The New Silk Route

The New Silk Route

By Shaleen Rakesh, Executive Director, VSO India Trust


IBM corporate volunteers together in Varanasi.

Earlier this month I travelled to Varanasi to meet our corporate volunteers from IBM as they began the second cycle of the successful IBM Corporate Service Corps (CSC) programme.

Varanasi is world famous as one of the oldest continually inhabited cities, and in May 2014, it gained even more prominence when their Member of Parliament Narendra Modi, became Prime Minister. Since then a number of important power and roadwork schemes have launched to transform the city, and VSO India Trust in partnership with IBM are developing the business skills of the traditional artisans and craftsmen of Varanasi to make sure they don’t get left behind.

When I met the IBM corporate volunteers at their in-country orientation programme, I was immediately struck by their maturity and professionalism. Many of them have previous community experience of working with rural women and children, which I believe will contribute to the success of their current assignments.

Working with the volunteers is Dr. Rajanikant, who is the General Secretary of the Human Welfare Association (HWA), one of the three placement NGOs for this cycle.

Dr. Rajanikant comes across as a man on a mission. He has been advocating for the Varanasi artisans to have proper fair trade rights, and believes they will significantly benefit from the efforts of the IBM corporate volunteers by developing a branding and marketing strategy for their products through the effective use of social media.

Sakina, a local artisan told us that it takes her up to 20 days to weave a Vanarasi silk saree, which often passes many hands before it is sold.

“We only know how to make beautiful silk fabric. Nobody has taught us how to create a marketing network, which often means we get a much smaller price for our work than what we could if we reached the client directly,” she said.


A woman weaving silk in Varanasi.

This is exactly where the IBM corporate volunteers come in. With many years of experience in developing knowledge management and IT based solutions, they can help develop market linkages for the artisans, contributing to long-term sustainability for these livelihood initiatives.

I came away from Varanasi with renewed enthusiasm about VSO’s corporate volunteering work.

It strikes me as fascinating that these volunteers are weaving technology into the fabric of a city known for its ancient culture and tradition. With contributions from the IBM CSC cycle, it's perhaps time to start a new journey for thousands of artisans in the city. The start, perhaps, of a new silk route?