Here’s How Students Of IIT Delhi Are Empowering Communities To Make Them Self Sufficient

Posted on August 21, 2013 in Entrepreneurship, Inspiration

In the narrow by lanes of Vikas Puri, resides 37-year-old Nwe Nwe, busy cooking authentic Burmese food for her small business. She is one of the 10,000 Burmese refugees who reside in Delhi. In spite of having lived here for so many years, she does not have a legal status of domicile in her country. The Burmese refugees have this liminal and ambivalent political status because India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Due to this, it is the responsibility of the UNHCR, and not of Indian government, to provide for their sustenance. As a result, the Indian community is almost apathetic to the cause of these refugees.

Taking note of their dire living conditions and lack of any semblance of security, a group of 26 IIT-Delhi students set out to transform their lives by banking on the universality of food under the Project Food for Life, an Enactus (earlier SIFE) initiative. Under this project, the students have selected a few cooks from the community with the help of the local leaders who would sell their authentic Burmese cuisine at different places in order to become self-reliant. The aforementioned Aunty Nwe Nwe (usually called just “Aunty” by the students) was the first cook with whom the students set up business.

Project Food for Life

Nwe’s husband had passed away and she sought to start a small catering business within the community in order to earn her daily living. One of the core team members, Ishana Shekhawat, said that initially she was wary of them and the lingual barrier just cemented her distrust. But, with the help of translators and the educated leaders of the community (many of whom are themselves students at various Indian universities including University of Delhi), the IITians convinced Nwe to set up a stall for their fest. For a lady who was initially extremely apprehensive about working with Indians, today, she does not mind if any of the students give her food orders with just one day notice.

All the profits that cooks like Nwe earn go in their pocket. In the nascent stages, the students set up different stalls at various college festivals like IIT’s Rendezvous and LSR’s Tarang to sell the cuisine and get an idea of which Burmese dishes sell in the Indian market. They also set up stalls at Pravah and Ultratech Cements to understand the requirements of a more mature palate. In order to make these businesses sustainable, the students do not finance anything apart from the rent for the more expensive stalls which, the volunteers hope would be something that they will be able to do for themselves in near future.

The final aim of the project is to allow integration of the Burmese community within the larger Indian populace by establishing mutual trust and respect between them. Assimilation of Burmese cuisine into the ‘mainstream’ Indian palate is seen as one of most basic steps that can be taken to that effect. In order to do so, the students look for new opportunities where this cuisine could be tried. They help out the cooks with caterers and as of now, they have signed a MoU with the popular Delhi Food Walk so that they can showcase Burmese cuisine.

Apart from this project, the team Enactus of IIT Delhi is also involved with another project — Project Aanch. This project aims to combat the under reported problem of indoor air pollution (IAP), starting with the 22,000 member strong community in Bhatti mines, near Chattarpur, New Delhi. The project was conceived in September 2012 in order ‘to create and empower entrepreneurs at the grassroots so that they can solve their existing problems themselves’, as per Divish Gupta, Team Leaders of Enactus IIT Delhi.

project aanch

The issue of IAP is extremely prevalent in India because of the widespread use of traditional chulhas that are fuelled by coal and wood which produce noxious smoke. Apart from respiratory disorders, the back-breaking task of collecting firewood is detrimental to the spinal and gestational health of women, the primary users of chulhas.

Project Aanch is essentially a business model that is in the process of empowering five women from the Bhatti community. To alleviate the problem of IAP, the Enactus IIT-Delhi team purchased a mould of INDEX award winning smokeless cook stove designed by Philips with the help of a fellowship received from Swechha (an NGO engaged in environmental and social development issues). Due to lack of trainers in North India who could train the women to use this mould, the students learnt the working of the mould themselves and then held a 3-day training programme to train the five selected women.

Keeping in mind the fact that the targeting consumer base consisted primarily of daily wage labourers, the students set out to improve the design of the chulha so that the manufacturing cost would decrease without compromising on the quality and the efficiency. They had to spend about three months on improving the design of the chimney of the chulha so that it could be easily procured in North India.

It takes two women to manufacture one stove in a day from one mould. The group of students also received the Walmart Women’s Economic Empowerment Fellowship to further finance their project.

Recently, they ran a publicity campaign in the village to increase awareness about the benefits of using such chulhas which include greater profit for women involved, reduction in cooking time, feasibility of cooking indoors due to lower particulate and carbon monoxide emissions and thus, protection of women from forces of nature, lower consumption of firewood to name a few.

The manufacturing cost of one stove is INR 750-800 while the market price is INR 1100. The first 25 chulhas will be sold at a subsidized rate of INR 800 in order to collect feedback from the users and thus, improve the design further and get an estimate of the demand for them. The expenses related to profits made by the women for the first 25 chulhas will be incurred by Project Aanch. The villagers have also been provided with the option of paying for the chulha in five instalments of INR 100 with a down payment of INR 400.

They have partnered with Wishberry in order to raise funds via crowd-funding for the project in order to procure more moulds for a more efficient manufacturing process. The team has raised Rs 34450 from over 33 contributors.

The students hope to be able to pull out of this community in about 15 months and leave a self-sufficient business in place. This will not only empower women by making entrepreneurs out of them but also battle IAP.

They have also received a requests from a village in Uttarakhand to implement this project there as well and after ensuring that the project is running smoothly in Bhatti mines, they want to expand the project to other villages as well. Unlike government schemes where chulhas were doled out due to which they failed, Project Aanch makes the villagers realise the benefits of owning fuel-efficient chulhas while simultaneously empowering women entrepreneurs.

These two initiatives undertaken by the students of IIT Delhi primarily aim to transform the lives of people who in spite of their large number, still exist on the periphery of the society. Instead of adopting the more conventional but slightly futile method of giving charity, these projects empower the beneficiaries by bringing about economically viable changes within the existing structures that pave the way to their self-sufficiency.