Voices From The Field: How SABAH Nepal And Krishna Kumari Rai Reimagined Traditional Allo And Took It To The World

For the far-removed eye, the landscape of North-Eastern Nepal can represent a veritable paradise. It is made up of towering mountains and hills whose peaks are often haloed with swirls of mist and carpeted in lush green. But life here is anything but utopian. The rocky terrain has been home to indigenous tribes and communities for centuries. And generation after generation, these communities have toiled to transform the difficult, unpredictable landscape into one that is hospitable and life-supporting.

Sacred Thread

Krishna Kumari Rai was born into the Kulung Rai tribe, in a remote village called Mangtewa that is part of Nepal’s storied northeastern hills. Like the rest of her family, including six sisters and three brothers, Krishna Kumari too was introduced to a life of hardship from an early age. Within the Kulung Rai tribe, women and girls play a pivotal role in nurturing the earth they are surrounded by, to sustain lives and livelihoods. The Kulung Rais – like the Rais, Gurungs, Sherpas, Magars and Tamangs – are heavily involved in crafting products from Allo or Himalayan nettle.

The thread that is produced from the Allo plant is one that runs through the life of each and every member of the Kulung Rai tribe – from birth to death. With their first cry, a child born into the tribe feels the cooling thread of Allo bound to its umbilical cord. And with death, the body of the deceased is wrapped in an allo shawl as it makes its final journey.

The making of the allo thread is strenuous and involves physically taxing labour. Even as a young girl, Krishna Kumari recalls making long treks into forests to collect the plant during the winter. She would be accompanied by the women of her community as well as the men. When they returned, it was the women and girls who took over: spending days and weeks beating and washing the fibre till they could coax the spindly thread to emerge. With the thread, the women would then make textile products that were handy – blankets, shawls, ropes, and other everyday goods. But these products rarely ever made it to a market place.

A Daughter Returns

With financial pressures mounting on her family, Krishna Kumari – whose parents couldn’t afford an education - made her way to neighbouring Bhutan to earn a living when she was only 13. There too, Rai saw an equally hard life. She worked in orange orchards for four years before returning to Kathmandu, Nepal’s bustling capital, where she put in another year of hard work at a carpet factory. Krishna Kumari then decided to journey back home.

In Mangtewa, women had started to make allo products for the market, selling their wares locally, with the support from an activist. Krishna Kumari saw this as an opportunity to put down her roots while also earning to support her family. From the women of her community, she began learning to weave. A fast learner, she says, she was able to produce 15 metres of woven cloth in 10 days.

A Country At War

Krishna Kumari began her life anew in the years that followed. She continued her work in allo and started her own family, marrying and bringing up three daughters. Life seemed to have taken a turn for the better, but then a bloody civil war erupted in Nepal.

or a decade, the Maoists in their claim to a People’s Republic went to war with Nepal’s monarchy. Throughout the Himalayan kingdom, kidnappings, summary executions and massacres became an everyday occurrence. Though she lived in a remote corner of the country, Krishna Kumari says that they weren’t untouched by the fear that gripped Nepal. Her children were small and, every day, the family wondered whether they would see another dawn. During these years, she said, she was forced to stop allo production as it didn’t bring in any money and  she returned to agriculture and raising livestock.

A New Chapter

In 2008, two years after the conclusion of the civil war, Krishna Kumari moved with her family to the town of Khandbari in pursuit of a better life and better education for her daughters. It was here that she met the SABAH Nepal team, a recently founded social enterprise that was looking to work with women home-based workers. Krishna Kumari was the first member from the region to sign up.

In the ensuing years, Krishna Kumari passionately worked towards building SABAH Nepal’s Allo supply chain. In early 2020, she attended a Training of Trainers conducted by Homenet South Asia and supported by WIEGO and the DFID Work and Opportunities for Women (WOW) Programme. During the launch of a comprehensive toolkit for homeworkers in South Asia’s garment supply chains, Krishna Kumari – who is unable to read and write – mapped the complex supply chain that takes her allo products from the far-flung hills of Nepal to different corners of the globe.

At the beginning of her journey with SABAH Nepal, Krishna Kumari started by organising women at the village-level. The clusters of women, many of whom already worked with Allo like Krishna Kumari – then received training from SABAH Nepal. The SABAH Nepal Trade Facilitation Centre in Kathmandu was able to bring in design and product professionals to convert the traditional allo products into fashion accessories that would be embraced by a wider market.

With the support of SABAH Nepal, Krishna Kumari has been able to bring together close to 500 women home-based workers and establish a Common Facilitation Centre (CFC) in Khandbari. Here, the women make stoles, scarves, blankets, rugs, bags and even spa scrubs from allo. Kumari heads this centre and the products made here, with continued design and market support from the SABAH Nepal TFC, travel to Kathmandu where it sold at the enterprise’s own outlets and exported to India, the Netherlands, Canada, United States of America, South Korea and Australia.

In the past few years, the centre in Khandbari has achieved self-sustainability and uses profits towards rents and payments to home-based workers. Krishna Kumari, one of SABAH Nepal’s greatest success stories, is now on its Board of Directors.

“This Fear Is Different”

While she has lived through grave poverty and a civil war, Krishna Kumari says that the fear brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is not something she has experienced before. She says that orders have now completely stopped and she is uncertain of her future as well as that of the 500-odd women workers attached to the centre she leads.

SABAH Nepal’s management remains hopeful. Robin Amatya, CEO of SABAH Nepal, insists that the future is natural and handmade and that allo the thread that has held together the lives and futures of women like Krishna Kumari, will continue to do so.