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The Kurubas have a strong sense of community: they maintain strong bonds to their relatives and their ethnic group, and have traditional community forums where they discuss issues and make decisions as a group. Their temples are not only a place of worship, but also a place to meet to discuss their social, cultural and economic activities. In common with other Hindus, the Kurubas worship various gods, but they also worship the sheep itself.
The Kurubas manage their sheep collectively: they share the tasks of grazing, penning and protecting the sheep, managing diseases and so on. The men take care of the grazing, while the women look after the young lambs, and handle and process the wool. They also accompany the men on the seasonal migrations.
There are three main types of sheep rearing in the area:
Stationary flocks (10–50 animals) reared on crop residues and village pastures within a radius of 3–10 km of the village.
Semi-nomadic flocks (50–1 000 animals) reared on crop residues and village pastures within a radius of 50–100 km of a group of 25–50 villages.
Nomadic flocks (1 000–3 000 animals), which migrate over distances of 200–400 km.
The larger the flock, the more mobile it must be in order to take advantage of the sparse grazing in the dry season.
PART 1: Wool and cashmere 19 The sheep are shorn twice a year – usually before monsoon in June, and after the rainy season in November. Most shepherds shear their own animals using scissors, though some contract shearing is done.
SHEEP PRODUCTS AND SERVICESThe sheep of the Deccan produce a range of products and services.
Manure and tillage. Farmers welcome shepherds and their flocks onto their fields during the fallow period, as the sheep eat weeds and other vegetation, and leave behind manure that fertilizes the soil. The animals’ hooves break up clods of earth and help prepare the soil for planting. The farmers pay the shepherds Rs 1.50–2.00 ($0.03–0.04) per animal per night (or the equivalent in grain, sugar and tea) for keeping their sheep on their fields. This is the main source of sustainable income for the shepherds. During the monsoon from July to September, the shepherds move their animals to an area with lower rainfall and pen them in fields, where they collect manure to sell. A tractorload of manure sells for Rs 1 600 ($34), while a cartload sells for Rs 400 ($8.50).
Live animals for slaughter. The shepherds sell male lambs aged 3–6 months at a weight of 10–18 kg to butchers, traders or other sheep rearers in weekly livestock markets. Some buyers purchase animals directly from the herders. An animal may cost Rs 1 600–2 500 ($34–53), depending on the weight and build of the animal, or Rs 80–100 ($1.70–2.10) per kg live weight. After 8–9 lambings, the shepherds sell the females to butchers or traders. A sheep weighing 20–25 kg fetches Rs 2 500–3 000 ($53–64).
Wool. The shepherds shear the animals twice a year, before winter (in October or November) and before the monsoon (in April or May). A sheep may produce 250–500 g of coarse, hairy wool. The shearing is done by members of a group known as Katrigars. Women sort and grade the wool into three colours and two grades: lamb wool and adult wool. The average fibre diameter varies widely: one fleece may average 35 μm, while another is much coarser – up to 70 μm. The overall average is 53 μm.
About one-quarter of the fleece is fine, good quality wool, with fibres around 24 μm in diameter. This fibre is suitable for spinning. Another quarter of the fleece is very coarse and hairy, with fibre diameters around 58 μm.
Milk. The shepherds milk their animals and make buttermilk and butter, but selling these products is considered taboo.
CRISIS OF THE DECCANI SHEEPDemand for meat in India is rising rapidly. That is causing changes in the sheep production system in the Deccan. The government is promoting breeds, such as the Red Nellore in Andhra Pradesh, Yelgu in northern Karnataka, and Madgiyal in Maharashtra, which produce meat rather than wool. Shepherds cross-breed their Deccani animals with these other breeds, even though imported animals and crossbreds are less hardy than the indigenous Deccani sheep.
In addition, the Indian police and army have shifted away from providing locally made woollen blankets to their officers and soldiers. A large number of weavers, especially women, have lost their jobs as a result, and demand for wool has plummeted.
Adding value to livestock diversity As a result of these trends, the purebred Deccani has been in decline, and the breed has become marginalized in its home range.
A FOCUS ON WOOLHow best to conserve this breed, along with its favourable genetic traits? And how to promote the development of sustainable livelihood among the Kurubas of northern Karnataka, but at the same time help them conserve their distinctive way of life?
The Deccani has one feature that the newcomers do not: it produces wool; the Red Nellore and other breeds produce worthless hair. That was recognized by Shramik Abhivrudhi Sangh (SAS), an NGO that has been working in the area since the mid-1990s. An SAS project that began in 1996 helped local women produce and market bags and other handicrafts made of jute and cotton fibre. This project resulted in the women forming self-help groups, and eventually a federation of such groups, known as Shramik Kala. The women are the owners of this federation, which they plan to register as a production company.
Shramik Kala took over responsibility for production activities from SAS, which continued to provide management support, marketing services, working capital and the salaries of core staff.
In 2005, SAS decided to explore the possibility of expanding this project to include woollen products. A team composed of SAS and CALPI (Capitalization of Livestock Programme Experiences India, a project supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation) first studied various aspects of wool production, processing, product design and marketing. Over a period of 6 months, it reviewed earlier studies and documents, and met with spinners, weavers, handicraft artisans and cooperative societies in northern Karnataka who work with wool and create wool products. It looked into the spinning, weaving and product-making technology, the quality of the yarn, and the range of potential products. It had wool samples laboratory-tested for fibre diameter and length, regional variations, and qualities for spinning and felting. The team also discussed with shepherds and with cooperatives and other organizations in northern India to learn from their experience in wool production and marketing. Out of this research, it developed a pilot project to help Kuruba women in Belgaum district in Karnataka make and sell products made from the wool of the Deccani sheep.
Many of the women were already skilled in making items out of wool. But producing items for a wider market would mean many changes: organizing the workers into groups, grading and sorting the wool, developing new product designs, introducing new production techniques, and marketing the products in new ways.
That gives them flexibility to work in ways and at times they find convenient. A craftsperson can make one bag per day.
Grading and sorting the wool The Shramik Kala federation buys wool and leather from cooperatives or local traders.
The traders buy raw, mixed wool from shepherds at Rs 4–6 ($0.08–0.13) per kilogram.
Shramik Kala has an informal agreement with the cooperatives and traders to buy sorted and graded wool for Rs 25/kg ($0.53) – sorting and grading is easier and cheaper if done at shearing-time, before wool from different animals has been mixed up. It also buys unsorted wool direct from the shepherds at a remunerative price. Shepherds and local traders have mobile phones, making it much easier than before to source raw materials.
Shramik Kala buys 10 tons of wool each season, worth Rs 250 000 ($5 250). The federation’s wool supervisor and the self-help group committees are responsible for checking the quality of the wool.
Part of the charm, and hence the value, of products made from Deccani wool is its range of natural colours, which can be woven into attractive stripes, zigzags and chequers in products such as cushion covers and rugs. That means sorting the raw wool into seven different colours, from a pale cream, through mid-brown to nearly black, instead of the traditional three shades. The project trained two self-help groups in Huvnoor village to do this sorting, as well as separating the wool into two grades: finer wool from lambs, and coarser wool from adult animals.
New products and designs Product design has been a central focus of the project. Since design schools do not typically teach designers to work with coarse raw materials and traditional crafts and designs, the project avoided using experts from such schools. Instead it has worked with designers who are experienced with wool products and community-based production. These designers developed designs for various products that the market research showed would be in demand, such as cushion covers, rugs and mats, bags and oven gloves. Spun wool and felt are the main constituents of these items; they also may include sheep leather (for handles) and other natural materials such as jute and banana fibre.
Deccani wool is relatively coarse, so is not suitable for clothing. But it is ideal for home furnishings and products such as bags. The designers developed a range of products that could take advantage of the wool’s natural colours and short staple length, as well as local peoples’ craft skills. Items such as blankets were dropped from the product range because they required too much capital and the market was already saturated.
Deccani wool is also a tough fibre and naturally fire-retardant, which presents new product opportunities for home furnishings, or even as building material. The amount of wool produced each year provides enough raw materials to expand the range and output of products significantly.
pedal-driven spinning wheels to spin the wool into yarn. Most existing equipment is designed for finer wool, so the project had to adapt it for working with the coarse Deccani fibre.
To prevent infestation by moths, the wool is treated with a traditional method using an extract made of roots. Multicoloured yarn is produced in two ways: by spinning wool of various colours, or tie-dying yarn spun from a single-colour fibre. Additional techniques include making knotted carpets using a flat frame, moulded felting, and hand-knotting or macramé using hand-felted yarns.
Training has been a major part of the project. The project organized two types of hands-on training: for 3 000 shepherds in shearing, sorting and grading of wool, and for 100 women on spinning, weaving, bag making and felting. The trainees were selected by local cooperatives which short-listed potential participants, and by master craftsmen who assessed their aptitude to craftwork, motivation and skills. Most of the spinners and weavers had some previous experience of making yarn with spindles and weaving on traditional looms. The master craftsmen and a group of resource persons from shepherds’ cooperatives conducted the training courses proper. The training taught them how to spin yarn using a pedal-driven spinning wheel, and how to weave using a frame loom.
The training has been highly effective. Before the training, the women could spin 200–250 g of wool a day; afterwards, they could spin 300–500 g. Some 95% of the trainees now earn their living using the skills they have learned. Some of the trainees have themselves become trainers and have conducted training workshops for other groups.
Marketing products How to market these new products? In 2007, the project management team set up a company to handle various functions: marketing, capacity building, design, technology and networking. This was necessary to enable the business to expand and diversify. The company, Mitan Handicrafts Development Pvt Ltd., now manages these functions for Shramik Kala. Mitan is jointly owned by Shramik Kala and a partnership of scientists, development professionals, designers and marketing experts, and uses capital raised by its professional supporters. Currently approximately 85% of Shramik Kala’s sales are through Mitan.
Nearly three-quarters (74%) of Shramik Kala’s revenues come from export sales, mainly to Europe (45%) followed by Japan (28%) and the United States (25%). It also showcases its products at national and international fairs; one fair in 2005 resulted in over Rs 50 million worth of orders.
Shramik Kala also sells its products in India, through Fabindia (a retailer and distributor focusing on products made by artisans), as well as through other wholesalers, retailers and support organizations, such as 95 Parklane, SETU The Bridge To Artisans, and the All India Artisans and Craftworkers Welfare Association (AIACA). It also promotes the sale of wool to felt-makers in Maharashtra, the state to Karnataka’s north.
Both Shramik Kala and Mitan are beginning to market the products via email and through the internet via the websites www.shramik.org and www.mitan.in.
Shramik Kala does not brand its products. The product identity comes from the design of the product range, rather than from a particular label. The federation also produces a range of other products made from jute, leather and banana fibre marketed with the PART 1: Wool and cashmere 23 FIGURE 3 The Deccani wool products are popular with foreign tourists “Craftmark” logo, a label for handicrafts supported by AIACA. It is planning to get a “woolmark” certification for its woollen products.