Thinking beyond Titan: Amazon needs to take Indian crafts, textiles and artisan goods worldwide
The Jeff Bezos-led US giant is now trying to help India’s own Titan brand of watches sell across the world through its global selling programme.
Only a few days ago, I was cautioning policy makers in India on what Amazon could do in a war with Flipkart – or for that matter, other online marketplaces – aided by its deep pockets, staying power, technological innovations and above all, the mysterious emerging power of data science through which technology giants can increase market dominance.
Point is, everything is good when done properly, with good intent, as Amazon seems to be telling Indians this week. The Jeff Bezos-led US giant is now trying to help India’s own Titan brand of watches sell across the world through its global selling programme. Titan can reach as many as 30 countries across the world as part of this drive. This is no doubt a positive outcome of two-way international trade, but I would only raise two cheers to that.
The third cheer will come when I hear that the people who really need the low-cost, high-reach kind of impact that Amazon can bring are getting its help – and for that, it needs to go that extra mile. I am talking about India’s craftspersons, handicraft artists, rural artisans and weavers, who have been the worst hit by colonialism and the Industrial Revolution that made assembly line products gain at the cost of local genius and fine traditions. Titan is a Tata group brand, and has the clout, resources and knowledge to go global even on its own strengths if it wants. But the folks who really can bring fruition to the promised global reach of digital technologies and the Internet are those in the hinterland, who have been at the mercy of middlemen who eat up the profit margins that could or should be theirs.
Baby steps have been taken. Amazon and Google already have partnerships with bodies such as the All India Artisans and Craftsworkers Welfare Association in helping create online stores. In a major initiative Amazon has also partnered with Telangana’s textiles industry to educate, train and enable weavers and artisans to directly sell their ware to Amazon customers across the country. We need to make such initiatives go global.
Only last month, the NDA government cleared Amazon’s $500 million plan to enter food retail in India. The Seattle company has now become a national grocer in India. It needs to pay back, if it is to win the enduring trust of Indians. Rival Flipkart, in fact, is busy trying to woo urban Indian youngsters with a planned fashion brand. But beyond its pale, fair trade is a serious issue engaging the attention of fair trade activists. Amazon can step in and prove a point.
Organisations like Oxfam have been leading a global campaign to make trade fair on several fronts, while digital empowerment activists have been trying to boost artisans on the Internet through special projects to empower or educate them.
There are, of course, ventures such as CraftsVilla and Fabindia doing the same at the corporate level, but they have profit first on their minds. There is a case to help artisans or local societies of artisans take the global stage on a large scale through a sophisticated, worldwide footprint. Amazon already has it. It is a long haul for craftspersons who need to learn about everything from logistics and packaging and logistics to regulation and after-sales requirements. An inspired Amazon can do more for them, I suspect, than NGOs or activists. Or better still, Amazon needs to co-opt or cooperate with the fair trade culture so that everybody gets a better deal.
Right now, fashion designers and fancy startups are emerging as the new middlemen in the age of the Internet. No doubt, there have been initiatives such as Snapdeal-backed Dharavi Market that help slum-dwelling artisans.
What Amazon needs next is to do for India’s weavers, craftspersons and artisans what it is doing now for Titan. The impact could be revolutionary.
(The author is a senior journalist. He tweets as @madversity)
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