The road less travelled

Its 2017, a beautiful Sunday morning in Kolkata, I awoke in a state of mind I would never wish upon anyone. I was depressed at the time for a while and kept questioning myself, “what am I doing with my life?”   The previous week was chaotic as I had enough of working in a corporate firm and felt my creativity was being sucked away and so I pulled myself out of this stupor. My father had invested in me and I had to repay that investment but on my terms. What could I do to scratch the itch of being an entrepreneur and starting up, a notion which had, caused my parents great apprehension? This was a call that call that I had turned a deaf ear towards and yes, I did not tell anyone in my family about my resignation. I just did and prayed hard. A week prior while browsing the net I stumbled across the State Bank of India Youth for India Fellowship (SBI YFI), a 13 month fellowship that gave individuals a chance to work in rural India. This I felt deep down, was my calling. I applied and to my great disappointment, I did not get through. There was no way I was letting this amazing opportunity slip by, so I called them up and after a lengthy discussion of why I should be chosen, they eventually relented and I was picked. It was then, that I mustered up the courage to tell my parents of the current situation and they said , “as always, No problem, do what you feel is right, we will support you.” This made we realize how lucky I was to have such amazing parents, though they were a little disappointed that I did not consult them first on resigning.

“Aubrey baba, ye kaisa hai?”. (Aubrey, how is this?) five didi’s were sitting in the living room crocheting the most beautiful table cloth. My seven year old tiny hands clapping and looking on in amazement. My dad was a Tea Planter working in a remote tea garden in the Dooars in North Bengal and my mom would teach the Adivasi women to stitch and crochet. I was fondly called baba. My mother, not only taught them to stitch but also make sure they wrote down their finances and made sure they asked questions such as, “how much will this sell? Where can I sell this?” Now Twenty years later, I wake up with my plane set to land in Pune. Our SBI YFI orientation was a week long program set to bring up to speed on what we were supposed to do in our fellowship, meet ex fellows, socialize and learn as much as possible before we began this,  soon to be life altering thirteen months. I was part of the August Cohort and was placed with the Aga Khan Rrural Support Program (AKRSPI). A week later, nine of us were sent to Netrang in Gujarat where we had a wonderful seven day learning orientation about the organization. This was a week I would never forget. For three days we were in Ahmadabad where our projects and locations were finalized and off we were sent

Five of us were placed in Madhya Pradesh. My friend Gautam accompanied me to Pandhana, a small town located 20 km. south of the district Khandwa. He was later transferred to another district much to my dismay as we had planned in-depth on how we would approach the fellowship. I was to take over Shriti’s project, the then incumbent fellow who was in the twilight of her fellowship. The two months I was with her was a blast, traveling, learning, relearning and absorbing like a sponge everything she taught me. My project was to help in marketing the mineral mixture and salt bricks for the animals which was a project initiated by the NGO and the women involved in the project. There were many things that I disagreed upon and during my fist review held after four months, I affirmed that I would want to change my project. This was my 13 months and I had my own ideas and no one could take that away from me. I was later given an assignment with the poultry and the related researches going with it. I must confess being a young man with my own ideas, I might have not seen things the way others did. There were strong differences of opinion and I began to feel a total failure at this point and even considered quitting my fellowship. My Dads words rang out clearly in my head – ‘When things get tough, the tough get going; –  this was my opportunity, I didn’t want to forgo. The need of the hour was that I come up with a project that I felt would meet the three pillars of rural development , the three C’s ,continuity, consistency and constant monitoring.

 I travelled extensively from village to village meeting many women and self help groups looking for the right set of people who would believe in my work and ideologies. I found these qualities in Rekha Di, Tara Di and Kali Di  who were at the time part of the mineral mixture and salt brick project. I spent a lot of time with them and they always made me feel as family. The work on the exiting project wasn’t continuous and the bricks were made sporadically depending on the demand the NGO received. The question I asked myself was, “Is it ethical to start something while attached with another organization, albeit a 13 month fellowship?” With many of my ideas and suggestions shot down, I was in limbo and it was either do something or leave. While brain storming, one of the feedback received was that, people come and go and take pictures and suggest many things but many do not work. To test the waters if they would slowly buy into my ideas, we decided to have a small stall at the local bazaar held every Thursday. A little skeptical at first but with nothing to lose they complied. I invested ₹500, ingredients were sourced and work began. It was an evening to behold, a gathering of families where stories and laughs took center stage.We sold for ₹ 5 a plate of one papad (poppadom), four sanjories and a little mixture which were prepared by these women. As the day wore on,people were skeptical at our efforts and some even sneered. Tara Di was quick and proudly to reply, “hum yaha chori to nahi kar rahee hai, imandari se kam kar rahe hai”.(We have not come here to steal, we are working honestly). This moment and these words by her still stand out in my memory and the courage these women displayed left an indelible mark on me.

Udaypur Gaon, though located in a picturesque valley is an impoverished village of around 120 households, located 13 kms from Pandhana. The main income source and employment is agriculture with a majority of a households migrating to work during the summer. Working here would be a challenge I would gladly accept.

The four of us started with incense sticks but the marketing was hard as I traversed shop to shop with no one displaying any interest to purchase them.  One evening my mother calls and tells me to try making soaps. Now the soap market in India is extremely competitive and breaking into it would take a lot of capital which I did not have. However, no water based soaps and no heat should be involved because we needed firewood and I was against using wood as it was already a scarcity and they needed the wood to light the evening fire. So I opted for Cold process along with the most widely available resource; milk.   We started experimenting on cold process soaps but the issue was ‘curing’ as these soaps need a month to cure. Procuring goat milk was difficult at the time so we began with cow milk and started making smaller bars with the intention of selling it in the villages. I then went to eight villages where I got one woman from each village to be our ‘sabun sakhi’ (a go-to lady for all beauty products). We did receive many orders, though I knew this was not sustainable, it was a path I had chosen and I decided to take it.  I showed the reviewers my project during my second review with them and I could see that they were not duly impressed. But I stuck to my guns as this was my fellowship and I was ready to forge ahead on my own terms.

This project needed a work place. I ran from pillar to post looking for a suitable room to house my project.  A year and a half into my quest, I was able to obtain a small house and I grabbed it with both hands. Also during this time, we made small quantities of cow and goat milk based soaps for only a small set of clients, friends and family which seemed to be growing slowly. I even took part in a bazaar in Delhi and vowed to go back better and stronger.

I registered my company with my office in Pandhana in 2018 September. During my search I came across the DIC (District Industries Center and availed a loan through the PMEGP. We painted our small room, sanitized it and the day we were to manufacture our goat milk soap, the virus struck. The wait was long and I wanted to give up and leave but sense prevailed and I stayed back and did not abandon my post. We adopted all proper precautions and norms and like the rest of the world began our journey in the pandemic. With great joy and high expectations for the future, we launched our website the 22nd of September 2020.

Through my startup Kinglee Xperience, we aim to create, develop and grow employment and income generating activities in rural India by producing quality and niche handmade products through locally sourced ingredients and combine these products to create unique and innovative product offerings that not only promotes the ‘BUY FROM VILLAGE’ movement but also simultaneously solve social issues in mind the three C’s, consistently, continuity and on a Constant Monitored basis. The desire to keep improving, growing and keeping a watchful eye has been grasped efficiently by the women and they are the ones now always pushing for something new. We are growing slow and steadily and during all this time, the words “Hum age badenge and bad ke rahenga” (We will move forward and keep moving forward) will always be my guiding principles to something better for my village in the future.

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