Communities Going Virtual - The WhatsApp Angle
Even as you read this article, there are a hundred notifications buzzing on the phones of the entire Shreni team. Each buzz is a message from an artisan, a buyer, reseller, a supplier, a worker, or one of the many other roles that we deal with every single day. As we work with a jumble of data on the lives, products, stories, and activities of our members, Nithin (our senior associate) works quietly behind the scenes to streamline all of it. His quest is to integrate technology and various platforms with our work such that our artisans can come together, and discuss their work as a community. These people populate WhatsApp groups that are created according to professions - handloom weavers, powerloom weavers, wood inlay artisans, carpenters, woodcarvers etc. all have their own groups to exchange information in.
How does it work?
The Shreni idea was simple - create spaces where people of the same occupation can exchange knowledge about their craft and trade freely. This knowledge transfer is based on the ancient Indian model of trade guilds. We wanted to emulate the kind of community organization that is seen almost naturally in all these occupational groups. Each occupation or craft has its own group - for example, we have a group only for handloom weavers and those associated with handloom weaving. Here, daily discussions include designs, reselling, government policies or aid, announcements, and calls for supplies. It’s like an ecosystem in its own right - a confluence of almost all the cogs in the demand-supply chain coming together in one (virtual) space. New members of Shrenis (artisans/workers) are welcomed to the family by being added to the groups of their respective professions. These groups become the focal point of discussions surrounding the tools of the trade - no matter what the trade is.
In my conversation with Sudhir Kamath, our founder, the genesis of our social organization was clearer to me. “The plan is actually to build a Shreni platform. However, the availability of WhatsApp for the people, the way it is ubiquitous, present across age groups and occupations was its advantage. Sure, it has its own limitations - for example, the 250-member limit on groups, and the fact that groups cannot interact with each other - but it serves our purpose for now with its presence across all our demographics."
Another interesting feature of the platform that makes it so viable for artisans is the ‘WhatsApp For Business’ features. The platform has introduced additions like catalogues that are of great interest to our members. A catalogue on WhatsApp means that they have control over what they wish to sell in the retail market, as well as the ease of constantly updating it to reflect the change in their stocks. We’re hoping to inform our members about these features, so they can use it as a new marketing channel for their own. This would shrink the supply chain, and give the maximum benefit to the artisans themselves.
A theme that seems to come up frequently in all my discussions with Sudhir is his fundamental approach to the task of connecting people or forming communities. He calls it “sociology before technology”. Commenting on this, he says, “What we’re trying to do is first define the ‘real-world’ issues. It’s our conscious decision to build communities on-ground first, and then see what key features are required, or what problem statements arise from the ground. Then we can address these issues using tech that’s already common.” It’s one less artificial barrier for the artisans working with us if they find themselves on WhatsApp groups with other members of the trade. Already, a large majority of these people carry out bits and pieces of their occupation on WhatsApp.
At Shrenis, we’re simply pushing the boundaries of the kind of interactions that can happen. Our plan is to develop a platform that incorporates the good features of WhatsApp but also overcomes its limitations. We plan on introducing an integrated platform where one can plug in other social networks and response systems, as well as broaden the range of communication as per our needs.
Stay tuned to the tech side of Shreni - lots in store, coming soon!
If you are connected to any of the professions that we work with, and wish to be a part of such communities, get in touch with us here. We welcome artisans, brands, resellers, and anyone else related to these occupations.