How this couple evolved their brand of artisanal products to sell it internationally
Until 2010, Nitin Pamnani was an award-winning documentary maker. A few years later, together with his wife Jia Pamnani, he decided to leave Mumbai and settle in his hometown, Gwalior.
Around the same time, the duo noticed that e-commerce was gaining momentum. They also had several acquaintances who dealt with crafts and handmade products. This forced them to explore a business opportunity in this segment. By investing Rs 30 lakh of their personal savings, they started working on a platform that would sell handicrafts such as home decor items, printed clothing, bags, dupattas, necklaces, cushion covers , etc. In 2012, their project, called, finally put online.
Nitine tells SMBShistory that the company went through difficult times between 2012 and 2016. Gwalior, unlike subways, was less developed and lacked the infrastructure to support an e-commerce business.
With limited resources on hand, Nitin and Jia opened an office and warehouse in their home to start the business. Initially, they relied on local delivery mechanisms and partnered within 2015. This is when the brand takes off.
With the increase in the number of freight companies and the expansion of logistics infrastructure in and around the city, iTokri not only started to deliver all over India, but also exported to in the US, UK, Middle East and Europe.
Today iTokri, which started with 20 employees, has grown into a team of over 200 members.
The economic model
Speaking of the company’s USP, Nitin says iTokri is not a marketplace but follows an “inventory-based” business model. The company purchases the stock directly from the artisans and then uploads the stock details to the website.
“All the products you see on the website are available from us in the warehouse,” he says.
The pattern is eliminate intermediaries in this ecosystem and free the burden of keeping huge stocks from the shoulders of artisans.
“A craftsman is not a trader, he is an artist,” says Nitin, adding that this model worked because the craftsmen were not skeptical of partnering but were happy to sell them the stocks.
In addition, the brand, which operates only through the online model (website and e-commerce platforms like Amazon), gives all the information on the creator or the craftsman, including the origins of the product. Nitin points out that artisans have always been overlooked and he wants to make sure they are getting enough credit in the ecosystem.
Nitin says that over the years they have been able to double the income of artisans and in some cases triple it. Some of them were able grow and become micro-entrepreneurs. He says the iTokri team trained them to do invoices, report GST, etc.
Today, the brand directly impacts the lives of artisans in 500 clusters across the country. It has also partnered with NGOs and other organizations to further develop its activities and grow. He receives about 15,000 orders per month.
iTokri, which started with 20 employees, has grown into a team of over 200 members.
Survive the pandemic
When the coronavirus pandemic crippled the whole world, the cottage industry was also affected. There have also been several media reports of artisans resorting to suicide, unable to cope with the pressures of the lockdown.
For the first two months, Nitin said the business was down. However, the team started making masks a few months later, which was a game-changer for the company.
“When the pandemic struck, we didn’t know how to cope, but making masks saved us,” he says.
iTokri started making fashionable masks with different designs. The business began to stabilize after August 2020, when the company reported a 60% increase in sales.
Today, the brand has not only returned to pre-pandemic levels, but is doing much better. This 150 artisans added to the company over the past year.
In FY20 the company’s turnover was around Rs 12.7 crore and in FY 21 Nitin claims that number increased to Rs 20 crore.
The road ahead
In the times to come, Nitin says the brand will focus on launching a casual clothing line. He also adds that the company will continue to focus on building an online and scalable brand.
According to the Commissioner for Handicrafts Development (DCH), at present only seven million artisans make a living from handicrafts, a significant drop for the second largest generator of jobs after agriculture . Another report from The UN has also suggested that over the past 30 years, the number of artisans in the country has fallen by 30 percent.
Does this pose a threat to the industry? “The answer is yes and no,” according to Nitin.
While India has several companies operating in this space (, , GoCoop,, etc.), t declining numbers indicate deeply rooted issues in this segment. Urbanization, the growth of the IT industry, the increase in urban opportunities and the growth of white collar culture have played a role in shifting the gears for this segment.
“Business is not the challenge, production is the challenge,” he notes.
He says that although several companies are operating in this space, the number of people working in the backend is decreasing, resulting in lower production.
But Nitin is optimistic about the future. He says India and the world at large may be turning to machines, but there is still a great demand for handmade and artisanal items. The COVID-19 pandemic has paved the way for “working from home,” which will strengthen rural industries and economies, he says. And that, he believes, could inspire the country’s youth to go back to their roots and work to strengthen the ecosystem.
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