Header image: Finished bamboo "tiles" for decoration of the store front along the main road.
Left and below left: Community artist who does "patta chitra", Orissa's traditional painting art. Its artisans primarily come from the famous Raghurajpur village, as does this community resident.
The store we chose for this trial used to be a roadside food stall (note the ovens in the header photograph) but isn't being used for this purpose any more. In the back of the open food/oven space is a large room that the owner family used for storing and selling vegetables (mainly bananas, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and the like). From a design point of view, this is a beautiful space - large, spacious, airy and open. From a business point of view, this is prime location - right alongside the main road, very few stores on this stretch, the airport bang opposite hence no big construction (shops, bigger retail stores) permissible in this area, and an increasingly busy road.
We had a few different objectives here:
- Test if - and by how much - a really attractive store front increases business for the store owner. If significant, then we could justify investing in re-designing store fronts for other community residents as a smart intervention for enhancing community micro business.
- Train existing wood carpenters in a new skill - bamboo artisanry - such that they could attract new customers, expand their suite of goods and services, and hopefully enhance income from their existing micro enterprise.
- Link my friend - the bamboo architect - to a local, skilled labour base (we would invest in training them) so that he could expand his clientele in the city, and meet the local demand for his business services (in turn providing income to the community's bamboo workers who would now have a regular stream of lucrative commissions).
- Use this store front as a "marketing" strategy for the bamboo cluster that we created. Since there are few stores along this stretch but it's a busy road near the airport, we hoped that creating a unique and eye-catching structure would make passers-by really interested in bamboo structures. This could translate into more work for the bamboo cluster we would help set up.
- Finally, we wanted the community patta chitra artist to make some colourful traditional paintings on some wooden panels and insert those panels between the bamboo tiles shown above. We wanted not just to beautify the store front, but also showcase community art and talent.
This was all great in theory, but it did not work out so well in practice:
- We failed to create a skilled 'bamboo' labour force: Most of the existing carpenters in the community were not that interested in spending time and energy in learning this new skill. It's not as if we hadn't anticipated this. We were actually paying them a daily stipend. Our intention was to coerce them into learning this new skill (since it was closely related to their existing skill), and we hoped that their interest would be born once the orders for furniture etc. rolled in and they saw the potential for revenue generation.
- Unfortunately, the couple of community carpentry apprentices and master carpenters that we recruited, quit without notice. One just didn't show up, and the other showed up for just 1-2 hours a day and then returned after a few days' absence to demand his stipend.
- Initially we had spoken to a few of the carpenters and they said that wood prices were going up, so they wanted to get into fabrication and other kinds of construction work instead. So we talked to them about the availability of bamboo, its lower prices, its durability and the ease of working with it. But somehow, we couldn't convince them to give it an honest try.
- After this, we became a little careful about spending money on training more people in bamboo work since we were also paying for raw materials required for training. I'm not sure we're going to try to create a bamboo cluster anymore. Nevertheless, we wanted to go ahead with the bamboo store front and finish what we'd started.
- In fact ultimately it was my project coordinator who did all the bamboo work - the cutting of strips, the nailing and tying of planks, the digging of the bamboo frame into the sand. The store owner was nowhere to be found, so his daughter and I took responsibility for applying primer to the entire structure.
- The store owner is gone so what do we do with the store? : Once the bamboo structure was finally done and the primer painted on, I decided to have a follow up chat with the store owner regarding his plans for using the revamped facility. Turns out that the store owner - the male household head - has had a fallout with his wife and family, and is not coming home anymore except to occasionally come home, beat his wife, take some money, and wander off again.
- So I asked the store owner's wife if she would re-open the food stall, since the attractive store front would definitely attract more customers. She refused point blank. She said it was her husband's store, and she had no interest in engaging with him further and that if I wanted, I could talk to him about his ideas for the space.
- So we're not meeting any of our objectives regarding an intervention for the existing store.
So now what? Maybe, a community micro enterprise display centre?
Regardless of the store ownership and what the owners' plans and disputes are, it is undeniable that this is going to be a lovely structure once constructed and attract a fair amount of attraction. The fact also remains that this is a fantastic location, and a kiosk selling goods even moderately in demand, would attract a reasonable number of customers. So my team and I don't really want to waste this opportunity, especially given the total costs of creating this structure.
What I proposed was that we rent this property from the owner, sign a contract with him for about 6 months, and convert this into a "community micro enterprise display centre". In other words, we use this large kiosk to showcase the skills of the community (in having constructed this structure), showcase our project, and showcase as many of the products currently being produced by community residents as possible.
For example, we could showcase the spices, garments, home furnishings and other items that our project participants produce. But we could also display the handiwork of those not related to our project, so it serves as a marketing strategy for them. So for example, the tailoring products women in the Basti are making. Or even the fresh food snacks they are cooking on a daily basis in order to sell elsewhere. Just a place to highlight all the micro-enterprise activities already occurring within the community.
This would be fantastic of course, but the main problem I foresee is the contentious property rights of slum land. I'm not sure that our project coordinator (the Basti secretary) is going to be able to successfully negotiate with the store owner. And I'm pretty sure that after a couple of months, the store owner will want his store back and ask for a higher price in rent in order to not create trouble. These are potential hurdles. But I stand by the idea. Let's see.