Empowering women in every loop: The story behind Kirtipur Hosiery Industries

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 Empowering women in every loop: The story behind Kirtipur Hosiery Industries

About 5km south-west of Kathmandu is the old city of Kirtipur. I grew up in this city witnessing the remarkable history and culture, exquisite architecture, and most importantly, skilled people with amazing persistence to keep going. Sabita Maharjan, 40, is one such soul in Kirtipur who fought all odds to establish Kirtipur Hosiery Industries (KHI), a social entrepreneurship venture that aims at empowering women by training them the art of knitting and offering them with a source of income.

 

Knitting her way out of domestic violence 

Sabita learnt knitting at a very young age and was selling the products she and her family made to earn a living under Sabi Craft.  She had received machine-knitting training from Department of Cottage and Small Scale Industries in 2052 B.S., and it provided rudimentary skills needed to establish her venture. This small family initiation was employing 70 local women, but she had to halt the operations after marrying and working as a housewife.

The marriage was only tempestuous, but it gave her the push. Having gone through a turbulent marriage for two years, suffering domestic violence and social stigma, she would not take it any longer. She had a son (now 12) to raise, and a lot of people left unemployed after she pulled up operations for Sabi Craft. Sabita’s personal experiences prompted her to work for other women like herself. Defying the social expectation to work as a house-wife, she re-started the business.

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Started from the bottom

With a new determination, Sabita sought help from her friends at Thee Niva Jaa Saving and Credit Cooperative, a cooperative venture that she had also started with her friends. “I had been working full time at the cooperative since my marriage, but seeing the prospects, I decided to shift my focus to the business. For this, I discussed with the women at our cooperative and took a loan of Rs. 50,000. I also reached out to women working with us previously and they agreed to join back. That’s how we began rebuilding the business,” shares Sabita.

A little support goes a long way

Sabita now had the funds and the support from her workers, but she still needed to train them and learn managerial skills herself as well. During this time, the Federation of Professional and Business Women Nepal was organizing Business Service Centre (BSC) programs for women empowerment in Kirtipur. “Enrolling to this program was the best decision,” says Sabita. The program assisted Sabita to not only set up the business, but also to improve management by providing trainings and counselling services.

During the program, she learned many facets of running a business. For instance, she learned about the legal aspects of her business, and one of the crucial thing she hadn’t done was to register it. Though the business had been in operation for about 11 years then, it was only formally registered under the Department of Cottage and Small Scale Industries Nepal in 2067 B.S. with the support from BSC.

She says, “BSC has helped us a lot. We have received five rounds of loans in the past years for business growth with their support. It would have been tougher for us to receive these loans to fund our operations had it not been with their help.” Even though the program at Kirtipur has concluded, BSC has been providing regular feedback and counselling services to Sabita and KHI for business growth.

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Struggles with every loop

Sabita has been working rigorously in her venture in spite of her struggles with family. “My family is from agricultural background. So it is difficult to make them understand about business. I have not received much support from my husband’s family either. Despite that, I’m passionate about what I do because of all the people who have been a part of KHI so far. Perhaps, if it hadn’t been for my family situation, I would not have even dared to do something like this. Family support would be nice but not having it doesn’t mean one shouldn’t pursue their passion and intuition,” states Sabita.

Even in case of other women working for KHI, they do not receive as much support from their families. They aren’t able to commit to work unless they have completed their house work. Women who work from home can work only three to four hours as it is a side job for them rather than a profession. Sabita shares how working under these limits has been difficult, “We have flexible working hours for employees working from home or at the office. They are paid on piece-rate basis so they can work when they can. Empowering these women has been tough given the family obligations and societal limitations. But if someone is really willing to get things done, then nothing can stop them.”

The results of persistence

Her efforts have also been exalted for the same. After working with BSC, Sabita received the Surya Nepal Asha Social Entrepreneurship Award 2011 in recognition for her significant contribution towards empowering women in Kirtipur. Since then, Sabita and KHI have received a lot of national and international media coverage which has helped scale up the business and create a brand image in the industry.

The growth is evident too. What once began by producing woollen knitwear and accessories for women, men and children, it has also been supplying woollen wear to Sherpa Gear and garment to Surya Nepal since 2012. Additionally, KHI has been supplying uniforms to a dozen of local schools around Kirtipur and exporting products through their website (kirtipurknitting.com) mostly to Denmark, Australia, UK and Germany.

KHI has trained more than 500 women and currently employs 300 women who work from home, 22 staff members in their office at Kirtipur and 10 Indian workers in their garment division. As local women are not trained in garment making, KHI employed Indians to provide required quality for Surya Nepal. The venture has six collection centres across the valley in places like Budhanilkantha, Machhegaun, and Talchikhel where local teams receive trainings and collect products. Each collection centre is supervised by a manager. During peak seasons, monthly sales can amount up to Rs. 20 lakhs, of which Rs. 3 lakhs is spent only for wages.

Apart from providing skill development trainings to women and employing them, Sabita has also conducted adult literacy trainings and cleaning campaigns in Kirtipur.

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Yarn forward

Sabita plans to continue the business by scaling up both knitting and garment divisions and empowering more women. In the midst of our patriarchal society where women are shunned of their abilities to run a business, Sabita has set an example as an iconoclast and inspired many others. “When situation arises, your response paves the way. If my family situation was good, then I most probably wouldn’t have been doing this. I’d be at home taking care of the family rather than running a business. I started this for survival, for raising my son. Not just that, I realised how many people were dependent on this. When I halted operation for two years, many people suffered and lost their source of income. I am glad I decided to pick it up again.”

Her warm smile reflects her persistence throughout these years of struggle. She encourages every aspiring entrepreneur to pursue their passion: “There are going to be challenges. It’s tougher for women in Nepal to compete with men. But if you are determined, you will receive the support you need.”

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