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It takes a village

Audrey Simon
Audrey Simon • 10 min read
It takes a village
Denica Riadini-Flesch sets up social enterprise company SukkhaCitta that reinterprets Indonesian textile heritage and along the way it empowers women artisans in villages to earn a living from their craft and sustain their culture
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SINGAPORE (Apr 9): A browse through the SukkhaCitta website and the first thing you notice that the clothes are not flashy and trendy. The cottonsilk batik designs are wearable and casual enough for the office or a night out. On reading further you will find out that this small company based in Indonesia is big on giving back to society.

SukkhaCitta is a social enterprise based in Indonesia and is supported by the DBS Foundation. The company’s belief is: “It is our promise that everything we make pays a living wage, is kind to the earth and upholds local textile culture.” More than just churning out items, SukkhaCitta ensures that the people who make it are fairly treated. The company identifies women from rural villages who are skilled in artisanal textile craft and provides them with employment. The brand focuses on preserving heritage by offering luxurious, eco-friendly, ready-to-wear cotton silk batik.

It is for these reasons that SukkhaCitta was awarded a grant from the DBS Foundation as part of the Foundation’s 2018 Social Enterprise Grant. DBSF nurtures social enterprises (SEs) to enable them to scale their social impact through their innovative and sustainable businesses.

Since it started, DBS Foundation has nurtured 400 social enterprises (SEs) and awarded $5.5 million in grants to SEs across the region. These SEs have deployed social innovations in areas such as healthcare, social inclusion, environment protection, waste management, food sustainability, as well as employment and income generation for the marginalised.

The company identifies women from rural villages who are skilled in artisanal textile craft and provides them with employment

The person behind SukkhaCitta is Denica Riadini-Flesch, a trained economist who stumbled on an interesting pattern: Rural poverty seems to be clustered among several economic activities, notably agriculture and craft.

This insight led her to dedicate one year to travelling and understanding the current dynamics in the craft industry, specifically in the rural areas. Her findings illuminate a dire equilibrium faced by these artisans struggling in this informal sector. Instead of alleviating poverty, the existing system seems to perpetuate poverty for these marginalised hand-workers.

Unlike previous interventions, she is tapping into market forces to drive change in this industry. By combining both access to knowledge and market, she is pioneering change in this informal hand-worker economy through her unique One Village One Collection model.

SukkhaCitta is a social enterprise that reinterprets Indonesian textile heritage to bring about change in rural Indonesia. Everything is handcrafted in villages, not factories — empowering artisans across Indonesia to earn a living wage from their craft and sustain their culture.

Rural artisans in Indonesia have been at the mercy of middlemen for generations. SukkhaCitta gives them access to both knowledge and market, building grassroot level entrepreneurs who become multipliers in their communities.

Options interviews Denica, who is also on the Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list of social entrepreneurs in Asia in 2019, via email on her business and how it can help women in the rural areas of Indonesia.

How long did it take you to see SukkhaCitta come to fruition from the day you stumbled upon rural poverty that seems to be clustered among several economic activities such as agriculture and craft?

When I was doing my research, I found that craft is a really complicated industry. Between us and the artisans exists a complex subcontracting layer of factories and middlemen — down to someone making that fabric in her home. In fact, it is estimated that up to 60% of handcrafted pieces are made this way, by a woman who could not leave her village because she has to take care of her children, a woman who has no say in what she earns from her work. There is currently a lot of discussion surrounding fast fashion and its impact on the workers, but most focus only on factory work. One thing that struck me was that the majority of artisans actually work outside of the formal factory setting. Without any access, most of these women live in poverty. What makes it worse is that as an informal industry, no regulations exist to protect these women. I think that was my ah-ha moment, to realise that there’s a broken link between us as customers and the way our clothes are made. It was then when I felt the need to build a bridge — a model that invites our customers to be part of the solution to some of the world’s most pressing social and environmental problems.

And the name SukkhaCitta? Is there a backstory to this?

SukkhaCitta means happiness in Indonesian. We live in a world where the conventional worldview is to accumulate more to be happy. That was my definition of success — until I felt like a hamster on a wheel. Always striving, never arriving. It was through my pursuit for meaning that I stumbled on these issues — never realising just how disconnected we are with the humans behind some of the things we use every day. I thought the name embodies our mission to restore that connection in the pursuit of a more meaningful life.

From what I have seen on your website, the collection is very wearable. Are you involved in the design process?

Yes! I think that the last thing the world needs is just another fashion brand. We cannot live without clothing — but we can choose to make the pieces we buy and invest in count for something more. Wearing a #MadeRight piece celebrates the choice women make every day — against fast fashion and the lack of sustainability, against the obsessive pursuit of more, and against the systematic exploitation of the women who make the clothes. We make it easy for women to wear that choice every day and I personally field-test each of our styles — I wear them on fieldtrips, casual meetings and even when I am making business pitches!

What has the journey been like and how much has the company grown ever since?

Having no background in the fashion/ retail industry whatsoever, I learnt everything on the job. I was doing everything, which I find crucial in my own learning curve. We started with just one product — but we were lean and fast so we could reiterate and keep improving with every piece of customer feedback received. I started with only three craftswomen who were brave enough to believe in my dreams. Today, we work with over 109 artisans in Java, Flores, and Kalimantan. Being a direct-to-customer brand also allowed us to build a community who are connected with our larger mission, allowing us to share our artisans’ work to over 25 countries!

What were the biggest challenges in the initial stages of the business?

Having no background whatsoever in running a lifestyle brand — or a business for that matter — I had to battle fear and self-doubt every step of the way. There was just me with a to-dolist that seemed to get longer day after day. I learned then that it is possible to have a full-blown mental roller coaster while one is rolling threads off silk scarves. Every day, I wondered whether I had gone mad leaving my stable corporate job. I wondered if I could pull this off or if I was enough, but I could not stop, not after what I had seen. I grew up in the city. Things exist in shops. I never realised that behind something as simple as what we wear are women we will never meet. I did not want my choices to hurt them anymore.

You employ women from the villages; can you give an example of a success story? How did one woman turn her life around?

As a social enterprise, our first focus is to help these women economically, but perhaps what is far more fulfilling is to see the change in their outlooks on life. There is this sense of empowerment that was not there before, this belief in themselves. During our last field trip to our first village, I was surprised to see A4 papers on the wall. Apparently, the women were brainstorming how they can improve the education of the children in their village through scholarships. I nearly broke into tears. I think this is the essence of empowerment: when they feel like they can change their own lives and are taking active steps to be agents of change in their own communities.

For a specific artisan’s story, see:

What are some of the lessons you have learnt from your experiences?

I learnt that no one is too small to make a difference and that by pursuing what gives you meaning, you inspire others to do the same as well. And somehow, it led me to a community that wants to leave the world better than when we found it — both in the villages and in the cities. We were planning another natural dye training session when we were surprised by the women in our first village, Jlamprang, expressing their desire to volunteer and help us train women in the new village. In fact, they insisted on donating materials and dyeing vats — a large financial contribution. When I asked why, they simply explained that they received kindness and now wanted to pay it forward. It appears that our initiatives not only increased incomes, but also started a positive ripple effect. We sense a new pride in the communities we’ve helped: Pride in their heritage and pride in their ability to impact their communities for the better. We never expected this kind of ripple effect, but we do our best to support our artisans in their initiatives. This speaks volumes of the incredible kindness found in rural Indonesia and makes us hopeful about the kind of impact we can achieve in the future — together.

What are your future plans?

I believe that no one should get left behind just because he or she doesn’t have the same access to resources as we do. After three years of running SukkhaCitta, I began to realise that education is the key to long term change. This year, we started the construction of Indonesia’s first craft school: Rumah SukkhaCitta. As a social enterprise, we invest all the proceeds from customers’ purchases into these schools. It will be a space where young women can come and learn the skills they need to change their own lives. Another big part of our mission is to increase transparency in the sector. A big part of the problem in the fashion industry is that currently, it is hard for people like you and me to know exactly where, how and who made your clothes. Perhaps more importantly, it is hard to know under what conditions our clothes were made. #MadeRight is our transparency standard, a promise that your piece of clothing provides a living wage, is kind to the planet, while sustaining meaning that is essential for a healthy development.

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