Challenges of an Artisanal Supply Chain

Patrick our warehouse manager.

Patrick our warehouse manager.

Last holiday season we were out of stock for many of our best sellers. Working hard on creating and heavily promoting these great products, left our back orders looking ugly, and our warehouse manager Patrick unhappy.

An artisanal supply chain like ours is fairly complex with a number of variables that can cause unexpected delays. Although our retail partners are extremely patient when it comes to backorders, I want to  take this opportunity to share some of the reasons of what causes this variability in our supply chain:

Force of Nature: Our artisan partners usually work from home in rural villages. Being exposed to harsh weather conditions like heavy rains, snow, and extreme heat can easily disrupt their daily lives and cause long delays in production.

At times, these villages can be cut off for a long time in such conditions. Some production processes are also quite weather dependent. For example, in the block printing community,  artisans depend on hot weather to dry the textiles.  As for woodcarvers, they need to wait until the moisture is low in the atmosphere for wood to dry. Each art form has it’s own challenges, and when it comes to Mother Nature, there’s very little we can control.

Rural Connectivity: Rural artisans are dependent on unreliable transportation options to ship their goods,  such as train freight or local buses. These options usually have no tracking, and there are times when products are delayed for a week or the cargo gets lost.

Social Events: Artisans are extremely community oriented and social events take precedence over production. Events like marriage, death,  and festivals can sometimes push production down by as much as several weeks.

Holi festival in Jaipur, India.

Holi festival in Jaipur, India.

No Backups: In the artisanal supply chain there are no alternatives. Any outage of tools, supplies, power, etc. can disrupt our production plan.

Political Waves: Rural areas are prone to strong political influences which can bring positive or negative results. Nonetheless, political rallies can be a weeklong affair. Last Fall, India had a demonetization drive which brought the entire country to a standstill for over a month.

Quality Rejections: For artisanal goods, the production time is usually 2 to 3 months. Once production is completed, goods are sent to our SETU coordination center where they are inspected for quality. From time to time, products don’t pass the quality test and we have to start production all over again.

A scary list, but why do keep pushing? Two reasons:

Woodcarving artisans in North Central India. 

Woodcarving artisans in North Central India. 

 First, in our experience, artisans start to overcome these issues the more they are exposed to trade. This allows them to realize the importance of a dependable supply chain. As they start gaining experience through time, they start finding creative solutions to some of the issues mentioned above. That is why it is important to not shy away from partnering with them. That is the only way they will  be able to overcome these hurdles to trade.

Second, these products are simply worth the effort. We strongly believe in the positive impact that each handmade piece creates on the lives of artisans and the planet. We would love to hear your experiences with artisanal supply chains, what works and what keeps you going.

Thanks for being a part of our journey through this blog.

- Manish Gupta