How catering startup Ilham is making entrepreneurs out of illiterate Afghan refugee single mothers

Rakhi Chakraborty
7th Aug 2017
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Aditi Sabbarwal launched Ilham with a core team of four Afghan refugee women in Delhi that is not only bringing in revenues but giving the Afghan women the much-needed hope.

Aditi Sabbarwal has a hard time calling herself an entrepreneur.

She sees herself as more of an implementer of ideas. While she is an employee on paper, Aditi and her core team of illiterate Afghan refugee single mothers have made such a success of an unlikely initiative that not calling them entrepreneurs is doing them a disservice.

Aditi Sabbarwal

Access Development Services, an NGO where Aditi works, partnered with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees) on Project Livelihood in March 2015 to promote self-reliance for the refugees living in Delhi.

Women Afghan refugees in Delhi have had a nightmarish struggle for survival. They endured the worst of war and terrorism in their home country for decades before finally being able to live peacefully in India. But a struggle of a different kind awaited them here. Lacking education, marketable skills and fluency in Indian languages they live isolated lives of extreme poverty and are unable to fulfil that basic premise for which they risked life and limb to escape -- to give their children a better life.

Why food?

Aditi came on board as coordinator of the Enterprise section of the project and was responsible for creating an initiative that would help the Afghan refugees who were single mothers as they were the worst hit.

Aditi, formerly of Dastkar, had worked closely with artisans and weavers during her tenure there and had plans of replicating that experience with the core team. Afghani women inherit exquisite embroidery skills through the generations. “But when it comes to apparel it is an expensive affair. The embroidery business would have required a lot of investment and seen slow returns. Thus I thought of beginning with food. In a food business the risk is very low and if the food is relished by the customers then new experiments and add-ons can be done easily, which is a challenge in a business where hand skill like embroidery is concerned,” she says.


After settling in on the food idea, Aditi set about recruiting for the project. She asked Prakash Chandra, her colleague, to gauge the interest among the refugee women who regularly came to the Access centre for help. The women were thrilled at being offered a dignified way of earning money.

After much planning Aditi launched Ilham with a core team of four women -- Zainab, Zara, Nadiya and Nighat (names changed). “The name 'Ilham' was suggested by Zara, one of the core founders. The meaning of the word is 'positive hope'. They felt that they were beginning a new phase in their life, which will hopefully take them far away from the traumas and fears which they have faced back home,” says Aditi.

Ilham made its debut with a stall at Dastkar’s Asia Bazar in September 2015. Under the aegis of Aditi, Prakash and the four founding members around eight women came together to work the high-pressure weekend stall at the fair. They wowed the crowds with heritage Afghani dishes like Manthu, Nargisi Kebab, Kabuli Pulao, Noranj Pulao, Shaami Kebab, Khajur and Baklava.

Unsteady future

Though Ilham’s debut outing was successful and set the foundation for the group’s future, uncertainties and doubts soon started chipping away at Aditi’s resolve and the women’s newfound confidence. “The other women said that they cannot do this work, even though they were earning some much-needed cash. But Zaynab, Zara, Nadiya and Nighat remained firm in their commitment,” says Aditi.

Ilham’s next gig was to cater at the US Embassy. “We worked hard on the feedback given by the US Embassy personnel. It took us at least three to four catering orders post the first one to understand the ratio of the quantity and the pricing,” she remarks. Replicating the success of the weekend stall was not easy. None of the people working on Ilham, be it the cooks or the NGO personnel, had any previous experience in catering or starting up.

But Aditi remained firm in her vision. She says, “My main intention was that we should show the women the path but they would have to walk on it. They were required to put up the initial investment with their own money because only then would they truly value the enterprise. It took the women some time to come to terms with the losses Ilham was incurring in its early days. They learned a lot from the orders and also from the mistakes, which they made during the catering service. I always believe that one learns the best from their mistakes thus observations must be strong.”


Soon, more single mothers flocked to llham. Aditi arranged for another weekend stall at Dastkar’s Basant Bazar in February 2016. After months of defeating turns Ilham’s luck started to look up. Along with the increase in team members, they landed a prestigious catering job. Ilham was recruited to cater at Taj Vivanta, Gurgaon, for their 250 staff members. “It was with this we realised that the group of women was capable of working and performing well, in high-pressure environments. Just that a lot of hand holding and pep talks were essential – which Prakash and I did without fail,” says Aditi.

Once word of mouth about the reputation of the Ilham ladies begun to spread, they began to see real growth. Apart from the stalls they ran at various Dastkar fairs, they were called to cater at brunches, lunches and evening high tea parties. “Their clientele boasts names such as Times of India, US Embassy, UNHCR, US AID Centre For Policy Research, Taj Vivanta etc. Their most heavy work load has come from participating for three days at the Jashn-e-Rekhta URDU Festival at IGNCA, New Delhi, where they were invited by Delhi Food Walks. It was at the URDU Festival that the group catered to more than 700 people per day,” says Aditi.

In 2015, the group earned Rs 2,10,000 the net profit of which stood at Rs 1,24,000. In 2016, the group tripled its earnings at Rs 6,40,000 and the profits from the same was approximately Rs 4,20,000. While it may seem a lowly figure to many, this is a princely sum for previously poverty stricken refugees struggling to eke out a survival. And, if their international media coverage is anything to go by, Ilham is set to grow exponentially in the coming days. The profits are not divided equally but according to the time and effort each individual has put into the business.

Ups and downs

According to Aditi, the women on the team have severe trust issues because of the circumstances they have witnessed in life. That, coupled with the language barrier, makes communication and good team work a near impossibility. This fact constantly hinders Ilham’s progress and frustrates Aditi. She comments, “As a group, they lacked trust. They had trouble trusting Prakash and me too. It took us a lot of time to help them understand that the work what we have started is for them and not for us. The major challenge has been to deal with their mind set positively. We are continuously motivating both them and ourselves.”

The major positive outcome amidst the struggle was the sensational media coverage the group received. “The first coverage they received was by Hindustan Times on the occasion of Mother’s Day last year and from there they have not stopped giving interviews and getting their food tasted. The media coverage, both international and national, has really helped them gain publicity and made people around the country aware about this project and the work they do,” says Aditi. It was also a great balm for times when it seemed the group could not go ahead together.

Not an entrepreneur

Aditi maintains that she is not an entrepreneur. “The entrepreneurs are the women, I am only a person who has shown them this path to earn a sustainable livelihood and have been there for the women from the beginning. It feels wonderful to be a part of their journey,” she says.

From spoon feeding them every step of the way to seeing them mature into confident, outgoing, smart and independent businesswomen has been the journey of a lifetime for Aditi. “They are learning marketing skills now,” she says proudly.

“The major setback for the women has been that in the initial period when they came together to form a group they lacked trust for each other, and would only be concerned about their individual income. They would not understand the concept of a group. Also the orders were very minimal which worried them incessantly. It took them months to come above their fears,” she says.

As Aditi gears up to leave her position at Access for greater career highs elsewhere, she is confident about leaving her chicks fending on their own. “The future is bright for the group because they now know their worth.”


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