How to Save a Life, "Clean India" Edition

Man, India is a neat country. But a reputation it has, and one that is justified, is that India can be dirty. There isn’t a formal trash pickup service like there would be in western countries. That said, the community usually can keep the streets clean with their brooms but there ends up being ditches and fields just totally littered with garbage. Plastic bags are the main culprit. When most westerners hear that India is dirty, they can feel their feet getting colder about coming to India to see what it has to offer.

So I was thinking, how can we bless the people of India, create a few jobs, send a few more children to school, and potentially make some connections between different social classes in India?

Let’s start by creating a business. India has a wealth of well priced (read: cheap) handcrafted goods that can be incredibly nice. But that goods market just isn’t well connected to buyers. In India, they have this garbage system of middlemen between the producer and the consumer. So let’s say you want a nice scarf. India has a ton of them. You catch a tuk-tuk that you got for a good price down to the market. Easy! Then things take a turn downhill. Immediately, you change from a human being worthy of respect to a walking wallet, worth nothing more than the rupees in your pocket. Every shop you walk past, the boys running it walk outside speaking in broken English, pestering you to come take a look. “It’s cheap!” they say. “Best price! Cheaper than every other store” the others say. Of course, it’s all a finely calculated sales pitch that leaves you feeling sabotaged. Once you walk into the stores, you see shelves lined with goods. You walk up and take a look. Quickly, the old man walks over to you and insists you sit down. Oh boy, you’re in for a treat. He starts pulling down items randomly from a shelf and taking them out of the package, giving you a 5 second glimpse at the least appealing item from that particular shelf. Oh no! The one he picked is ugly. Of course it is! You’re not getting the best from this shop, silly you. He says “best price for special customer” and that “we’re friends, right”. You say no to the product and point to the one you want to see on the shelf. The old man pulls down something from that pile (the ugliest one). He asks you why you don’t like him. Of course, if you do get something you like, prepare for the sticker shock. There is not sticker, they make up some price from the top of their heads (Small scarf worth $5? He asked for $25). Haggle. Haggle. Haggle. Success! You bought your scarf. The old man immediately begins asking you to look at all his other crap, because you are only as good as the remaining money in your pocket. Walk outside, step in some cow crap, and look! there’s a hole in the scarf. Are you surprised?

So you can see, this horrible interaction stems from your desire as a tourist to help local artisans and stimulate the local economy. To bring back a piece of cultural heritage. The old man you dealt neither owns the store, knows the producer of the product, or can tell you anything but glimmering praise for the hole-y scarf you just purchased. Heck, he probably doesn’t even work there, he just sold somebody else’s product (because that somebody else was pestering other tourist leaving the ATM to come to his shop). This is one of the worse sides of Indian culture, and even more sadly, the only one most tourists will interact with.

Bleh. So maybe we should start here. We know this whole crappy little industry is not serving the producers of products well (people will buy more quantity-wise if they are pressured less), it’s not serving the salesman well (he probably gets paid based on how many tourists fall into his trap more than for doing a good job), and it’s not serving tourists well (how many people walk away from this interaction feeling good about the people they interacted with?). So in awful silicon valley terms that make me die a little inside. Let’s disrupt this industry.

Wait wait, Kyle, what happened to our “cleaning up trash” ideal? Well, there’s a process to this all, and I’ll explain that bit later. That’s part of the grand scheme but we need to define how we’re going to do it still!.

So here we are with our problem. Quality goods, crappy middlemen, tourists leaving country with money in their pocket. So let’s open a store. In the spirit of 2016, we’re not going to start with a physical store yet. We’re going to open an online one to bootstrap ourselves into real estate later. We sadly need to start with the same middlemen we so despicably described earlier. Sure, they’re slimy, but producers of products know middlemen pay and the middlemen can point us to wholesale prices on quality goods, do a small bit of quality control, and help us find outstanding producers. We’re going to order a lot of cool stuff. Scarves, blankets, little jade camels, dishes, elephant artwork, sarees, block printed shirts for men. And then we’re going to do the first unthinkable thing! We’re going to model it all with some handsome models, take some professional photographs, post the items online, and ship them internationally at decent rates via UPS. Every order shipped will be personally inspected, and wrapped nicely. We’re offering the elegance of the Indian handicraft to our customers, let’s make it a good experience opening that box. Then let’s start marketing to the NRIs (Indians living outside of India) and see what wins their heart. They like their culture, so let’s connect them to some quality goods so they don’t have to wait for relatives flying over to deliver them. Boom! Then find a way to get products into westerners browsers. I dunno, send some free samples to fashion bloggers. “Influnceners” The web is easy to conquer if you know the right young people.

So cool! Now we have a thriving web business. When are we going to clean up some trash? Just wait friend, we’re just getting started.

Now we have some positive cash flow. We’re driving sales to handicraft products, employing several more people because of a small but consistent sales volume. Cool! We’re blessing some lives. These families now are able to provide a little more consistently for themselves, and sending their children to government school instead of having them help with family business is an option. The kids get to school, find out they love it, and even if mom/dad needs to take a break from working for whatever reason, the family sees the value in school and takes it seriously going forward. In a country where many children are held back from a free education, this is a big deal.

We’re going to try a little project to see what we can see in Delhi. In purchasing some textiles from a suburb, we pass buy a field daily that is filled with garbage. It’s unsightly by western standards, but mostly left alone by Asia. So we’re going to find 10 laborers and make them a deal. India’s mandatory minimum wage for a daily laborer is roughly Rs. 100, or about $1.50 a day. We don’t have much in the way of profits to spend, but we have $100 and we want to see where that takes us. Let’s be a blessing to the people we interact with, and bump that pay up to Rs. 500. That’ll net us about 14 workers for the field, and we hand them trash bags and tell them our mission - to clean up public spaces to improve the lives of people living in the area. Being laborers, they’re probably not going to care why we’re doing about but they’ll be quite confused why white people are backing it. But that’s okay, we’re not currently creating a long term career right now, we’re just exchanging labor for a day. We set up a table, with our logo and a sign, and have some of our Indian staff answer any questions the public has about what we’re doing. We hand out some business cards, and in the process, end up creating some cool relationships. One of them tells us that our store would do well in a brick-n-mortar setup and tells us his cousin has some nice real estate in the city. By the end of the day, the field is much cleaner, we have bags of recycling, we’ve given some of the working class 5x what they expected to make that day doing easy work, and we’ve exposed our handicrafts brand to the passing public. Cool!

So that guy who had the brick-n-mortar store available? We finally get the details. $500/month rent in a well-trafficked part of Delhi. Big commitment, but online sales have been good and we can get by for a years lease and sign the papers. Being the cool millennial company we are, we find somebody on staff who has a knack for interior design and we end up with a rustic, timeless design that is classically Indian, but with enough cool western elements to bring in the jeans-wearing crowd. We have different shelves for Rajasthan, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh. Each shelf showcases the best of each category and has some small TVs explaining the details behind the products. No high-pressure sales guy! Give it some heart. Figure out how to get foot traffic in the store. We’re trying to win hearts without high pressure sales setups, so our percentage of purchasing consumers might be lower - more feet = sales. Since we didn’t pester the ears off of the opening-day customers, they all go home and make a nice comment or two to friends and we end up with more feet just for offering quality products and being hip. Yay, us. Our flagship store remains a showcase of everything our brand has to offer.

Eventually, we have enough income from our flagship store and our online store to open a smaller, more focused store in Jaipur. Jaipur has lots of neat turquoise things and lots of neat linens. So we aren’t going to show stuff from other states, and we’re going to open right next to the other tourist stores. We’ll have a nice glass storefront, AC, and of course, a nice showcase of the products, not stacked on shelves invisible from view, but in the western “imagine yourself wearing/using this” sense. We’ll shoot some videos of the products being produced and quick little blurbs about the people producing them and show them on small TVs. Thanks Krochet Kids! And just like that, several more jobs for the people running the shop, several more jobs for people creating handicrafts, and several more children in school. Warm fuzzy feelings inside, we changed some peoples worlds just by marketing and selling existing products better.

So now our business is starting to show some consistent month-over-month profits. Our dream of cleaning up some more ditches and fields is close! Let’s open a foundation/NGO so we can get the community involved. We’re going to do a few more projects like the field we did a few paragraphs back. Great! more places are looking cleaner, but we’re also starting to notice a few familiar faces in the crowd of laborers helping us with our project - in fact, some of those familiar faces have come to us with places to clean, new helping hands, and some leadership. Since our business is pouring in 10% of net profit into the foundation, we can afford to hire some of the laborers on a salary basis. We start handing the reigns over and turning this foundation into an Indian-led venture. We soon begin our scheme to start cleaning up the streets and fields around minister homes and workplaces. They notice our shirts and the clean fields before them. Hurrah! They think the idea is noble and donate a few dollars to the foundation. So do some other citizens who appreciate the newly cleaned fields. Our little foundation is becoming slightly more known and some college students volunteer beside us. They understand that some of the people working alongside them are paid, but that doesn’t stop them.

And just like that, we created a little ecosystem that supports handicraft producers, generates some tax revenue for the government, brings some nice handcrafted goods into peoples homes, shares Indian culture with more people around the world, sends some children to school, supports some of the laboring class, and cleans up some of the fields around the country. For somebody who wants to positively impact India, this whole thing seems like a pretty neat dream. Of course, I’m just a nobody from the middle of nowhere USA. Please steal these ideas; clean up the fields in India; and make it easier for me to buy some textiles when I get back!