x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Banana futures in Karnataka

A small Indian village is benefiting from a project to preserve local crafts and jobs.

Lakshmi Dhule (top left) shows village women how to make flower ornaments from dried banana leaves.
Lakshmi Dhule (top left) shows village women how to make flower ornaments from dried banana leaves.

Fancy a hat made from bananas? You could get one in the south Indian state of Karnataka, where a project converting banana leaves into textiles is one of several initiatives that help to preserve rural tradition and bolster local employment. Behind them is the Kishkinda Trust, whose aim is rural development and sustainability, with a strong focus on conservation and environmental projects. Run from Anegundi, a small, whitewashed village that sits in the bend of the river to the north of Hampi, the state capital, the trust organises projects designed both to provide local business opportunities and to preserve village heritage and culture.

Shama Pawar, the founder of the Kishkinda Trust, describes the birth of the charity: "I came here 15 years ago and I thought if no one looks after this place then it will be gone, it will go to the dogs, so I decided to devote 20 years of my life to preserving and helping the village. "I thought that if in 20 years, nothing had been achieved or improved then it never will be, and so I decided then to start the projects here, to create a sustainable, viable and environmentally sound village with a future, that retains a traditional, unspoilt identity."

Among the trust's key projects are the flourishing cottage industry manufacturing textiles from cotton and banana fibres, a programme to support sustainable and low-impact tourism, water irrigation projects to enable proper drainage and access to safe drinking water, and a solid-waste management initiative. The guide and project manager Nagraj has worked for Kishkinda for several years and is closely involved with the banana fibre cottage industry, which uses raw banana fibres to make a range of handicrafts that the trust then sells.

He explains: "The main project here right now is the banana leaf craft workshop, which employs local women and also acts as a way to recycle and work on the conservation side of the trust's aims. "The work the women do is sold in the Kishkinda Trust's Hoova Cafe and Craft Shop, and the money then goes back into the trust", Nagraj says, going on to emphasise the environmental push behind much of the trust's work.

"It's a way of sustaining the area, helping to employ people, and it's also good for the wider community because it focuses on one aspect of conservation and raising money for the trust." Based only a few hundred yards from the Kishkinda headquarters in the heart of Anegundi, the handicraft workshop employs a high percentage of the village's 3,000 inhabitants. Nagraj points to the local economic benefits of the scheme, as well as the resulting positive relationship created between the trust and its employees.

"The factory where we produce the handicrafts can employ up to 500 women, especially when the demand is high, so it's a good way to look after the local people and keep them involved in the work at the Kishkinda Trust." Lakshmi Dhule oversees production and artwork at the workshop, where the women prepare and weave banana fibres into colourful clothing, baskets and the woven matting covering many of Anegundi's stone floors.

"A lot of the local women come and work here, because they can come after they have finished their work in the mornings, and then be done by the time their children are home from school." A big appeal of the workshop's output is the handmade quality and bespoke finish, with a range of subtle dyes and design styles used. The workshop also places a strong emphasis on minimising waste. Showing a group of workers how to make delicate flower ornaments from dried banana leaves, Dhule explains: "We make everything from sustainable methods, so we use banana-leaf fibres and cottons, although some of the dyes are chemical dyes - but we focus on using materials that would be wasted otherwise."

The production methods follow what Dhule describes as a long-standing technique, using traditional practices to transform banana plant fibres into a usable material. "First we soak the banana leaves, to separate the two layers, and then when the leaf is soft enough we can pull the layers apart. One layer is waste but the other can be used, so we then cut the good layers into thin strips and twist them together to form strings from the fibres."

These strings are then hand-woven to form the bags, baskets, mats and even hats that line the walls of the workshops and form the bulk of the craftwork on sale at the trust's Hoova Craft Shop. Other products include ornamental boxes, picture frames, handmade paper created from pulped banana fibres, and cotton and banana-fibre clothes and bedding. "Nothing is wasted, so we make decorations like flowers from leaves. We are also starting to use the waste parts of the banana leaves that we normally throw out, by weaving them into floor mats."

The high-quality products prove popular with visiting tourists and generate a good return - a cotton and banana-fibre bedspread, for example, sells for around Dh440, and profits are ploughed back into current and future work. Although Kishkinda is an autonomous project, it enjoys the support of the Indian government and a clutch of international charities and development funds. Pawar hopes the Anegundi scheme will be the first of many similar projects across India.

"What I'm hoping is that the village is seen as a pilot village, running a pilot project, for the rest of India. It's the only place like it currently, where this kind of project is run, and the emphasis is on conservation." She adds that although the project supports both environmental initiatives and provides much-needed local employment, the work of the Kishkinda Trust is often threatened by lack of funding.

"We do have some funding from Unesco, the United Nations Development Programme, the Indian government, but we are always trying to raise funds and that is the most difficult part, trying to stay afloat." Unesco has strengthened its support in Anegundi by instigating a series of architectural conservation initiatives. A Kishkinda guide, Vinod, who has worked for the trust for just over a year, says several of the village's monuments are undergoing reconstruction and preservation.

"Unesco has been to several of the temples, removing and restoring some of the stone carvings and pillars to help preserve the village and to keep the temples accessible and workable - some have areas for washing, meeting people, as well as for worship and the rituals." Vinod also describes the agricultural strand of the trust's work: "Most people in the village are involved in agriculture, so we grow rice, bananas, vegetables. The trust is concerned with irrigation, sustainable agriculture and also encouraging people to stay here and work, so the village benefits from the help local industry gets, and also people can see their future here."

And despite her financial worries, Pawar is passionate about the future of the trust, planning numerous improvements and focusing on key areas, such as irrigation and drinking water. "I would say definitely water projects are the key here, plus the continuation of the types of work we are doing now", she says. Among those is the Rural Tourism Project, which aims to promote responsible tourism by providing traditional low-impact accommodation that preserves the physical and cultural identity of Anegundi.

The trust is currently working on homestay projects, and developing several guesthouses employing local people, to encourage self-employment opportunities for people housing visitors to the village. Nagraj explains that much time and effort has gone into creating traditional stone housing and interiors within the guesthouses, as a way of ensuring local flavour is not lost in the drive to attract international tourists.

Pawar says: "We focus a lot on sustainability and conservation projects because we want the people here to work to preserve the environment and the buildings within the village, and also to think about their futures, and the future of the village."