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SEI Global Fellow Report from the Field: Aakar Innovations

By Gail Batutis

Our tiny auto-rickshaw swerves through traf­fic, the wind bathing our faces in a sen­sory assault of dust and fried food, con­stant con­struc­tion by bare­foot men on bam­boo scaf­fold­ing and the cries of chil­dren at inter­sec­tions, hands ges­tur­ing plain­tively at their mouths, swarm­ing when they notice my light skin.

Beg­ging is one of the biggest indus­tries in India.” Says Som­bodhi Ghosh, co-founder of Aakar Inno­va­tions and my co-op super­vi­sor, break­ing off mid-discussion. “You can hire chil­dren to beg for you, and it will be cost­ing only eighty rupees [$1.33] a day. All the money you give them goes to some­one else.”

Our auto finally breaks free and speeds up the over­pass, cross­ing into a more run-down area as we approach our Pro­duc­tion Unit. In Delhi, a dis­trict the size of New York City with a pop­u­la­tion the size of Texas, the most over­pow­er­ing per­cep­tion is of the energy and chaos of the place, of move­ment, mar­gins, and close calls. Here democ­racy is prac­ticed in the streets, in the peren­nial protests of Con­naught Place and the blar­ing adver­tise­ments from men with mega­phones dri­ving buf­falo carts through crowded mar­kets. I found it impos­si­ble to imag­ine before I arrived, and it came as a sur­prise to find myself falling in love.

We pull up in front of our alley­way in Mahavir Enclave and shuf­fle out onto the street to pay our fare – $2.50 for a 30 minute ride – and make our way to the last build­ing in the row, where our San­i­tary Nap­kin Machines are kept, the key held by a friendly Ben­gali fam­ily upstairs. Their excitable boxer, Romeo, licks our hands and faces as we wait in a front room. Som­bodhi takes a call. He hangs up and groans.

They’re not com­ing.” He falls heav­ily into a chair. This is not the first time this poten­tial client has can­celled on us. I glance over at the machines in the room adja­cent. In my first week, Som­bodhi taught me how to use them, from weigh­ing the pine fiber – we don’t use cot­ton, as it doesn’t hold liq­uid under pres­sure – through press­ing on the bot­tom plas­tic layer with a seal­ing machine cranked to 180 degrees. Even though mine were uneven and rip­ping in places, it was a sim­ple and reward­ing process, one I could pic­ture our women entre­pre­neurs doing in their villages.

So what do we do now?” Som­bodhi asks, look­ing at me.

Well, we don’t have inter­net here. I guess we should head back to the office.” But first, it’s lunchtime. Som­bodhi leads me across a street and down into a lower level where we find an undec­o­rated con­crete room packed full of peo­ple and noise and the tan­ta­liz­ing smell of the only meal they serve – chole bha­ture. Over our light, puffy bread, sea­soned pota­toes, and chick­peas cooked overnight in gravy – wicked spicy pep­pers optional – we lay out our plan for the rest of the day.

Despite this morning’s appar­ent set­back, there is no lack of inter­est in our ser­vices. Aside from the actual machines, gov­ern­ments and NGOs which part­ner with us can also pay for us to do mar­ket­ing and edu­ca­tion cam­paigns in their areas, as well as a week-long train­ing pro­gram for the women who will make their liv­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing san­i­tary nap­kins for their com­mu­ni­ties. We stay with our units after­ward as well, man­ag­ing their sup­ply chain of raw and fin­ished mate­ri­als, some of which we sell in bulk to NGOs and hos­pi­tals. Each unit is able to pro­vide enough prod­ucts for thou­sands of women at eas­ily afford­able prices, so we have to be selec­tive with our setup to avoid com­pe­ti­tion between them. We also avoid all orga­ni­za­tions – and some­times the gov­ern­ments of entire states – who Som­bodhi dis­misses, Holden Caulfield-esque, as “fraud” – those whose pri­mary con­cern is fund-raising sto­ries or bribes.

In a coun­try like India, suc­cess and fail­ure are packed in close, and one stroke of luck can move you from one to another. The fast auto dri­ver can pick up more fares, the smart bar­gainer can save for a child’s edu­ca­tion, and the dis­honor of a fam­ily mem­ber can ruin job and mar­riage prospects for a life­time. Investors and busi­ness part­ners cir­cle like vul­tures, and the liveli­hoods of many are held in the hands of a few. Aakar Inno­va­tions won’t be able to turn the tide for India, or all of India’s women. But for those whom it touches, it might be enough to tip the scales towards a bet­ter life.