The story behind our wax wraps
As the name indicates, the two-story building in which the south Indian women's cooperative Hoopoe on a Hill produces their wax wraps is situated on a hill from which one has a splendid view across terrace vegetable fields, fruit orchards to the town of Kodaikanal on the other side of the valley.
Sheila is one of the eight Hoopoe women, oblivious to the scenic view. She does not lift her eyes from the workspace underneath the window as she carefully irons the pieces of cotton cloth her colleagues have cut to the required size. Rani and Nimi's job is to apply the wax. "We have done endless trials until we found the right mix", says Nishita Vasant, one of the two Hoopoe on Hill founders. Resin is one of the ingredients. It comes in blocks and has to be broken into pieces by hand. Even more important is, of course, the wax. It comes from an Indian honey bee species, the 'rock bee' (Apis dorsata), which is common in this most eastern part of the Western Ghats mountain range. (You can read more about the honey collectors in 'A jungle, wild bees and wax'). The wax must be filtered several times, then mixed with the resin and slowly heated. It takes about half an hour and constant and repeated stirring until the mix has the consistency and colour of treacle. Rani places one of the freshly ironed cotton pieces on a baking tray, dips a broad brush into the wax mixture and applies it evenly in a thin layer. The cloth is dried for a few minutes in an oven, then Rani carefully lifts it off the tray with two metal clips, gently moves it back and forth to cool it somewhat and then attaches it to a washing line. The freshly waxed cloths stay for a fortnight until they are correctly 'cured'.
Shobna and Sivaka are not only responsible for cutting the cloth to size, but they also cast the edges with pinking shears. With a pulley system, the finished wax wraps are sent upstairs through an opening in the ceiling. Here they will be packed and readied for shipment.
Nishita Vasant and Priya Mani founded Hoopoe on a Hill in 2016. From their work with non-governmental organisations, they knew that the only way to help indigenous groups and women was to provide them with income.
To find a job in Kodaikanal shouldn't be a problem. At an elevation of 2000m, the town has a pleasant climate. Between April and August, it gets incredibly hot in most regions of India and anyone who can retreat to the mountains. Hotels, restaurants, souvenir sellers and boat owners who rent out the row and pedal boats to tourists who want to explore the artificial lake in the town centre are always looking for staff. But to work in Kodaikanal, one has to live there or have the means to get there. None of the women who work for Hoopoe on a Hill today has a motorbike or even a car. And there is only one bus to Kodaikanal in the morning and returning in the evening. As a result, the women have no option but to take an ill-paid, seasonal agricultural job – to get lucky and work for Hoopoe.
"When will we get new orders?" is the women's first question as we sit together over cups of tea. "When there are enough customers who realise how beautiful, practical and good for the environment the Hoopoe on a Hill wax wraps are" is the answer the women probably didn't want to hear. The money the women have earned has made a difference in their lives and their families: Rani has paid back a loan her husband took out in her name but without her knowledge. Sheila's father is a fruit seller. Due to Covid, the business is not going well, but now she can support her parents financially. Nimi could finally buy a TV. Shivaka purchased a cow and earned additional money by selling the milk. And Shobna has opened a savings account: in today's India, a good education costs money, and she is planning: her son is eight at present, her daughter two. Once they are grown up, Shobna wants them to be able to choose any profession and go to university if that's what they want.
The conversation flows easily, and it is evident that the women work well together and have a lot of fun. They trust each other; even personal problems are discussed quite openly, and solutions are found with Nishita's and Priya's careful and sensitive comments. The women gain more than a regular income through their work at Hoopoe. They have become self-confident and more independent.
And they are proud to produce such good wax wraps. They say all of them love the Jungle Book design, and the thought that in a far-away country, kids go to school or kindergarten every day, carrying their lunch in one of the Hoopoe wax wraps makes them happy.