Lockdown Economy Nepal in an Accessories Brand with Aayusha Shrestha
The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Sujan Lal Manandhar
Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.
In this interview, we meet Aayusha Shrestha, the Founder/Designer of Aamo which is a conceptually driven accessories brand, initiated to prioritize in preserving and elevating traditional skill sets of home-based artisans to create sustainable and long term employment. Aayusha told us about the effect the lockdown had on her business and her team. She feels that her organization did not face as many issues as other organizations might have. Her artisans work from home. Hence they were able to communicate virtually and continue the work during the lockdown. But the mental health of the artisans was a concern because people were cut off from human contact. Aayusha stayed close to her artisans during the lockdown with fun conversations. She also kept them occupied with some work. Aamo faced some issues in sourcing materials and delivering products to the clients. But Aayusha focused on the health and safety of her artisans and clients rather than sales. Aamo also keeps an artisan fund that helps them cope with crisis situations like this pandemic. Currently, Aayusha says Aamo has been able to sustain but she would like to buckle up and move the business forward. Aamo is collaborating with more artists and artisans for new products in the coming months. They are working on more sustainable products.
Could you introduce us to Aamo?
Aayusha: I started Aamo in 2005 as an experimental brand. I went live with the brand in 2016 only. We work with home-based artisans and almost all of them are traditionally trained which means their skills have been passed down from generations. And we also use the same tools that have been used for almost 500 years. We are trying to adapt the artisans to the contemporary art and design scenario. We primarily focus on making jewellery because my artisans work with metal. However, we also have people who work with ceramic, wood and paper. We are based in Kathmandu. When I started, I thought my major clients would be people in their 20s or 30s who like to put on jewellery or accessories. But we have realized that our clientele is very vast since we launched our brand. It is people who like the form of art and culture we have locally. So anyone who appreciates hand-made products with a story could be my client.
What kind of problems did your business face during the lockdown?
Aayusha: Honestly, I do not think we faced as many problems as other organizations. I work with home-based artisans. They could stay at home and keep producing the products. As a designer and a brand owner, my responsibility was to keep providing them with work. We did face some problems in regards to the materials for production. We do have to import some raw materials. Other than that we do recycle and upcycle our own wastage. The lockdown kept extending but people wanted to buy out products. We had closed our store even before the government had issued such guidelines because we wanted to be cautious. So I think our biggest problem was us not being able to deliver the goods our clients wanted. These were the two major issues.
How did mental health become an issue in your organization and what did you do to resolve it?
Aayusha: We were connected virtually with the artisans. I have been training and working with the artisans on the phone or laptop. Mental health was a big issue. I felt my job was to keep them occupied so that they could focus on work and not be drowned by what was happening. But after a few months, I think we all went through it, especially the artisans. Even though they are based at home, they interact with the community. It could simply be sitting together and having a cup of tea with the neighbours. This suddenly stopped. I am glad I am close with my artisans and they opened up to me about how they were feeling. They told me they did not want to eat or sleep. It was taking a toll on them so we decided to make a virtual group where we shared silly dog or cat videos to keep each other entertained. A lot of them had pets which were good. I decided we could take a break from work. Sometimes we would be up till 3 in the morning simply chatting with the team. Connecting on a human level became very important. That’s how we tried to overcome it. For some people, it took much longer because they had lost their family members. The lack of proper information about the virus was also creating fear. Giving them the right information also became very crucial. Hence, I think mental health is something all organizations should focus on because if the emotions of the workers are not a priority, we lose out.
What kind of strategies did you adopt during the lockdown?
Aayusha: We requested our clients to be patient. Having orders is a good issue and we were grateful. I have to admit, I think Nepalese based abroad realized they have to place orders for a smaller business to sustain. We had to communicate to them that until the government allowed us to run, we would not be doing any kind of business. Our strategy was to be in touch with our clients. That worked out quite well for us. We kept getting the orders and we told them we would ship it to them as and when we could. The good thing is my artisans could keep working. We also very consciously decided not to post on social media or advertise our brand too much. We were aware of what was happening in the world and we did want to send a message about shopping. We were able to do this because I was confident I could sustain the business and the employees for a period of time. I was able to focus on my artisans and their mental health rather than just business. We were closed externally but internally we were planning on growing the business after the pandemic was over or the government allowed us to work.
Could you elaborate on the safety fund you have in your organization for crisis situations?
Aayusha: I started my business after the earthquake in Nepal. I realized that anything could happen in a business and I have to take care of the security of people working with me. Right from day one, I naturally put aside an ‘Artisans Fund’. We keep 20% of our profit in that fund. What we could do and what we have done in the past is that if anyone needs any emergency fund for health or education, we tap into the fund and provide it to the artisans. The artisans are aware of this fund. They felt quite secure and they trusted me and the brand. When the pandemic started, we addressed the issue that we would not sell but we would still continue to work. Because of this fund, not only were we able to sustain the artisans but we were also able to work with 12 families who had lost their jobs. We could actually hire more people. Having a fund aside is like a security blanket and we are still tapping into it. The store is still closed and we have only just started selling. I think it is very crucial to have a security fund because we are responsible for the people we are working with.
How did the industry react to the lockdown?
Aayusha: I feel more brands were coming up which I was really excited about. I think the lockdown gave a lot of people the time to execute their ideas and do something homegrown rather than relying on imports or exports. I saw at least seven jewellery brands popping up on social media and they were doing fantastic handmade designs. We had to slow down during the lockdown and reprioritize what was more important and it made other businesses do the same. I think it is good that the lockdown had some positive impact on the youth, I know some of the new brands are from very young people. It is good to see a lot of homegrown brands come out during the pandemic.
Now that the lockdown has been eased, how is your business performing?
Aayusha: We are sustaining for sure. We have been very quiet throughout the pandemic but now I think we will have to buckle up. We have hired more people and we have collaborated with more artisans. We are still fulfilling the orders we received during the lockdown. That is helping us get profits. The situation is still not certain so we are cautious. We are letting people know we can take only one or two people in the store at a time. I would like to take smaller steps than just push sales and not be able to deliver. We are growing slowly and steadily.
What is the outlook for Aamo in the coming three months?
Aayusha: We are quite excited. We have a lot of new products on the way. I see us growing more internally than externally in the next three months. We might not be as visible in the market but we are putting in more work internally. The game plan is for the next year. We are trying to come up with more sustainable and useful products, something you can use your whole life and not just things you buy and keep away. The plan for the next three months is to do more research and incorporate more Nepali ideas. So our three months goal is to increase our sales and provide our clients with products that are more meaningful.
What are the three things in your business that you need help with?
Aayusha: Firstly, I would admit and say marketing for sure. As a brand, we are quite conscious about how we put our products out because we want people to have a proper understanding. We do not want to simply do sponsored ads and be on everybody’s feed but not have people understand what our product is about. We are trying to work with like-minded people who understand what we are trying to make and the service we are trying to provide. Secondly, again I would say like-minded people with who we could collaborate and understand the essence of Aamo. We want to grow slowly but steadily. We want to respect the people we are working with along with their skill sets. Finally, even though we are comfortable with our sales, we need funding so that we can incorporate more ideas and hire more people impacted by the pandemic. There are a lot of artisans who rely on export but now have less work. We are trying to come together as a community. I know we can bring more women and men to work together. These would be the three things.
About the guest
Aayusha Shrestha is the Founder/Designer of Aamo. With a major in Sociology and Graphic Designing, her passion lies in rediscovering and understanding her roots, experiences and reflecting them on her work.
AAMO by Aayusha Shrestha is a conceptually driven accessories brand, initiated to prioritize in preserving and elevating traditional skill sets of home-based artisans to create sustainable and long term employment. Every piece at AAMO is a limited edition and has a narrative to create a dialogue between consumers and makers. AAMO is working with a mission to create an environment that allows traditional practices to be successfully passed down to the future generations to see, explore, practice and realize the endless possibilities of adapting it into our daily life and future.