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
- did not have a high level of technical skills that made them employable in the local marketplace
- did not have time or money to learn complex new skills
- and - due to a mix of household constraints and diffidence - did not want to engage in regular economic activity outside of their homes.
- This seemed like a safe, unobtrusive activity that one could immediately do, earn a bit of money, work at a flexible pace and schedule, and perhaps slowly get interested in taking a more enterprising step forward.
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.
- To be honest, we need to do a better job at meeting this goal.
- The problem with incense (as with everything else) has been that it is individuals from the more enterprising, typically somewhat wealthier, and relatively exposed (vis-a-vis local markets) neighbourhoods that showed up first and wanted to drive this activity.
- Unfortunately, given everything that we're trying to do, we often get lazy and simply involve the more enterprising individuals that show up at our doors, and show up first.
- Active community mobilisation on our part is needed to reach out to the peripheral groups.
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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.
- Our first step was to expose the community to the incense production facility - the Kala Patthara group.
- Next we interacted with the community to gauge interest in incense making, and get commitments from at least a few individuals to participate in the training workshop.
- We identified trainers and paid for them to come train a group of community members for 2-3 days.
- We explored the low cost incense market to assess demand, and identified sources for raw material supply.
- We established one market linkage who would buy our products in the initial stage, which are not necessarily very high quality or high value yet. This would guarantee a bit of return to the trainees for their initial work.
- Specifically, this linkage would result in buying of semi-finished products (not scented, finished products).
- As with the turmeric / spice cluster, attrition rate of community participation is rather high.
- While a large number of community members participated in the training workshops, few are continuing to take raw material from us and roll the sticks at home (to be sold to us at Rs. 20/kilo or 16 cents/lb), and fewer still are showing interest in self-organizing (supported by us) into a business cluster for incense production.
- So the next step is to identify 2-3 "lead entrepreneurs" who can drive the incense cluster forward, take charge of the daily operations, work with us to market these products, tap into some very local markets (such as the target community itself), partner with us to slowly add value to the products, and earn their livelihood from this activity.
- The next step is also to do extensive market research for the more "upmarket" or higher value versions of incense products - incense cones, coloured incense sticks, expensive scented incense, herbal incense etc.
- Along with discovered that higher value market, the goal is to identify market linkages for selling the expanded range of products - from semi-finished, to finished, to luxury items.
- Above you see one of the Asst. Professors in the School of Management at Centurion University, who stepped forward to assist me with this project. We're working on a plan to conduct short consulting sessions with the community entrepreneurs, developing business plans for the enterprises we're building, and also teaching basic accounting and money management skills to project participants and interested community residents at large.
- In addition to more formal sessions with such external consultants, we also constantly engage in informal "consulting sessions" with the entrepreneurs engaging with us.
- One such discussion last week resulted in the branding strategy you see on the right-hand picture above.
- The packaging that the turmeric entrepreneurs had been so insistent on, was a colourful, shiny package that held about 50 gm of powdered turmeric. But many of their customers - happy with the quality of the product - wanted to buy it in larger quantities - in 500 gm or 1 kg packages.
- Next, many of the local stores were suspicious of the packaging and immediately asked about bar codes, retail prices, and the owner of the brand. When the answer was ambiguous, they refused to buy.
- We suggested packaging the turmeric - and indeed the incense, and all our Micro Business Centre products - in either plain white, or transparent packaging to capture the feeling of "pure", "handmade", "natural" and "clean".
- These adjectives denote attributes that are important in the food and daily consumables market here, because so many products are spurious and also produced in highly unsanitary conditions.
- Along with the packaging, we're also working with the entrepreneurs to maintain hygienic and sanitary work conditions to ensure that the packaging reflects actual production practices.
- We also suggested inserting a small piece of paper inside the package, which paper would be stamped with the words "Micro Business Centre Project - Pure, Handmade Turmeric". That's it. That would be our branding. The packages would be either 500 gm or 1 kg.
- After agreeing upon this strategy, the first batch of such packaged turmeric was just created yesterday.