One of our goals is to help urban poor entrepreneurs do better marketing of products, whether they are manufacturers or traders of these products. We are also interested in marketing / branding / promoting peri-urban and rural entrepreneurs and products, and in involving individuals from urban poor communities in packaging/marketing/sales activities. In other words, trying to figure out business and entrepreneurship opportunities for urban poor in local (or regional) supply chains, along with strengthening these chains ourselves so as to strengthen the rural communities around the city.
Running through this pilot phase of our project is this question:
This question may be asked at the individual level or at the community level, and it indicates a problem that can be very difficult to solve in practice.
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Why do they keep coming? Why do they keep creating opportunities for themselves?
In the initial month of the project, wehad 4 girls who went every morning, and now they came to the MBC every day and just sat around rather than sitting back at home. When the machines came, they would just sit near the machines. Spend about 3 hours at the very least every single day, just hanging around. Then finally we managed to hook the machines up, and even without the trainer being there... they were there.
These weren't classes, there was no trainer, there was no livelihood involved here, and it would not be possible for these girls to buy or operate these machines at home, but still they came. We called some other women in preparation for beginning classes, and these other women started asking these girls to teach them. I arrived at the MBC mid-morning one day and I found a "class" going on, in batches. Women were coming and learning and going.
Here there is potential, capacity was built by some skill training, and now there is opportunity to build that skill further and have it (hopefully) culminate in a livelihood, in something "of their own", an aspiration innumerable women here have expressed to me.
Why do they NOT come? Why do they not take advantage of opportunities we present?
Lest one think this is perfect and now one just has to provide opportunity..... what about those women who came everyday, attended meetings when "summoned" by the community leader that works with us, spent a couple of hours everyday coming to the MBC in the evening to learn stitching.... why don't they want to come four hours every day to do something for an income? 4 hours?
Every single time that we mobilise and get things going with a trainer or machines, suddenly there are dropouts, we hear them murmuring hesitation, and they start shuffling away uncomfortably and shyly. Why?
Complex motivations and behaviours matching the difficult economic context.
In the case of incense making for example (see Day 145's blog post), we encountered a woman who came to us for training, and after training would come to our office to just chat about all her skills and interests.
She seemed to be a very entrepreneurial person: she had relentlessly gone to the local Khadi & Village Industries Commission Centre office next to her house and attended every single skill training workshop that they had organised in the past few years. (They organise training workshops on typical (and utterly jaded in my opinion) 'self-help group' skills such as production of household cleaners, phenyl, common Indian snacks, incense making and so on.
But why had she attended every one of these sessions? Are her motivations the same as my motivations in college when I'd go to a theatre workshop one day, and attend a lecture on medieval folk tales the next?
Q: But if she is so entrepreneurial or even so engaged and curious, then why hasn't she started anything?
A: An answer to that might lie in the fact that she has adequate financial resources, her husband has a stable government job as a clerk in a local government office, and she and her husband have been able to provide enough for their children that they (or at least a couple of them) are now in college.
Q: Okay. But then why did she walk out from her house to take public transport, travel for about 10-15 minutes by bus, and come to our Micro Business Centre (MBC) office to learn how to roll incense sticks, along with a group of women from the slum?
For truly creating entrepreneurs in a resource challenged economic environment, one needs to thoroughly understand the motivations of the target demographic. This would be true in any context, but is actually very important for a context where entrepreneurship is also seen as one of the tools for poverty alleviation.
Our project is certainly not there yet. We don't have a systematic means for analysing, screening or even developing entrepreneurs. But that is mostly because our goals at this initial phase have to do with setting up the foundation for a small-scale, local entrepreneurship hub that targets lower income and base-of-pyramid entrepreneurs, rather than a focus on methods of in-depth engagement with individual entrepreneurs. Sure, one cannot create an effective collective resource centre without focusing on the needs of individuals comprising that collective, but it's a balancing act for us now. As a project and as a nascent organisation, we shall slowly have to figure out our relative emphasis on the two.
New (Small) Opportunities
(Left): An oven-dryer for baking snacks, or for drying various dough-based Indian foods (like papad) that cannot be easily sun-dried in the monsoon season.
(Right): The spice processing unit ready for the food inspection and for getting a food license. To the right (on the marble counter) is a new addition - a hand-operated sealer that does a better job with the spice wrapping plastics than does the foot-operated sealer on the left. These are cheap, manual (but really hardy) package sealers, so they each tend to work best for one or two types of plastics.
About 10 days ago we decided to start a small incense making cluster, and decided to start off cluster formation with a short incense stick rolling workshop. Our program manager knew of an entrepreneur who did incense stick trading. This entrepreneur bought semi-finished incense sticks in bulk, added various scents to them to create a 'finished' product, packaged them, and then sold them to retailers and wholesale traders in the city. For this intermediary incense trader, one of the biggest sources of these semi-finished incense sticks was a peri-urban village just over an hour from Bhubaneswar (called Kala Patthara).
Women from almost every household in this village are engaged in hand rolling incense sticks. Our team decided to do a bus trip so that women from our urban slum target community could go visit this village. Almost a month ago, about 30 women went on this trip, accompanied by our field team. They came back somewhat interested in incense making; most of them had some prior exposure to at least the idea of rolling incense sticks at home since this economic activity is very commonly organised by NGOs.
For the training session, we got our trainers from Kala Patthara - an older gentleman and 2 young girls. They stayed in our office / training & production facility for 2 1/2 days, training our community women and giving our team some very interesting tidbits about the dynamics and constraints of the local incense trading market.
Targeting peripheral groups vs. enterprising groups with this activity
Having community women engaged in rolling incense sticks was not something I was excited about, perhaps because I associated it a low payoff activity not commensurate with the labour that went into it, or perhaps because it seemed too much of a stereotype given that nearly every rural NGO seems to have an incense making cluster.
But I was interested in using this low-level activity to target women who
So our goal is to target the peripheral neighbourhoods within the slum community, neighbourhoods that are both spatially peripheral, as well as peripheral in their levels of welfare and public services they currently access.
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Capacities vs. Opportunities
If we're not vigilant about this then we'll fall into the universal trap of creating opportunities for poverty alleviation, and expecting people to avail of these opportunities without building their capacity to do so in the first place.
The above is not a trivial problem, and it's worrisome to see how easily one can fall into this trap, despite knowledge and good intent. Perhaps because so much of the focus is on mandated numbers and immediate outcomes. But perhaps also because the outcomes expected don't take all these subtle, grassroots dynamics into consideration.
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Extending the range of incense products
At first we had decided to just make the unfinished products, give labour wages (by the kilo) to the individuals that rolled the incense, and sell in bulk the products to the incense trader mentioned earlier.
However, the workshop trainers suggested we experiment with actually finishing the product ourselves, just to learn the entire technique. Since the workshop had ended and everybody had gone home, it was our team that sat down with the trainers (project coordinators, and even the security guard) and learnt how to dip the sticks into aromatic dyes. The advantage was that our team also got to know the specific trading stores in the city or its periphery where the entire set of raw materials for incense making was being sold.
Strategy for establishing an incense cluster
Our strategy for this cluster is based on the strategy that has emerged from our spice making cluster. To be honest, our strategy with the spice making cluster - our first effort at creating a micro business - was haphazard to say the least. So I had to sit down with a pen and paper amidst the constant flurry of activity surrounding our turmeric processing, uncover the model of our approach, and assess the outcomes.
Quick update on progress with the turmeric cluster
I am currently a PhD student at the Graduate Institute of International & Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. My interest lies in inclusive governance - participatory governance in cities, political participation by women, making local government work better, and community-based approaches to environmental sustainability. You can read the "about" page for more!