By Gyan Prakash:
A year ago, if somebody had told me that I could happily live on INR 16,000 rupees per month, I would have laughed in disbelief. But living in the mountains, surrounded by people who refuse to take part in any rat race, or succumb to the pressures of ‘modern’ lifestyles, I have realised how content I could be with a lot less.
It all started when I was a project manager with a manufacturing company’s CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) arm. For one year, my role was to convince 100 farmers from 10 villages near Kolkata to adopt organic farming practices. Through this experience, my conviction in wanting to establish a career in the development sector grew stronger. However, I had no experience in the non-profit sector. Prior to this, I had studied computer science at BIT Mesra, Ranchi, worked for an IT Fortune 500 company, followed this up with an MBA from IIT Kharagpur, and finally, worked in supply chain management for a year.
That’s when I came across the 13-month SBI Youth for India fellowship, and grabbed this opportunity! I applied, got through and now work with a federation of 12 Self Help Groups (SHGs) in the Reetha village cluster, which is two hours away from Nainital.
The federation had come together to start a business enterprise for making quality cattle feed at low price. But seven years later, it still lags in product quality. The product price has gone up, but instead of generating profit, the business is running at a loss. My intervention is to help turn things around – improve product quality, reduce pricing, generate a profit by redefining the business strategy, and improving the end-to-end supply chain.
In the initial days, the biggest obstacle was the cynicism I noticed in the people involved. Everybody seemed to believe that nothing could bring the Cattle Feed Unit (CFU) into profit. I could sense their lack of motivation. I also noticed that people were habituated to certain inefficient processes. Motivating the community in a positive way was important, as well as ensuring they did not get offended when I tried to change their habits.
I also wanted them to think like business owners, which seemed tough for them in the initial days. Simple things like – could they resell empty gunny bags, instead of letting them go to waste?
As time progressed, attitudes have evolved and I was pleasantly surprised when one federation employee showed interest in learning how to use a computer for bookkeeping, something I had been insisting upon.
There were also other small but notable breakthroughs with my ideas; the NGO employees and federation members realised the need to renew the cattle feed recipe. They also understood that a raw material mixing tool would improve efficiency. Above all, I have noticed that to an extent the lingering cynicism has changed to a sense of hope.
The business, which was running at a loss in the last quarter has become profitable in this quarter, though, of course, it is still too early to know about the economic fate of this cattle feed unit.
Besides the opportunity to make a difference, my experiences have made me question the world around and introspect within. For instance, I often wondered – how could people be so happy with less money? The stark contrast with our materialistic urban value system simply amazes me.
Here, while money does have its importance, people live their lives to the fullest in a hassle-free environment close to nature, surrounded by greenery and fresh air. They want things like better education, health care and timely rains. One more thing I noticed, is that they have resources but lack access to information, skill and technology that will help them utilise their resources, optimally. That’s where I see my own relevance; my hope is to use my skills to help them leverage resources in a better manner.
Another learning I had is this – 13 months is a short period and the key is to start small, identify one thing, and do your best.
And yes, try to make it sustainable in the long run.