The Deccan Herald recently profiles the work of Mother Earth, a food, fashion, and home goods brand created by Industree, a social enterprise that connects low-income rural producers with formal markets to sell their products. Working with artisans who are a part of self-help groups (SHGs) and community-owned enterprises, Industree sources products from over 600 craft-based collectives and SHGs across 10 Indian states. The company not only creates an income for the artisans but also allows for more equitable distribution of earnings as artisans become owners within their collectives or community-based organizations. Industree has recently obtained an investment from the U.S. based Future Group, and has previously received funding from the International Finance Corporation. Over the next five years, Industree intends to reach 50,000 artisans.

A smiling Neelam Chibber, from Bangalore, received her L’Oreal Femina Woman Award at an award ceremony last month. Managing Director of Mother Earth, she was felicitated for her exemplary work in the area of social impact. Co-founder of Industree, a social enterprise which connects rural producers with their urban markets, she obtained investment from the Future Group, India’s largest retail chain, to build a brand called Mother Earth which distributes the earnings equitably from the consumer to the producer with Industree as the middle point.

Neelam qualified as an industrial designer from the National Institute of Design, India and is an alumnus of Social Impact International, as well as Global Social Benefit Incubator, Santa Clara University, USA. She is also an alumnus of the Harvard Executive Programme.

She believes that the strong marketing platform that Mother Earth provides for food, fashion and home articles will raise producer incomes and increase the potential of ownership in their own enterprises, which in turn will drive efficiency. She believes Industree’s biggest challenge and reward has been to facilitate and enable producers to manage their enterprises in the changing business scenario.

Her record of achievements is impressive by any standards. As of August 2011, Industree incubated 13 community self-help groups (SHGs) and community-owned enterprises in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Industree sources products from 600 crafts-based collectives and SHGs in 10 Indian states, opening up the Mother Earth brand and market platform for them. In all Industree helps 10,000 artisans currently and will have a sale of Rs.150 million this year. In five years, Neelam Chhiber and her team aim to directly impact more than 50,000 individual artisans by introducing new brands and markets beyond those already offered by Mother Earth.

The aim of Industree is truly laudable. It helps low income artists and artisans to become owners of their enterprise at the grassroots level and links them with India’s booming retail businesses. Its focus is rural development and promotion of culture and handicrafts.

The project for which Neelam, who won the honour of winning the title of the Social Entrepreneur of the Year, India, 2011, says, “India has a 5000 year old legacy of crafts and arts with 40 million people engaged in creative endeavours. But most of them live in poverty because they have no working capital and access to big markets. Most have no knowledge about building more skills to meet market standards. Industree brings people out of poverty while celebrating the art, legacy, and culture rooted in rural India. We offer technical training, working capital and equitable access to markets. The artists enjoy the innovation activities. Mother Earth, our multi retail brand which has received help from the Future Group, then takes over to match markets with goods.”

At present, there are eight Mother Earth stores in various Indian cities. Industree has also received funding from the IFC, World Bank, to expand their activities. It works on a non-profit basis and is the link between the artisan and his or her market. Neelam Chibber is a creative consultant to huge conglomerates like ITC and also a member of several committees set up by various Ministries of the Government of India — chiefly the Textile Ministry. She believes that design education has been the key to success and says that Industree’s biggest achievement has been to facilitate and enable producers to manage their own businesses to make sizeable profits to sustain their ventures.