An online marketplace for over 200 artisans from Mumbai’s biggest slum, Dharavi Market is an online platform that connects artisans –who make everything from luggage, shoes, accessories and pottery to apparel and jewelry – with buyers from around the world.

Dharavi – famously featured in the 2008 flick Slumdog Millionaire – started as a fishing village, only to become the sprawling, 200 hectares (almost 500 acres) slum that it is today. It houses an estimated one million people, many of whom practice cottage industries that have been passed on within families for generations. The slum has 500 garment workshops, each producing 500 shirts per day, pottery workshops that make pots used to store cool drinking water and earthen diyas that are used to light up Mumbai during the annual Hindi Diwali festival, of “festival of lights.” But it is Dharavi’s 5,000 leather workshops that comprise the slum’s biggest business, producing export-grade goods for local and international markets.

And in spite of the market for the work of Dharavi’s artisans, which one estimate put as high as US $650 million, the slum’s residents remain largely impoverished, often working multiple jobs to provide for their families.

dharavi market

Photo by Adam Cohn via Flickr CC.

Established two years ago by journalist, urban planner and social entrepreneur Megha Gupta, Dharavi Market hopes to create opportunity for the City’s slum residents through e-commerce. Gupta, who worked as a researcher on urban planning issues in Mumbai and Dharavi, explains that she first had the idea to establish an online marketplace for artisans when she worked on a transport planning research in Dharavi. “That is when I saw the work there and got the idea of taking it online and giving them an equal opportunity platform,” she tells progrss.

Gupta explains that as the largest manufacturing hub in Mumbai that is based in a slum, and an area that she became familiar with after working on the urban planning project, Dharavi seemed like the perfect choice. After an initial spark that convinced her that an online marketplace would be the most sustainable intervention, she went door-to-door, conducting fieldwork and connecting personally with the local craftsmen in order to gain their trust.

dharavi marketThe marketplace allows artisans to list their products online, and when a customer makes a purchase, the Dharavi Market team buys the product from the artisans and does a quality check and before shipping it to the customer. Artisans set the price of their products and the marketplace adds a fixed commission.

The online marketplace attempts to reduce artisans’ dependence on middlemen and local shops, but in spite of the demand for their products, they are rarely provided with sufficient income. According to Gupta, participating in Dharavi Market has increased artisans’ incomes by 20-25%. And while she hopes to eventually be able to provide artisans with 100% of their income, she realizes that it will take a long time for the marketplace to have that kind of impact. “Corporate gifting and bulk orders are our future,” she adds.

dharavi market

Gupta with one of Dharavi’s artisans. Courtesy of Dharavi Market.

Although most of the market’s customers are from India, Dharavi Market has shipped to locations around the world. The products are also available at Flipkart and Paytm in India.

In 2015, New Delhi-based online marketplace Snapdeal made products from Dharavi Market available via the Dharavi-Snapdeal store. According to one report, Snapdeal is helping Dharavi Market catalogue its products online as well as offering analytics to Gupta and her team, which allow them to refine product offerings.

In spite of the website’s moderate success to-date, Gupta notes that their margins are lower than she had initially imagined them to be. “Artisans need work constantly and it’s difficult to get work for 10,000 craftsmen, so we have to grow really big to be able to make any impact on Dharavi,” she says.

Once she does perfect the model, however, she would like to expand it to other slums.

The team of three has also adopted a system of social capital credits, although, as Gupta notes, the concept is still being developed. “It is giving points to craftsmen for social good they do and they can redeem for personal benefits like mobile recharge, free dals, etc.,” she explains. “We hope to develop it with Asia Initiatives NGO.”

“Some of [the artisans] have told me that I have given them an identity and a sustained income. This makes our effort worthwhile,” she adds.