Soil to Silk ...the start of an entrepreneurial journey for Eri

Through IWA Silk Route, Saumar J Sharma wants to groom entrepreneurs in Assam who want to collaborate with him on his mission of popularizing Eri silk in the national and global textile map. The dynamic entrepreneur talks at length to Fit Northeast

Today, eco-friendly fashion is the fastest growing trend in the apparel industry. While connoisseurs and discerning buyers are vying for labels that are high on the sustainability quotient, fashion designers and textile entrepreneurs are striving to devise innovative methods through which eco-friendly apparel can be designed and produced.
History is testimony to the fact that the industrial revolutions have colossally impacted employment opportunities, quality of life and the overall economic DNA of the human civilization. The rampant impacts of fuel and chemicals have probably irretrievably tarnished the environment and ecology. However, all is not lost if conscious entrepreneurs come up with well thought out business modules that can steer entrepreneurship in sustainable textile development/fashion in a manner that integrates them with their immediate local ecosystem and ecology.
Saumar J Sharma, CEO and Founder of Indian Weavers Alliance (IWA), an organization founded in 2017 for facilitating the professional development of rural weavers is now actively implementing the foundation for one such module via the brand name IWA Silk Route.
Saumar a post graduate from NIFT Delhi was born and raised in Assam where handloom cottage industries are very common. "Hence it was only natural for me to be aware of the beauty of the weaving tradition, the livelihoods of the artisans based on weaving and the richness of woven textiles. It was this consciousness of a tradition coupled with my educational training and cross functional professional experience of 18 years that led me to ponder upon the threats of the Indian weaving industry, the artisans and their livelihoods," Saumar shares. "So I decided to leverage my own skills and expertise for rejuvenating an otherwise dying weaving industry. This was the humble beginning for IWA (Indian Weavers Alliance)," he adds.
Over the years, while working extensively with several weaving clusters across India and researching about environmental issues closely associated with the clothing industry, Saumar meaningfully broadened the vision IWA to incorporate a sustainable approach. Now through IWA Silk Route, he wants to provide the much needed direction and impetus to entrepreneurs of Assam who want to collaborate with him on his mission of popularizing and expanding consumption of ERI silk in the national and global textile map. ERI silk cultivation is incidentally elusive to a few places of India like Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa and Assam is leading majorly among these destinations.
"Despite the fact that there is sufficient ways and means of rearing ERI Silk in Assam, the state has not managed to scale the production of this fabric for mass consumption and exports. Consequently, prices have remained relatively high and the fabric has also not been adequately leveraged for contemporary wear, fashion accessories and upholstery. Though there have been quite a few commendable efforts from weavers/artisans in terms of creating innovative items the impact of the same has not been visible because it has not been done in an organized and professional manner," Saumar explains.
Another major problem is that ERI unlike other textiles, say for instance cotton, has no prescribed norms in terms of price determination. This has made the buying and selling ecosystem very haphazard and also led to the exploitation of the weavers by middle-men and brokers. This problem actually stems from the fact that this sector is largely an unorganized one. Extracting of ERI silk threads from the cocoons and the weaving process is largely happening at a cottage industry scale in the state of Assam and the ERI silkworm rearing is happening in individual rural households.
"While there are a number of entrepreneurs in the state who want to make a positive difference to the prevailing situation, they realize sooner or later that the logistical odds are too high. While the fixed capital by way of land etc can be streamlined through the might of money it is difficult to have a grip on the variable operating costs and factors like rearing etc. While on one hand, it is difficult to have a complete control on the quality of the produce on the other it is also very hard to ascertain the market dynamics in terms of demand," Saumar informs.
Another major problem is that ERI unlike other textiles, for instance cotton, has no prescribed norms in terms of price determination
Saumar J Sharma's 'IWA Silk Route' is in the process of entrenching a practical business model that envisages diffusing entrepreneurial risk, creating a sustainable ecosystem and creating new opportunities down the value chain. Under his business model, which is basically an umbrella styled model, all aspiring entrepreneurs of the state come together (at a macro level) with the large acres of land at their disposal. To start with, entrepreneurs across Assam have committed about 100 acres of land for the next two years (24 months).
Saumar J Sharma, Founder of Indian Weavers Alliance
Image: Saumar J Sharma, Founder of Indian Weavers Alliance
'IWA Silk Route' shall lend technical expertise, support and assistance to these individual entrepreneurs by way of training and SOPs (standard operating procedures). The training shall be two pronged: one on the hardcore business aspects and the other in terms of the professional interface of the entrepreneurs with local silk worm-rearers with 100% buy back guarantee.
In other words 'IWA Silk Route' is actively engaged in establishing the institutional framework for the professional formation of the ERI sector and spearhead its growth into a scalable, self-sustaining and flagship industry of Assam.
Speaking about how exactly IWA Silk Route will benefit the entrepreneur community of Assam, Saumar says, "Now every entrepreneur will set up a silkworm rearing unit in his land with the objective of engaging all the rearers in the vicinity. And because each of these entrepreneurs are part of the IWA Silk Route Project they shall have the same quality of rearing infrastructure. While the Rearing Centre , soil quality, pupae fodder etc. are all going to be standardized the SOPs too (for instance crystal white large size cocoon , feeding of the same from the same area etc) shall be set by IWA Silk Route."
This shall automatically translate to uniform high quality ERI silk threads and is actually hugely beneficial for the local rearers who are engaging in the process. "Firstly the infrastructure and SOPs facilitate optimal extraction from the cocoons and second they get monetary compensation that is directly proportionate to their labour, which is nothing but their involvement and hours spent with the rearing process. There are no middlemen to exploit them in this system. The entrepreneur too automatically benefits from the high quality and scale of the produce. More importantly he gets a consistent workforce by way of these rearers," states Saumar.
Saumarjyoti Sharma's 'Soil to Silk' business philosophy is a reiteration of the broad philosophy of the 'Make in India' campaign that envisages local initiative in terms of manufacturing. At one level it also envisages to expose the weavers of Assam to the national and global dynamics of the weaving craft.  
IWA Silk Route has a 100 percent buyback commitment for all these individual entrepreneurs that completely protects them against the risk of unsold inventory. The cocoons are then sold to spinning mills, used for creating large scale uniform hand spun yarn. It is then dyed batch wise and made shipping ready from the same location. Therafter, it comes to a central warehouse for systematic barcoding and dispatch. This buyback assurance is a cardinal aspect of the IWA Silk Route Project. 
The project aims to break even in a big way by 2025 with about 100 acres of land under it. Setting up its own spinning mills too is on the agenda and the mission is very clear- bringing ERI silk into mainstream consumption and converting Assam into a chosen destination for textile tourists. Grooming entrepreneurs, creating employment opportunities at the grass root level and a pronounced focus on women empowerment are the main objectives of IWA Silk Route.
In the interim, Saumar J Sharma also plans to set up a marketing team that will make realistic assessments of the produce by taking samples to spinning mills. It is a long and uncertain journey ahead but Saumar has braced himself for it as he is a man who believes that every journey that is undertaken with passion and consciousness does eventually lead to a meaningful destination. No matter the pitfalls and challenges he believes that ultimately IWA Silk Route shall weave a legacy for sustainable entrepreneurship in ERI and give this fabric the stature that it rightfully deserves in the textile industry.

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