The Business of Creating a Movement

Environmentalist. Hippie. Sure, on a surface level these are two words that could be used to describe me. I suppose I gained a bit of an activist and a green streak in college, a streak that over years became more than just qualifiers but are a part of my core values. We all have things we are passionate about, things we want to see different in the world. For me, it is the desire to see a greener, more economically just world that brought me to I Say Organic 7 months ago.

A little on I Say Organic. We are a company founded on the desire to make farming profitable for small farmers. We incentivize organic farming by connecting farmers directly to customers who value organic produce. All the inputs are already there on the farm itself, so farmers do not have to borrow money in order to buy chemical fertilizers or genetically modified (and copyrighted) seeds. With this company, there are actually a lot of issues we seek to address. One is the issue of farmer debt, which amongst other things is a key reason why farmers are committing suicide all over the country. Another is providing a sustainable source of livelihood, so that people in rural communities can make profit from their farms as an alternative to seeking employment in the city. And reversing the adverse health effects due to to chemical exposure in farming communities. There are so many additional benefits to growing organic as well, including: a lower carbon footprint, better conservation of biodiversity and natural resources, and chemical free food for consumers. It always was more than a desire to make profit for me, and also my company. This is us, a group or farmers and city dwellers working together to make an actual difference in the food and environmental justice.

The idea of using business to start a movement is not unique. After all, it’s the development of a product or service that people would benefit from, and that product could very well be something that has a many positive externalities (like producing sustainable, ethical food). To me, it seems obvious for people to choose organic. But this is most likely because I went to a very earthy college in a very earthy town where we had organic food in our dining hall. But how can I convince others to at least try without coming off like one of those people who ask for signatures (or donations) on street corners? This has actually been the toughest thing so far: we are charged with the task of creating a market and change the way people interact with food.

Eat local Desi varieties, eat green, eat consciously. These things are all good, and there are probably not many who would deny the benefit. But it’s still difficult. We, like many other ethically produced goods target a niche market. After all, most fair trade, ethically produced goods are expensive. While we try to price our vegetables affordably in comparison to other organic retailers, we are indeed more expensive than conventionally produced goods because growing organic is not scaled yet. Because of the price we pay to farmers, we deal with tight margins and we need to cover the costs of our infrastructure. This makes it difficult to compete with cheap chemically grown produce. So how does one create a culture of buying ethically, sustainably produced food? How does one expand it beyond a niche, beyond the people who may have bought it anyway? These are the questions I struggle with as I try to figure out our marketing tact. Of course there are some, like me, who eat organic for the farmers and for the earth. But what about the others, who are price sensitive to vegetables?

The world has to go green. I firmly believe this. It is a greater worldwide movement, and there are many players attacking these issues from all different angles. We’re trying through the angle of business, making organic produce accessible, convenient, and affordable. How can we make this bigger? This is the most pressing question on my mind right now. But I think we’ll find the answer. For now we hippie environmentalists do what we are passionate about, what we believe in. And that is creating an organic movement in Delhi.

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Social Enterprise: bridging social with business

We often struggle with figuring out where we wish to see ourselves years down the line. Which sector, industry, function and job role in which company would give us a wholesome experience; are questions we find asking ourselves time and again. After mulling over the same for the last 25 years, I feel I’m coming closer to finding some of the answers, as I start to discover myself by working with a social enterprise, experiencing extraordinary stories on the ground while applying management techniques simultaneously.

After graduation, I worked with the corporate sector for about 5 years and those were indeed very fulfilling years of my life, but it failed to fill this void in me that was craving to work with communities and engage with what I call ‘reality’. The idea of working in a space that works for a social cause and makes profits only to sow back into the organization to accomplish the mission with which it started, intrigued me. It’s a space that a lot people are still not aware of and is only just gaining interest and momentum because of the extraordinary work being done under its banner. It was also a unique opportunity for me to apply everything that I had learnt during my days at work, for a cause that I related to and wanted to make a difference in. I am working with an organization that primarily works with artisans; creating markets for them and simultaneously empowering them by building their operational capacities to ensure longevity and sustainability of their crafts. We call ourselves a Social Enterprise.

The crafts’ industry is one, which surprisingly doesn’t get accounted for in the GDP. Today, the industry suffers from inadequate markets, forcing these artisans to migrate to cities in search for better jobs. These artisans are apprehensive to pass on their skills to the next generation, as they no longer view it as a sustainable source of livelihood. Poor infrastructure and lack of resources in general have further pushed these artisans in drudgery. To add to their despair, the middleman are slowly establishing monopoly and exploiting the poor artisans. To address some of these issues, our non-profit side of the business works on the ground with some of these micro producers and artisans on building capacities, such that they can engage with markets on fair and remunerative terms and earn a dignified living. The for- profit side on the other hand, continues to build a back end demand for these artisans, catering to the innate gap between the producer and markets.

Why we chose the Social Enterprise route to address this issue?
Well, one would wonder why we didn’t go the traditional way and approach the issue purely through a non-profit model. Let me try and explain this by illustrating an example. A Madhubani artist gets an order from a buyer to produce 1000 pieces in two weeks. He is extremely ecstatic after receiving the order because he could support his family with this money, but he is aware of his shortcomings; he only has 3 people working for him and each artist can make only 5 pieces in a day. While this order could have a significant impact on his standard of living, the artist has to decline for reasons outside of his control. Similar challenges are being faced by other artists as well where they have the skill, will and the intent, but are lacking the capacity to deliver. This is where our model fits in to bridge this gap, where we create a demand for their products, marketing through various distribution channels, and simultaneously work on increasing the artisans’ capacity to meet this demand.

Social Enterprise is a challenging yet exciting space to work in; where one goes through the common drill of meeting deadlines and managing expectations while constantly struggling with moral dilemmas that come with the territory. Even the people one finds in this sector are fairly interesting; often possessed by their ideas, solving the problems by changing the system, spreading the solution, and persuading society to take new leaps. The relevance of this sector is unquestionable in today’s world; with government policies collapsing and external funding coming to a halt, this sector today is a self- sustaining, market based, business like and highly effective method of meeting social needs.

Wood carver at work

Avantika at a capacity building program in Udaipur

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Making An Impact

How do you know when what you’re doing is working? In school, it’s easy to measure success; you take a test and you’re assigned a grade. In farming you’re rewarded with crops. In business, it’s sales and net income. But when trying to change the culture or make a social impact, it becomes more difficult to calculate an ROI.

I’ve had a few conversations with stakeholders over the last couple of weeks about what success really looks like when trying to evaluate the social benefit of our rickshaw sales. There seems to be a spectrum of opinion about what impact they want to see us make and how they want to know we’re making it: Some are content with number of rickshaws sold since we established in the business plan there’s a need. Others are interested in seeing the difference in people’s lives from meeting them or reading client stories. Still others want to quantify it in some way.

For me, each of these preferences is fine. After all, they are preferences, a selection: something chosen, favored, or held above other things in estimation. But I think we just need to be honest about what each of these pieces of information tells us and accept the information for what they are—nothing more, nothing less. Each of these ways of measuring impact is different:

Number of rickshaws sold can mean several things. It means that someone has access to a source of income from each of those vehicles. It doesn’t mean they use it all of the time or that it’s the only source of income. Some of our clients buy a rickshaw and then buy a trolley so they can carry goods at night after the demand for conveyance has gone down. This gives one person double income. Additionally we don’t know if just one rickshaw driver is using the vehicle or if he lends it to a family member.

Anecdotal data tells a different story. Our client Ajay has finished his installments and is the owner of his rickshaw. After joining SMV, he was able to accumulate enough money to find better housing and send his two daughters to school. He has well-made clothes and a sense of confidence about him. He is an example of how someone can use the rickshaw asset as a step up the socioeconomic ladder. Hearing about his life and the improvements for him and his family makes us feel good about the work we do. It demonstrates the potential path someone can take as a customer. But Ajay’s story isn’t representative of all clients. Some use the income for more paan and alcohol. Some cannot make the installment payments and see their rickshaw repossessed. It’s an “n” of one.

Quantifying our impact can be difficult to tease out, and these numbers can communicate a variety of things. One of the more common ways to measure impact in numbers is by using income as a proxy for livelihood improvement. We can calculate our clients’ estimated increased income from asset ownership instead of the daily rental alternative: how much people are saving from not having to pay the rental fee. However, this figure is an estimate—it’s the likely result of rickshaw ownership with us. It assumes that the rickshaw driver rented every day. It assumes that our client rickshaw driver will only work eight hours (the maximum time fleet owners usually offer rickshaws on rental.) We also don’t know how this money is being spent. All of the income could be going to family needs; it could be remitted back to other family; it could be paying back other debts; it could be going straight to the paanwalla or gambled away in cards.

While all of these numbers are useful and tell us different things about the business and its effect on people’s lives, as a good student of performance management, I would prefer to measure outcomes, or what happens as a result of outputs. Unfortunately this is often cost prohibitive.

To unpack this idea a bit, I’ll define these terms vis-à-vis our business. Inputs are working capital or the rickshaws that the working capital buys. Outputs are rickshaw owners and vocational support we provide them. Outcomes are lives improved as a result of rickshaw ownerships—increase in nutritional intake, improved housing, better healthcare provision, or better quality education. Outcomes tell us the end result of whatever intervention is put in place.

I’m really interested to know what our clients are able to do as a result of joining SMV. Do they feel more secure having municipal licenses and insurance? Are they happier and more confident being an owner instead of a renter? Have they been able to provide for their families more?

On the other hand, connecting a relationship with SMV to a client’s livelihood improvement is dangerous. Conditions external to owning a rickshaw could result in livelihood improvement whether they are a government health insurance scheme, family remittances, or household additional income. Likewise, there are conditions that could result in detrimental effects like deaths in the family, extreme weather, disability, etc. SMV cannot take credit for these positive or negative changes in quality of life as there are other factors at play, and isolating the repercussions of rickshaw ownership (or any other development intervention) is a complicated task plaguing researchers.

So why, you ask, should we measure impact at all if it’s so difficult to pinpoint? The answer is simple. Because these metrics do tell us something. And because we should want to know the answer. So many development projects and well-intentioned initiatives don’t even start to make a dent in the underlying cause they are trying to improve. And so many have unintended consequences. I believe that asking the question, “What impact are we having?” is an important one. It helps those trying to make a difference keep the end goal in mind and make sure that the activities they are doing are in alignment with that goal.

We at SMV are trying to bring dignity to the profession of rickshaw driving and help these drivers improve their livelihoods through asset ownership and vocational support. The day we stop asking what impact we’re having is the day we stop caring about our mission and start just selling rickshaws. While we are, indeed, a business, the day we just sell rickshaws is the day we stop being who we are.

Going forward I hope to find a good proxy for livelihood improvement that wouldn’t necessitate a full-scale, statistically significant survey (no matter how much fun I would have washing those variables through a few regressions.) I’m hoping that our academic consultants can find a correlation between one of the indicators and general livelihood improvement, so that we could measure just one or a few indicators to decrease our reporting burden.

In addition to improved livehoods, SMV would like to see an increase in the collective self confidence of rickshaw drivers and the occupation become more organised. But how will we know? These are long term goals, and it will be tricky to measure their success. However, there are a few indicators we can use to evaluate this impact. We can look for prices to normalise with minimum fares, standardised apparel, decreased facilitation payments for licenses, fewer reported incidences of police harassment, to name a few. Certainly we will look for these indicators as time progresses, but we will also know that they are only indicators and that we cannot prove causation with correlation.

All of these ways of evaluating impact are useful. They just tell us different information. My biggest concern is that we acknowledge what information we’re using and recognize its limitations. We can’t assume that increased income is used for livelihood improvement. We can’t assume that one good client story or one bad client story means that many other clients are having the same experience. We can’t assume that the number of rickshaws sold means that the same number of families are enjoying increased income. Nor can we assume that improved client living conditions are completely the result of joining SMV.

What we can do is be good consumers of information and realise the limitations of what these indicators and numbers communicate. We should try to measure (and maximise!) impact while being realistic about what we can learn from the data. We will be careful determining what impact we’re having on the rickshaw industry, and I urge all of us to be careful consumers of so-called “impact” metrics. But let’s keep measuring lest we lose connection with what we aim to do and why.

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Source for Change R&R

Of all the additions we’ve introduced in the last half a year at SFC, the one that I’m most happy about is SFC’s monthly rewards program called SFC R&R (Rewards & Recognition). What started out with 5 awards for top performers has now evolved into a full-fledged rewards & recognition program that acknowledges, recognizes and lauds top contributions to one’s team and the organization.

Of course, one’s work may be recognized in many ways; it could be a “pat on the back”, “a thank you note”, a team lunch or dinner. At SFC, we already had all of these. We also had a celebration of birthdays of all the people whose birthdays fell in a particular month. But with the R&R program we were looking to go above and beyond these regular measures. We wanted to celebrate the associates’ achievements, hard work, and honor their commitment to their work.

When we introduced the awards, we focused our attention to the gifts. The questions we asked were – what kind of gifts should we award? Should it be monetary? Etc. Since we did not have a big budget, we limited the number of awards so that the monetary value is substantial to the winners. But what we learned over the past few months is an important lesson in human emotions.

Shrot Katewa, SFC COO, leads an R&R session as associates enjoy the rare winter sun.

The evening shift, all ears, to learn about SFC's performance for the month

The Gifts & Rewards

Oh wait, there's more!

Aha, the creamy cake

Alka, our Team Leader, doing the honors!

A birthday celebration in progress

A Team-building session in action

Awarding one of our most consistent performers, Monica Jangir.

And, Sachin Chahar, indeed the 'Sachin' of SFC.

Deepak, our floor manager, awards Seema Bano, one of our first recruits from the conservative Islampur area

Deepak awards Poonam Saini for top performance in the Quality Control Team

With Sunita Choudhary, our Team leader for Training & Development, with the best Team awards

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What does it feel like to be a bicycle rickshaw driver?

Now I know what it feels like to be a rickshaw driver.

Fairly soon after I joined SMV Wheels I decided that I wanted to rent my own rickshaw from the company just like my clients. Only then, I thought, would I really understand what it’s like to do the work they do, pedaling hour after hour, taking people to and fro around town. At first, I was told, “Oh yes, of course, you can have *five* rickshaws.” But as time wore on, my friends started to say things to rain on my parade like, “Oh, you don’t know how to drive a rickshaw, it’s very difficult,” and “Oh, you don’t have a license, how will you pull a rickshaw?” I gave the Operations Manager the Rs. 500 for our registration fee, but he and the MIS guy asked me, “How will we do your credit check? We can’t go to America—someone would have to take an airplane.” (Never mind that half of one month’s salary would cover the whole cost…) And then things got hectic for me and I busied myself with fixing our financial reporting, coming up with an incentive scheme, developing curriculum for our weekly staff training, sourcing new human resources, and searching for an appropriate CRM/accounting system. So the idea of my own rickshaw faded into the background of more pressing matters.

I told a fellow Fellow about the run-around I had been receiving from people, and very wisely he suggested I forget about owning my own and just rent one from a client. Brilliant—subleasing. So yesterday, I decided to do it. I needed to get home to the center of the city from my Hindi lesson near the river. I bargained with the rickshaw driver and told him that for Rs. 10 less than his offering price, *I* would drive the rickshaw. He took some convincing, but I handed him my backpack and dupatta and hopped on. I did just fine.

Pish posh, those friends and colleagues of mine. Yes, it would be very hard to day after day all day, but for a short trip, it’s not so bad. Fie on them for doubting me and my cycling skills!

Well everyone around thought the spectacle of a fair-skinned Western girl on a rickshaw was hilarious. People snapped photos of me and asked me to pose. It was funny—just like on India Day in Delhi when people handed me their babies and wanted their photo taken with me like I was Anne Hathaway (or Katrina Kahf) or something.

Well, part way into the journey, we got to a very busy crossing. Another rickshaw stopped abruptly for a woman, disrupting my intended path. I quickly jerked the handlebars to the right to avoid her and kept pedaling to get out of the way. Well, instead of waiting for me to pass, she started to walk again—right into the path of my rickshaw. Obviously the axel hit her leg.

I realized what happened behind my field of vision when I felt the rickshaw bump something. I squeezed my brakes and turned to look, discovering I’d bumped her. I said, “Oh, sorry madam, sorry. Teek hai?” to ask if she was alright. Well, she “got furious” as they say here.

She started shouting and hit me across my face. Whilst feeling remorse for having caused her pain, I also thought the scenario was a bit funny. Here I was, the expat, abiding by the laws of the road in Varanasi—it’s like an elaborate game of chicken—and she, the local, was the one not paying attention who stepped out in front of traffic when the traffic cop had *just* called my side to enter the crossing. Oh, the irony.

But then she started yelling at my rickshaw driver (now passenger) and pulled her hand back to slap him. Well, this I couldn’t allow. I put my left hand up to block her attempt at his face and forcefully declared, “Nahin!” (No!) She kept yelling at him, and I told her to “Chalo, cholo” (go, go).

When she’d finally limped off sulking and chattering to her family, I caught eyes with the traffic cop who smiled at me. I shook my head smiling and said, “Nahin atcha madam,” in my butchered Hindi to indicate that she wasn’t acting in a very good manner. He laughed and nodded in agreement.

Now that I’ve been slapped by a local, I feel one step closer to knowing what it’s like to be a rickshaw driver.

I’ve been driving rickshaws every day for the past few weeks and loving it. It’s hard work, the roads are in terrible condition, and it’s starting to get hot; but it has been such a gift to really understand the benefit of the product we’re selling. Now I know the value of having pedals with good traction, a functioning bell, and a high quality braking system. I’m so glad I took the initiative to start driving a rickshaw myself and walk (pedal!) in someone else’s shoes as the popular idiom states. I love giving the rickshaw drivers a break, and serving them for a change instead of hiring their services. They are so grateful, too! Here’s a snap of me with one of my favorite rickshaw drivers:

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My first field visit, Jajpur!

Living in a remote village is easy when you know it’s not your reality. Managing with the lack of facilities is easy when you know you’re only a few hours away from home. Giving advice is easy when you know that you’ve not got the raw end of the deal.

I had the opportunity of visiting Jajpur recently, a small town in Orissa, for my first field visit. For many years, I had wanted to go on a field visit. In fact, I’d often wonder why they referred to it as the ‘field’, almost giving me the impression of a playground or large spaces and open grounds. Clearly an amateur in the development world, I learned rather late that a ‘field visit’ merely meant working with the community!

Honestly, I went there with almost no expectations, apart from being aware of the fact that work had to get done on a daily basis. The night before my flight, I attended a rather ‘affluent’ get together, where I kept thinking to myself that the subsequent day would be nothing like that.

So, with anxiety and a bit of hope, I left for Jajpur. The objective of my trip was to assess the skill levels of the women in Jajpur, in tailoring and a local craft called golden grass. These were local women of the community who had inherited some of these skills over the years, but had never been through a professional training for the same. I was accompanied by a designer, whose primary role was to train these women on design and finishing, so as to increase the marketability of their products, thereby improving their livelihood.

Women working with Golden Grass

Most of the women stitch for a living. They stitch garments on a daily basis and sell them for Rs100 or less per piece in their local markets. As for women involved in golden grass, they take a day to make a basket and sell it for Rs30 or less. Their average income for a month is Rs1000.

Training started on a day that happened to be a big local festival there, Shivratri, where all the women fast until the break of dawn. They all looked lovely, wearing their best and displaying their precious jewels. They didn’t look deprived or unhappy with their circumstances. At least on that special day, they seemed to have left all their worries back home and all they looked was, pretty!  They quickly understood why we were there, and it didn’t take them long to start the work with full enthusiasm and energy.

Women tailoring

The first few days saw a bit of chaos where the women were excited and nervous at the same time. Excited because they were getting an opportunity to learn something new, and nervous because they had to perform to stay in the program.  I realized one thing. Whether one is working with a small village community or a team within a big corporation, organized competition works everywhere. Keeping this in mind, we organized a test for elimination to ensure that the women were giving in their best to be part of the program and that one had to qualify to be trained. Truly incredible to see how the ownership and importance of something increases when you’ve ‘earned’ it. As expected, the preliminary round did actually increase the level of seriousness in the program, where conducting the training became far more effective by the second day.The training was rather rigorous where these women worked from 10am to 5pm.

Upon seeing the amount of detail that goes into tailoring and golden grass, I realized that one needs a lot of patience to pursue each of these crafts. This was when a question struck me. What if they don’t wish to pursue any of these crafts? What if they don’t like being patient? Would they much rather do work that is fast paced? What if they don’t enjoy stitching clothes? The answer was simple. They didn’t have the ‘choice’. They never had one.

Myself & Sadhwi

Beyond developing a professional relationship, I tried to get a sense of who these women were, where they came from and why they chose to spend time at the training. I met this 18-year-old girl named Sadhwi (name changed to maintain anonymity). A complete rebel, she had come for the training as an excuse to get out of the home, where her family was forcing her to do household work and get married. She was clear she wasn’t ready to settle down yet. We also shared a few jokes on how she wouldn’t go down to the shoe shop because she didn’t want to meet her ‘prospective’ husband, who happened to work there. She was taking computer classes in the morning, before coming for our training program, ensuring that she keeps away from home as much as possible.

Unfortunately on the second day, she was one of the girl’s who had to be eliminated from the program, something she didn’t take very well. After speaking with her, I realized how much she reminded me of myself, when I was young. That’s when I knew I was at the right place, as I was in a position to change her circumstances. Just like me, she needed that little extra push to shine through, and I was in a position to do that for her. She was called back for the training the next day and instructed to practice with the other women, until she becomes eligible for the training program.

By the end of the week, seeing the women progress was heartening. From cushion covers to hair bands to buttons to tablemats, each of the women had products to take back home every day. For us, it was the pride in their eyes, which we wanted them to take home. Upon requesting a few samples to take back to Delhi, we were overwhelmed by how many women offered their pieces of work. This was a moment of recognition for them and a ray of hope that somewhere somebody will reward them for their efforts.

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Rules of the game—navigating cultural differences

I knew in moving to Varanasi my life would be worlds different from anything I had ever known. I knew that I would face new challenges adjusting to a new job, new wardrobe, new set of resources, and new community. I knew that it wouldn’t be easy. But what I didn’t know—and couldn’t—is what those differences and challenges would look like.

Let me paint you a picture of where I came from and what my reality is now: I’m used to having a two bedroom, two bathroom apartment with a Western toilet and bathtub/shower that dispenses hot tap water; clean drinking water from the faucet; a kitchen with a four range stove, oven, microwave, refrigerator, and counter/pantry space; and a parking spot out front for the car that I drove myself, in a complex with a pool and clubhouse. My office  I could go to Wal-mart for a print cartridge or Spoons for frozen yogurt at any time of day or night without worrying about my safety or asking permission.

Here I live in a girls hostel where I share a room (the size of my old office) and bathroom with another girl. I have an Eastern toilet, take bucket baths with water I heat up with an immersion rod, and wash my clothes with the same bucket. I drink and brush my teeth with sealed, bottled water. When I can’t eat the hostel food (most of the time), I make food on a single burner gas stove with no kitchen. I walk, hire cycle rickshaws, and take shared autos with my backpack jam-packed with everything I need for work. I have to ask people time after time where I can find the things I need like packaged yogurt, lotion without the whitening bleaches in it, and an extension cord (finally finding sources for all three—hooray!) My office doesn’t have running water or air conditioning, and I worry about monkeys attacking me on my daily commute. I have to be home by 8—9 at the latest—and I get disgruntled stares if I return back after that and the hostel “Grampa” has to unlock the gate for me.

However most of these changes are manageable. I was prepared for many of these changes by reading ahead, asking questions, and listening to everything the Fellowship advised and recommended. Some of the unexpected things I’ve learned to handle: I make do with scrambled eggs and soup from a packet; I have water as a line item in my monthly budget; I pester people until I find out where things are; I heat up enough water to take a bath and do some washing all in one go. I have figured out work-arounds. The thing that isn’t as manageable is not knowing the rules of the game.

At first I didn’t know about the implied curfew. I didn’t know not to send out my underclothes and socks to the washerman. I didn’t know that speaking with your hands (as I always do) when you’re angry is perceived as very abusive. I didn’t know that ladies shouldn’t buy wine (or anything related to alcohol). I didn’t know that people stay silent, seeming to ignore you, instead of telling you “no.” I didn’t know that my staff and peers would think I’m incapable of doing certain things just because I’m a woman.

Life is just different here. I love my job, and l love my life here (on most days.) But I have to admit that I am perplexed by some of the “rules” and norms. I read books and reports about my new environment before I left, but nothing prepared me for the subtle and often implied-but-never-declared cultural differences.

The overt ones are easy. I wear a dupatta. I cover my legs. I stumble through in Hindi. I eat with my hands (as best I can.) But it’s the understated things that trip me up. I knew that men might have a problem making deals with me professionally, but I didn’t expect my female hostel warden to refuse to deal with me directly, opting to communicate with me through my boss. I knew that people might perceive Western women as more promiscuous because of Hollywood portrayals of relationships, but I didn’t expect to be considered racy for being a single woman riding on the back of a motorcycle or having a coffee with a man 5 feet away from me at a cafe in broad daylight. There have been any number of times I wished I knew not to do something before doing something I think is completely innocent and normal (…or at least had an idea I was crossing a boundary but choosing to do it with the consequences in mind.)

It would be so nice if there were a “Single Texas girl living in Varanasi” manual. Alas, (and of course) there isn’t. (Maybe I’ll write one.) So I will keep figuring out these cultural nuances the hard way…and keep asking incessant questions to try to figure them out the easier way, too.

Luckily there are some things that don’t require rules. Human kindness exists everywhere. People give and receive it no matter how different cultural nuances are. My colleague running errands with me, my room partner giving me a ring, and my boss bringing me breakfast are all things I don’t need translated. Buying a soda for a colleague, hugging my room partner while she cries, and helping my boss talk through decisions don’t need to be translated either. These things make not knowing the rules easier. They make the world a bit brighter.

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On the Road

It was the night of the 31st of December when we were driving on the road from Meikudipatti, a small hamlet near Thanjavur towards to Trichy on the state highway. It’s a narrow 2 lane road with a reasonable amount of traffic going both ways throughout the night. Our driver had to make a sharp turn to avoid a stack of grain by the side of the road, covered by a sheet of tarpaulin and sticks. When you pass through Indian country sides this is a regular sight during harvest season. What we saw that night however was unprecedented – a family of 4 sleeping along with their harvest.
Considering how it takes about 3 days to separate grains of rice from the harvested plant, this family of four was sleeping on a state highway, risking life and limb for about 12 days in a year. We were startled, perplexed and sad to see what they had to put themselves through to put food on the plate.
To understand better, we needed a better understanding of the mechanics and economics of agriculture in the area.
So, we met Mr. Jagan Nath – A rice farmer who grows rice along with his family and chooses to process the rice from his fields along with his family on the very same state highway. He harvests about 10 bags of about 60 kg each from his marginal holding of 1 acre (about 4047 sq m or 43560 sq ft), employing only his family members to do the cultivation and harvesting.

He explained that the process of extracting the rice from the plant begins with harvesting the plant from the fields and bringing it to the roads near the village. Threshing is done by pounding the straw against a small rock. The ladies help by bunching the straw in handy batches. Because some of the grains remain in the straw and it requires considerable effort to remove,  they spend time on the busy highway first spreading out the hay all across the breadth of the highway. The wheels of passing vehicles thresh the straw as they go by. While doing so, not only do the farmers expose themselves to the risk of passing vehicles, they also risk a flash shower (A common phenomenon during the retreating monsoons) that may reduce the grain quality and possibly spoil the grain quicker than expected.
The grains are then winnowed and sold to the local rice mill. The farmer exchanges about 60 kg of rough rice (with husk) for 50 kg of polished rice for his consumption only. The entire exercise yields less than a ton of rice per acre and lasts up to three days with the involvement of about six labourers. He pointed out that apart from the apparent problems with the entire process, theft is common with the grains lying on the road and sleeping here for three days was inevitable if he had to ensure food on the plate until the next harvest.
Rice harvesters should be a boon in this situation; they are able to harvest vast patches of land with relative ease. Completing the entire cycle listed above in a matter of hours and gives much better yields than the manual process. So, why the resistance?
1. Size of farms: Most farmers like Mr. Jagan Nath have very small land holdings, sometimes so small that a large harvesting machine can’t even move inside the field.
2. Labor: Most of the labor that works in these farms is the family themselves. If they don’t work here, they have nothing else to do. Also, considering the size of these farms, the revenue generated is probably not sufficient to pay for outside labor anyway.
3. Resistance to change: There is a massive risk from experimenting with the small amounts of rice these farmers get; any fluctuations can spell doom to these families.
These challenges throw up a large and demanding market for young innovators to create solutions that cater to the needs of the small and marginal farmer to help him spend his nights in his home rather than on the road, anxious for food and life.
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Business at the Base of the Pyramid – My First Experience with Indian Emerging Markets

There has been a lot of buzz over the past couple of years about emerging markets in developing countries with India being a favorite destination. With the gradual realization of the need to leverage market forces to alleviate poverty and the theme of social entrepreneurship as an effective cure to some of the world’s ailments, I received an opportunity to experience this wave of change through a new fellowship program – The Piramal Fellowship for Sustainable Business.

Already bitten by the insect of change, it took me no time to decide to leave my original path, as a Chemical Engineer working at Thermax (one of the most respected corporations of India), and board this train to begin a journey of change.

On Dec 1st 2011, I joined Sarvajal which operates a rural franchising model to provide accessible and affordable (30 Paisa/Litre), pure drinking water to all. Operating 125 franchises in four states, and serving 70,000 customers, Sarvajal was gearing up to multiply the numbers and I wanted to serve as a direct catalyst to the fuelling reaction.

During my first field visits, I went to see one of our franchisees in a village called “Choti Pacheri,”  about 20 km from the Copper Khetri mines, and joined  Praveen one of our FRM (Franchisee Relationship Management) executives for a door to door campaign to spread the word about our “Customer Referral Scheme” – a new initiative for increasing customers.

I was taken aback when I saw, at one of the households, a woman using the traditional chullah (stove with no ventilation).  She is a loyal Sarvajal customer, paying six rupees every day for a bottle of water. A thousand thoughts ran through my mind. Though I have not kept track, I am sure that out of nearly 20 families I interacted with by the end of that day, almost half of them were using the same chullahs. Although many of the villagers were wearing no “chappals” (sandals), they had decent mobile phones and were buying Sarvajal water.

During one of our sales workshops organized exclusively to train our Franchisee Building Team, we split up and went into talukas/villages of the Tonk district of Rajasthan. The geography was completely new to us and each team had the target to create at least two franchises in their respective regions by end of the workshop in five days.

A typical Sarvajal franchisee is relatively well off compared to other people in his community as he has to have borewell, space for keeping our machine and he has to make certain financial commitments before he starts earning a profit.

We soon learned that however rich a person may be, he will still takes his own time to believe in you, your sales pitch, and then buy into the concept. Although there were no perfect conversions, there were some interesting observations that emerged out of the sales workshop:

• Customers who have a high capital/resource stake requirement should come to you rather than you going to them. Earning their trust is neither easy nor economical.

• One man I encountered told me “brother, in this market you find both good and bad people. I know you are doing good but unfortunately, I can’t trust you. This was an eye opener for all of us working with an organization trying to do good work.  Since they have been cheated before, it’s a simple “Once Bitten Twice Shy” theory which applies.

• For a new business, a good way to deal with this trust problem, especially in new geographies, is to create strong relationships. Cold calling is an effective tool only if you spend a considerable amount of time showing the value proposition and giving right amount of settling time. It’s important to remember not to wait for too long to follow-up or else the new relationship may sour.

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From Cyber City to Reality…

Have you ever felt that you’re running away from your ‘true calling?’  Questioned the path that you’re on and wondered if this is really what you set out to do? Found yourself running after time, suddenly realizing that you don’t have the luxury to sit back and wait? Well, these were some of the questions that went through my mind when I took the big leap and shifted to a social enterprise, from a fantastically well-cushioned corporate job!

Gurgaon is said to have it all, often described as the ‘millennium city’ …  The high rise buildings, state of the art architecture with snazzy glasswork, some 26 malls, seven golf courses, women in their best foot wear, businessmen looking as though they have come right out of ‘men in black’ and basically, the works!

Everybody has their own little space in these mammoth glass chambers. I had my tiny space in a building called ‘Cyber City’ and yes, it is as fancy as it sounds! One NYTimes article called it “a futuristic commercial hub housing many of the world’s most respected corporations.”  That was me…a tiny dot in the 2 lac something working population in Gurgaon and the so called respected corporations!

I worked for a Danish company, with a work force of close to 17000 people and around 325 offices in 125 countries; global in every sense of the word. Had the privilege of understanding the inner workings of a multi national, the values they set for themselves, the vision and goals that they strive to achieve and the very fabric that defines who they are.
Lets take a breather here and let me take you to the other side of town.

Lado Sarai, also referred to as the Lado Sadai ‘village,’ is situated behind a multi storied fashion accessories mall. My office doesn’t really have a landmark of its own, so we borrow it from our neighbor, Punjab National Bank, which everyone seems to be very familiar with in the neighborhood.

I work for an Indian organization, with a core team of 5 individuals including the CEO, it’s a start up in every sense of the word!

I’ve been here for about three weeks now and it’s been, for lack of better words, different! It’s the small things that take a while to get used to. I remember calling a friend back in my old office and overhearing chatter and realizing how much I miss ‘noise’ in the office. I miss not seeing people around me. I miss not having a food court or a half decent restaurant around my office offering options beyond home food. I miss the little gossip sessions at our lunch table in the cafeteria. I miss celebrating festivals, birthdays, and milestones… I miss celebrations!

But here’s what I don’t miss. I don’t miss the feeling of nothingness when I come back home everyday. I don’t miss the constant questioning (although that is something I highly recommend). I don’t miss counting the number of days to my birthday thinking how another year has passed, and I definitely don’t miss New Years Eve where I sat down to make those resolutions … yet again!

This is as ‘real’ as it gets for me.  I work with an enterprise that works to create a market for rural based craftsmen and artisans thereby generating livelihood for them. One can debate the ‘social’ aspect for hours together but I believe in the cause we’re working for, and for once, I believe that the work I do will make a difference. I was having a little chat with my CEO the other day, who is an IIM graduate, worked with two multinationals and has now chosen this unconventional path. I asked her what motivates her to come to work everyday and she said one word that pretty much summed it up for me… ‘PRIDE.’

Well, seeing a container with a seven-pointed blue star, in the wee hours of the night, still puts a smile on my face. I am nostalgic about the four years I gave to my previous organization and I hope to never look back on a day with regret. As of now though, I wish to experience the same sense of pride and feel comforted in the shadow of ‘the tree.’

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