The fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating for women-run micro businesses in India, but some entrepreneurs have used social media to survive and thrive. Shubhangi Mukherjee and Divya Uppal report.
The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown spelt doom for Latest Creation, the four-year-old boutique owned by Seema Vinay Rai, a 49-year-old designer in Maharashtra’s Bhandara district. In a recent phone conversation, Rai told us, “I was disheartened but determined to get back on track.”
Rai, a mother of two children, began clicking pictures of her ethnic Marathi dresses in April 2020 and started showing them to people on Whatsapp. Initially, Rai circulated the designs among her contacts. People complimented her designs and suggested that she upload them on social media.
That led to her first tryst with Instagram.
Rai wasn’t familiar with Instagram, but her son Shikhar Rai, a 19-year-old student from Osmania University, helped her familiarise herself with Instagram.
After she started posting her original designs on this platform, people started complimenting her and were impressed with the way she designed lacha choli, floral gowns and dhoti salwars. Within a month of her posting photos of her work online, people started placing orders for the dresses.
Quick thinking on Rai’s part led to a unique addition to the business — handmade cotton COVID-19 masks.
When the doors of the online world opened up, Rai’s business picked up. The sale of masks took off. Rai says she has recovered the losses incurred during the lockdown.
“Being a homemaker transitioning into an online world of entrepreneurship comes with its share of challenges. For me, the competition is with the biggest of brands,” she said.
To be able to sustain my family and be considered as an equal contributor in the eyes of my children is the ultimate goal.
A study in November 2020 found that the Covid-19 pandemic had an adverse impact on women-led micro businesses, with only 19% of the 1,800 micro-enterprises surveyed, including those who have leveraged social media, showing remarkable resilience. Meanwhile, digital and e-commerce touched record highs over the course of the pandemic.
The four women we spoke with said they had never used social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp for running their businesses, but once they took a leap of faith, the internet opened up new opportunities, even as the country remained under lockdown.
Rai says she is still exploring the promotional features on Instagram. The next step for her is to source raw material from online dealers, which would mean that she no longer has to travel 15 kilometers to Bhandara city like she did in the pre-pandemic times. Rai also plans to teach stitching to other women through social media platforms.
Once the pandemic is over, Rai says she wants to reopen her in-house boutique for people nearby who still don’t have access to social media sites.
“My ultimate dream is to be able to design clothes for Bollywood celebrities. I want to meet Manish Malhotra once in my life. He is my inspiration,” said Rai, referring to one of India’s veteran fashion designers and stylists.
My ultimate dream is to be able to design clothes for Bollywood celebrities.
Local shops cancelled orders
Anuradha Agarwal, a 45-year old entrepreneur and a mother of two children, has always loved making jams, pickles and papads. The Moradabad resident is the founder of Anuradha, a brand of homemade pickles and snacks. Agarwal had been selling her products in the local markets for the last four years. Shop owners and people across her neighbourhood were some of her loyal customers.
During the pandemic, her pickle business received a setback, as shops asked her to discontinue her supplies.
Agarwal took to Facebook and Whatsapp to pick up the threads of her pickle business. In January 2021, Agarwal started uploading videos and pictures of her hand-made aloo papads, aloo chips, sabudana papads, urad dal vadi, mango and chilli pickles.
It didn’t take long for Agarwal to start selling her products online.
“Social media gave me the boost I was looking for. I started earning from it as well,” she said. “Through the digital space I plan to employ more women in my venture who either don’t have the access or the means to run their business.”
Through the digital space I plan to employ more women in my venture who either don’t have the access or the means to run their business.
Baking in the second wave
For Gayatri Singhani, who has always found baking to be therapeutic, the lockdown was an opportunity to turn her passion into a business. Singhani, a 49-year-old homemaker from Nagpur, had always found baking to be therapeutic. In March 2021, Singhani felt that she needed to pursue baking as a serious profession and took the plunge.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love my family. But staying inside all day, doing nothing for more than a year since the pandemic struck, was not the type of quality time I had imagined with my husband and daughter,” she said.
Singhani started promoting her themed cakes on all social media platforms, and called her business Gaytris_cakeology. Her 23-year-old daughter, Madhu Singhani, a nutritionist, helps her with the preparation of the cake base and designs.
However, the fewer celebratory events during the pandemic was the biggest downside of starting a cake business at this time, said Singhani.
“One can’t run their family merely with social media love,” she said. “I get a lot of love for my cakes on Instagram reels but they don’t always convert into orders.”
One can’t run their family merely with social media love.
Live-streaming her way to financial independence
For Paramita Mukherjee, a Kolkata resident, the saree holds a lot of emotional value. Mukherjee, a 50-year old mother, is a self professed shopaholic. She used to buy sarees from e-commerce websites like Jabong and Myntra, and was fascinated by the idea of displaying clothes to customers. But before diving into this new venture, she contacted several weavers from suburbs like Phulia and Shantipur in West Bengal to source original handcrafted weaves.
In November 2019, Mukherjee started a Facebook page for her new business venture to sell sarees — Procheshta by Paramita. She would wear and display the sarees through a live streaming feature offered by the social media platform.
Four months later, the country went into lockdown, making Mukherjee wonder if her fledgling business would survive. 2020, however, turned out to be a good year for Procheshta by Paramita. Initially, Mukherjee did not get a lot of views on her live streams, but that didn’t stop her from coming up with new ideas.
“I had always been interested in selling sarees and jewellery. Every time, I would go live with my collection of sarees and jewellery, I was praised,” she said. “I realised that it was now or never. After three months of consistent live-streams, I was flooded with queries.”
Mukherjee not only received orders from across the nation, but also sold her sarees to customers overseas.
Mukherjee believes that Facebook live streaming gives a three-dimensional display of the products, their quality, and the material, which is impossible to achieve through an e-commerce platform. Ideation about how the products can be presented differently in every live-session takes up most of her time.
“During the pandemic, there were 15-20 organisations and salons live streaming on Facebook near my locality. I wondered why anybody would visit my page,” she said
Mukherjee said that becoming financially independent was the biggest achievement.
“With such online platforms and businesses, no woman will ever have to ask their husbands or sons for money,” she said. “Social media gave me the self-confidence that I lacked before earning independently. When my husband was down with Covid, I contributed to his treatment.”
With such online platforms and businesses, no woman will ever have to ask their husbands or sons for money.