back to her SLC days, when she first took up knitting and tailoring classes. After acquiring the required skills, she started working on a daily wage basis for a nearby cottage industry. Eventually, she realized that it was time to do something on her own. So she opened up Sabi Crafts in Kirtipur that produced hand-knitted items on a small scale. Sabi Crafts later transformed into Kirtipur Hosiery, with which, her knitting business gained the much-needed momentum. Kirtipur Hosiery currently produces a range of knitted products and handicraft items including children’s clothes, toys and mufflers. The Hosiery has become a key employer for many women in her locality and the surrounding areas of Kirtipur too. “The majority of women who work here are housewives. They earn a minimum wage of Rs.3500 every month. Since I don’t demand full-time commitment from them, they get the freedom to pursue their own household chores,” she says, sharing the story of the women whose lives she has helped turn around.

Currently, 24 women work full-time in the production line for the hosiery, including three who work at the machine-knitting section. The rest do hand-knitting and they are free to take their assignments home. Sabita’s business garners her around 200 to 300 thousand rupees every month. However, due to lower demand in recent days, her industry has adapted by catering to the local market with products like school uniforms, sweaters and jackets. Sabita also makes good use of recyclable material. Once a month, she and her colleagues collect waste plastic from her locality and use them to make recycled handicraft products. “Together, we make decorative baskets and dolls using recycled plastics. We also use wool, cotton and recycled silk wool as raw material for knitting purposes. The waste wool produced is used in making dolls and pillows. Nothing goes to waste,” she says.

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Although the handicraft products are mostly sold in showrooms inside Kathmandu Valley, Sabita also markets them abroad through companies like Kalanki Knitwear and Sherpa Adventure Gear. “I am forced to rely on middle agents and spend unnecessary money to market my products here and abroad. Had I been able to reach the market directly, my profits would have been much higher,” she reveals. The lack of proper educational background and technical knowhow has already cost her a fortune. She has now realized that getting a better hold of internet and technology would help to scale up her business. This is perhaps why she has partnered with several organizations such as Business Service Centre, and Educational Resource and Development Centre Nepal to train her and the women workers vocational and IT skills other than knitting.

“Right now, we are taking basic computer classes so that we can learn new designs and market our products to a wider audience,” says Sabita. She is also taking some accounting and managerial classes to better administer her business. Kirtipur Hosiery already has a registered website but Sabita had to hire a separate person to market her products through emails and social media. When asked about her initial investment, Sabita says she was able to upgrade her business only with the help of loans provided by private banks and cooperatives. With a five year loan (Rs. 700,000) from Mega Bank and three year loan (Rs. 300,000) from Clean Energy Development Bank, Sabita purchased knitting machines and power generators for her business. Since the money from the banks was not enough, she had to knock on the doors of cooperatives for more cash.

With an investment totaling nearly 2 million rupees, she was finally able to bring Kirtipur Hosiery to its present day state. “I had a lot of trouble finding collateral for the money initially. It was also very hard to convince the banks for loans. The convincing part got even harder for me because I was a woman, and I was trying something new at that time,” says Sabita, talking about her financial struggles. While Sabita is still paying off her dues, she blames the government for not paying enough attention to the problems of entrepreneurs. “We never miss our taxes. It’s time the government did something for us too. It’s quite risky to run a business like this on collateral. I can’t even start thinking about the debts I have accumulated in all these years,” she says.

Like many other handicraft entrepreneurs, Sabita finds herself burdened with loans. Additionally, she has to pay huge taxes for her products on behalf of the= company. She feels that tax cuts should be provided by the government and interest rates lowered to relieve some of that burden. Given the small market of Nepal and increasing production costs, many handicraft businesses like hers have already closed down. It won’t be long before Sabita’s business follows the suit.

Despite the odds, Sabita is determined to expand her business eventually and reach a wider audience in coming days. She also plans to open a training center where women would be provided hands on training for knit wear and handicraft items. “Times are tough. But I have faced tougher times before. I am quite optimistic about the future of my company,” she says, smiling. Still, she has others problems in her basket. Many of her part time female workers lack discipline and fail to meet deadlines due to their household work. Some lack confidence while others are not trusted by the society to get into business. And, then there are concerns of their security.

She says, “In this business, you have to deliver on time. Clients don’t care about your internal problems. I have had several nights without sleep because of the delay of some workers. But no matter what, your workers deserve a pat on the back. Because, I have been in their shoes once and I know how it feels.” V

Sabita is the recipient of the prestigious Surya Nepal Asha Social Entrepreneurship Award 2011 and Gazab Social Venture award; awards that recognize women for their contribution towards women empowerment.

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