Small Business Lessons: Kelowna-based Nugu crafts a global connection

The sustainable homeware brand is breaking barriers for craftwork in India and Canada

Like many immigrants, husband and wife Sumanth Sampath and Sonali Sharma were looking for better opportunities when they moved from India to Canada. More specifically, they wanted to make Nugu, their sustainable homeware brand, well, sustainable.

Originally launched in a remote South Indian village in 2017, Nugu collaborates with local communities to build microfactories specializing in ceramic dinnerware and handmade tiles. “When Sumanth and I met, because of his career as a potter, we had a lot of opportunities to visit large ceramic factories and craft communities,” says Sharma, who spent over 10 years working in India’s education sector prior to launching Nugu. “It was a very insightful and devastating experience.”

Sharma contends that the big factories that typically supply products to premium homeware brands around the world generate enormous waste and damage craft communities by trying to mass produce at a cheap cost. As a result, Indigenous craftspeople in places like Nugu (which is a forest range in Karnataka) are forced out of their communities and exploited. “There’s no value for the craft and craftspeople,” says Sharma, “and that is why craftspeople are poor globally.”

By building a microfactory near a forest, Nugu had to adopt sustainable practices: it produces zero waste, employs local craftspeople and is supporting the construction of an agroforest to sequester carbon.

The Indian hospitality industry jumped in: Nugu (the brand) became a go-to for big names like JW Marriott, Radisson and Westin, and Sharma even won The Times of India’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2020.

And then the pandemic hit. “We were shut down for almost a year,” says Sharma, because Nugu was primarily serving players in hospitality.

Luckily, Sampath and Sharma soon discovered Vancouver-based Spring Activator’s Startup Visa program, which helps impact businesses move to Canada. They bootstrapped Nugu with $200,000, incorporated it in Kelowna and started partnering with companies like Indigo and U.S.-based Made Trade. Spring also helped Nugu step into retail with Kelowna-based furniture brand Treehouse Interiors: “This was their third order with us in the past four months,” says Sharma.

Within six months of launching an e-commerce store here, Nugu made $65,000 in revenue. Sampath and Sharma also started applying for grants and releasing new homeware products. “We recently did a pop-up in [Orchard Park mall],” Sharma reports, “and the most surprising feedback we got from visitors was that our products are so reasonably priced.”

As pandemic restrictions eased, Nugu’s business with hospitality brands in India picked up. But as a sustainable microfactory, it aims to cap production at 30,000 pieces a month. “We want to raise funds and build another microfactory here,” says Sharma. In fact, the founders are already in talks with Indigenous leaders in B.C. “It’s actually possible to have a ceramic factory where you’re producing no waste.”