Helping rural India sprout entrepreneurs – Thuni Seed’s vision

18th Aug 2015
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In a country like ours that is witnessing a phenomenal rise in entrepreneurship, would it be fair to say that this trend is taking India ahead? Is it fair to say that only when more unicorn startups come out of our country can we classify India as a truly emerging nation? Probably not. Most of India still lives in rural pockets and hence, it would be logical to say that the real success of entrepreneurship in India will be when we empower people from all walks of life.

A step in this very direction is Thuni Seed. A social enterprise with a mission to help under/unemployed and marginalized individuals from rural areas around India develop sustainable livelihoods through entrepreneurship. They work directly with NGOs – to reach target groups, inspire and train potential entrepreneurs, and spot business opportunities. They also work with vocational training centres – to train individuals in skills required for their businesses. They then form a marketing partnership with these entrepreneurs, marketing their goods around the world.

Kavita and Maheshwari's saree quilting business
Kavita and Maheshwari’s saree quilting business

Kavita from Thennamanallur, Coimbatore, had an accident at a construction site she worked at. Her father earns about Rs. 350 a day and most of that goes in her treatment. Kavitha could not get any other job since she’s not even studied till 10th standard. With the help of Thuni Seed, she has now learnt to make saree quilts and laptop cases, something she enjoys doing and that has become a stable source of income. Another beneficiary is Maheshwari from Puttur, Coimbatore. Her father is old and is often troubled by the farm owner he works for. After her mother passed away, she began supporting her father. Maheshwari along with Kavita, leads the laptop cases and quilt line which is sold across channels.

The story behind the name

“Thuni” is Tamil for cloth. The name comes from the first initiative the team seeded – a sari quilting enterprise, facilitated by CORD, in which cloth (sarees) was the seed for a successful business. Anant tells us, “We took beautiful sarees that had small tears in them, and couldn’t be worn. With a little ingenuity, we managed to fashion them into quilts that looked beautiful and provided warmth. This thread is the inspiration for Thuni Seed – utilizing limited resources to seed an initiative which can benefit the lives of many.”

A 17 year old’s idea

 

Anant with Kavita and Maheshwari
Anant with Kavita and Maheshwari

It’s hard to believe that boy behind this initiative is only 17! Anant Majumdar is a high schooler who decided to use entrepreneurship to empower rural women in Coimbatore and gain sustainable livelihoods to get away from the clutches of poverty and helplessness.

Anant has lived in Hong Kong for most his life. Half of his family is from Coimbatore. He got involved with Lensational’s (an NGO) Bangladesh project. Lensational really helped him understand the nuts and bolts of running a social enterprise. All the work and network helped put Anant in touch with numerous social enterprise professionals who were a sounding board to him. Anant adds, “I took these chances to pester people with as many questions as I could to expand my understanding of social enterprise and impact investing. My time learning about social enterprise in Hong Kong helped me develop a habit of looking for social impact opportunities, which really helped me in rural India.”

The research

Anant with Rotary Club IKONS Members in Coimbatore who visited to learn about Thuni Seed's initiatives in partnership with CORD
Anant with Rotary Club IKONS Members in Coimbatore who visited to learn about Thuni Seed’s initiatives in partnership with CORD

He spent the last two summers in rural Coimbatore with an organization called the Chinmaya Organization for Rural Development. As a part of the ground work, Anant tried to gather as much information as he could about the beneficiaries. “I really got the chance to interact with a lot of rural people and women especially, since they comprise most of the non-employed population, at least in the region I was in. I realized that the concept of “doing business” was there, but people in many cases didn’t have the support necessary to actually start one. I attended many meetings of Self Help Groups and ‘Mahila Mandals’ and asked people about their views on entrepreneurship. The thread was consistent in that people wanted a good idea that was a viable business, but they found it hard to come up with one. I started Thuni Seed to address the issues of lack of support on the ideation and marketing side for potential rural entrepreneurs.” While modelling Thuni, he aligned with Stanford’s Design Thinking Manual, which reinforced the importance of beneficiary-centric projects.

How they work


Maheshwari and Kavita working on a quilt

Thuni Seed essentially is an entrepreneurship development hub for rural India. The core initiatives are a video series, playbook, and idea bank, distributed through NGOs to rural people. These aim to inspire, inform, and mentor rural people and help them become successful entrepreneurs. In addition, they provide marketing support using their website. Right now, Anant is crowdsourcing input for the playbook and video series from entrepreneurs and people who work in rural development.Anant puts down a very valid point, “Currently, many programmes term themselves “entrepreneurship development programmes” while only training rural people in the basics of a skill, such as tailoring. The reality is that starting a successful business requires much more than the skill to create a product.” He believes that by combining the playbook, video series, idea bank, and mentorship, the rural population will receive a more holistic exposure to entrepreneurship.

Anant with Bharathiar University Masters in Women's Studies Majors who came to see Thuni Seed's work in partnership with CORD
Anant with Bharathiar University Masters in Women’s Studies Majors who came to see Thuni Seed’s work in partnership with CORD

Thuni wants their vision to be very scalable. They partner with other rural development organizations to help them reach rural entrepreneurs and inspire them with their playbook and video series. These components help beneficiaries at the ideation stage. They then work on fulfilling the marketing aspect by ensuring ongoing sales for the entrepreneurs. Anant adds, “We have also begun to build up our network with vocational training centres which can help these rural entrepreneurs on the skills side should they need any for their business.“

During the conversation, one tends to forget that he’s just 17, primarily because of the clarity in his thought, his vision and the immaculate execution.

I was never really scared that partner organizations wouldn’t take me seriously. And I think the main reason for this is that I knew the needs that needed to be filled. Even my parents were initially a bit sceptical about how my vision would play out. But I had spent months in rural India, and had talked to people who had years of experience in rural development. I spent time understanding the root causes and talking to the women I was trying to help.

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime

Anant’s vision is true social mobility for the poor globally, where the economic status that people are born into does not affect their access to opportunities. Anant adds,

We in India call ourselves a democratic republic, but in reality there is not an equitable distribution of opportunity in our country. The story of the urban middle class is markedly different from the story of the rural poor. I want to help the rural poor around India gain access to opportunities and enable them to take charge of their destiny.

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