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'Earthy goods' for rural India

Oct 16, 2009

A corporate executive set up a social enterprise ‘Earthy Goods’ to help rural women in Himachal Pradesh find employment and boost their working capital. In three years time the community enterprise has not only empowered villagers but also created a market for eco-friendly products.

When Reshma Anand undertook a 4-month road trip across rural India, stopping at small towns to chat with village women operating tiny home-grown businesses, it changed the course of her life forever.

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Within months, Reshma, a management graduate from IIM-Bangalore, set up Earthy Goods, a social enterprise that straddles the worlds of business and community welfare.

“It was a journey that completely opened my eyes to the wealth of resources we have in rural India, in terms of skill and entrepreneurial spirit in rural artisans. I met scores of people roughing it out and making a livelihood doing the things they know best, using traditional methods, age-old wisdom and with an honesty and faith that is so refreshing... all they lacked was market savvy and the financial strength to grow the business,” says Reshma.

Earthy Goods – set up in 2007 in collaboration with half-a-dozen likeminded people, most of them women – identifies such ventures and lends a helping hand in areas such as product development, branding, smart financing, and identifying the right marketing tools and outlets to ensure a fair price for the products.

Reshma says that unlike many NGOs hers is a for-profit organisation and to start it she left a six-year stint with the innovations team at Hindustan Lever Ltd (HUL), where she had steered many a brand in rural markets and played a key role in the re-launch of Lifebuoy.

It takes a village

A chance meeting with Dr Ashok Khosla, Chairman of Development Alternatives, opened her mind to helping people in non-urban areas. This organisation was creating sustainable livelihoods in rural areas through innovation and appropriate technologies, and distribution through micro-enterprises in rural India.

A three-year stint followed with Tarahaat, a Development Alternatives enterprise. “It was a crazy time but immensely fulfilling. We worked with almost no resources and set very high standards and difficult goals for ourselves; but every time I saw the impact of the work we did on the lives of the people, it was more than worth it.”

"Earthy Goods identifies problem areas such as inefficient processes, procurement challenges, poor accounting leading to leakages and access to working capital"

She decided that her calling was in social enterprise. Once again, a chance meeting, this time with Nachiket Mor, a former deputy managing director of ICICI and the brain behind the ICICI Foundation working with low-income households, took her life in a new direction.

“Her cross-country travels helped her see the benefits in connecting home and community-based enterprises with consumers by creating a platform for ethically-sourced, high-quality products manufactured traditionally using eco-friendly methods.

Business-savvy team

She teamed up with a handful of professionals in marketing, designing, branding, nutrition and quality standards, obtained venture funding and set up Earthy Goods, which identifies problem areas such as inefficient processes, procurement challenges, poor accounting leading to leakages and access to working capital.

Her venture tries to plug the missing links, and strengthen the enterprises. In the process jobs, mainly for women, have been created and many of the enterprises have doubled their revenue.

Appreciation has been quick in coming. Says Linnet Mushram, who set up Bhuira Jams in 1999 in Rajgarh, Himachal Pradesh, to give employment to local women and leverage the region’s abundant supply of fruits:

"We were struggling in a lot of areas and I was concerned about the future of the unit after my retirement. Marketing-supply and collection were big challenges; we were often cheated on payments, and trade margins were exceptionally high. Inefficient production, distribution, purchase and supply, and ad-hoc orders created a lot of inconsistency in funds and often I had to dip into my personal finances for repair works at the factory."

"Working with the Earthy Goods team has added an extra dose of confidence to our unit. It helped us correct trade margins, place regular orders and receive advance payments, all of which have resulted in steady cash-flows... this year, for the first time, repairs at the factory were made using Bhuira Jams funds."

"Local procuring also guarantees our fresh-from-farm-gate to-the-store promise"

Earthy Goods’ marketing team embarked on a series of promotional activities and addition of new retail shelves to expand the product’s reach. While the women workers now earn more, the small farmers in the region also no longer depend only on the local mandi or middleman for their livelihood.

"We are already working with our partner enterprises, who will directly purchase from the farmers in the community. The units will now get assured supply of raw material, and the farmers the security of continuous income. Local procuring also guarantees our fresh-from-farm-gate to-the-store promise," says Reshma. Last year, the team organised mobile vans that crisscrossed the Capital’s residential colonies, selling the products of its partners. The response was overwhelming.

"What I love about the products is that they taste, smell and feel different from anything I’ve ever used before. The fragrance is of natural orchards and not of metal and factories. They actually do wonders for your skin and the jams taste great," says Radhika Bhalla, a consumer.

Spreading the light

During the run-up to Diwali this year, the EG team was at the wheels of its mobile van project, involving several NGOs and small entrepreneurs. All logistics and distribution are handled by the company and the products are now available in Punjab, Uttaranchal, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi; Haryana and Rajasthan are on the cards.

With six partner enterprises on board, the company is in the process of setting up a shared identity to make a smooth transition to retail stores. Currently the products are available at Big Bazaar outlets, and talks are on to expand to other organised retailers too. With business growing at a healthy pace, Earthy Goods’ turnover last year from consultation fees and sales margins on partners’ products touched Rs 1.4 crore.

Reshma wants to take on newer responsibilities, such as mentoring women entrepreneurs through the recently formed TiE Delhi’s Special Interest Group for Women Entrepreneurs.

"It can get a bit lonely, charting your own course in unknown waters. I benefited immensely from the support and guidance of so many entrepreneurs I met before setting up EG. Sometimes just a little venting, listening to the story of others who are going through the same situation as you helps," she signs off.

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