A social enterprise in Singapore is helping Roopsi Village, a rural community in India.
by Portia Ladrido
Travel can mean a lot of things for a lot of people. It can be a luxury for one person, but a necessity for another. It can open your eyes to the beauty of the natural world and the diversity of cultures, but it can also make you question conventions or beliefs that you may have had. Travel can be a great equaliser too – when two people from opposing worlds meet at a place they both had never been before, they may be considered equals in this regard. Like anything in the physical world, travel has its triumphs and pitfalls.
For Haziq Rashid, founder of social enterprise Nomad, travel is an adventure, an opportunity to see and appreciate what life has to offer. In 2014, when he was backpacking across India, he unexpectedly found himself connected to a community who had been deprived with basic access to education due to the caste system that’s still existent in the country.
Witnessing this nudged him to create an enterprise that could help this community get out of poverty. The enterprise has a three-pronged approach: creating leather bags, doing restoration projects, and leading leather craft workshops. Haziq talked to INKLINE to tell us about the challenges of operating a Singapore-based enterprise whilst their artisans are in India, what makes their products unique, and what keeps him going.
INKLINE: How did Nomad all start and who are these artisans that you work with to create the bags?
Haziq Rashid: I always wanted to see how the world is like so that brought me to India. When I was there, I was inspired to start a social enterprise because I stayed in a lot of rural communities. The longer that I stayed with them, the more that it made me feel more connected to them. These artisan activities are actually one of the biggest jobs in the world especially in developing countries – most of them are in secluded areas so they don’t have the necessary knowledge on how to make their products commercial or how to bring it out to the world, so it can become their source of income.
When I stayed with them, the artisans, the elders in the community had been making leather bags. They’d been practicing it as a heritage or tradition but the problem was that selling in the local market will not bring them income, the reason being everyone within the community, and they, themselves, do not have the spending power.
In that community called Roopsi village, there were a lot of children […] the weather was extreme and so we started a really small project restoration project. We received a really good response from there. We entered a program that’s called Singapore International Foundation for Entrepreneurs. It’s basically a program that sort of incubates entrepreneurs from different countries that creates a social impact. We got in an 8-month program then we got a little bit of traction so we got funded by them as the finalists so that’s when everything started to kick off.
I: Why did you choose the word Nomad?
H: India started as a backpacking journey for me and I really had no idea what I was doing. I was just going around for months so when I got back I was inspired by the communities that I’d been to, stayed with and I realised the skills that they have so it’s kind of like a wordplay. A nomad is someone who goes from place to place to find a home but what nomad means to us is to go place to build homes for these communities.
I: Could you tell us more about your products?
H: We offer products and we offer workshops. Each one of our bags are made by artisans from India. Most bags are used with chromium dye. Chromium tanning is very damaging to the environment but our leather bags use natural tannings, natural oils from the trees to tan those products. We only use vegetable oil to tan the leather. If you look at the colours of the leather, it looks very vintage and rugged. […]
The second thing that we’re offering are the workshops. The workshops are basically supplemented together with the bags that we’re offering as a by-service of our social enterprise. We offer leather crafting workshops based on the knowledge and the skills that we’d learned from the artisans in India. We expose them [attendees] to the traditional tools that are used by artisans so they understand how tough the life of artisans are. It’s very different from the modern leather process today.
I: What were or are the challenges that you face with Nomad?
H: The first challenge is really operations, given that we’re based in Singapore and our artisans are based in rural India. To establish a proper communication system is [quite hard] and secondly, improving the prototype of the product. Previously what we did was we showed them designs and then tried to get them to prototype but then that entailed a lot of costs because of the distance. So, one time, we started to streamline the process. We started to make our own prototype, we do it in-house and then we teach the artisans how to make it – that cuts the prototyping costs and production costs. That’s one of the challenges that we managed to overcome. […] Another challenge is transporting the products in and out of the villages.
I: What motivates you guys to keep pursuing your mission?
H: All three of us [Nomad team] have been in India and we have seen the condition of the artisans and the students there. We empathise with them. We’ve seen their condition, so it motivates us because the first time we were in the village, when we visit children in India, they will go around asking for money but in that village, the first thing that the children asked from us was a pen. It’s really eye-opening for us. It’s not common for people to just go up to you and ask for a pen. It shows the desire and motivation of wanting to learn.
Our mission is to provide them a higher education so they come out of the poverty cycle.
I: What has been the most satisfying thing that Nomad has given you?
H: I guess the most satisfying thing for me at least is to know that previously they couldn’t even afford food on their plate, we know that we’re doing our best to make them live comfortably. But I guess one of the biggest things that really inspired me was this girl that I met two years ago before Nomad started. She was dressed in really huge tattered clothes, and was very shy and soft-spoken.
With Nomad’s restoration project, I was able to go there two years later, and she has grown up a lot, she tops her class in school and that really inspired us because the state that she was in when we first met her is so different from what she is today because she now has the basic necessities. We believe that these kind of small changes will lead to bigger changes in the future. Once you have a conducive environment and once you’re more confident, our mission is to provide them a higher education so they come out of the poverty cycle.
Portia Ladrido is a multimedia journalist specialising in social justice, culture, and the arts. She is a human rights journalism fellow at the Philippine Human Rights Information Center and the Metro Manila hub coordinator of the Solutions Journalism Network. She currently writes speeches for the Philippines’ first female socialist senator. Previously, she worked as an editor and writer at CNN Philippines.