“Everyone in Jamshedpur (India) including our parents were employed either with Tata Steel or its auxiliary companies. The usual path for us would have been to get an engineering degree and take up a 9-5 job that offers a fat pay check,” says Arindam, one of the dynamic trio, who founded a non-profit organisation, Dhriiti in New Delhi, with a mission to develop an entrepreneurship culture and attitude in the rural areas of India.

The organisation works towards creating a pool of next generation entrepreneurs, promoting and developing micro-enterprises thereby, increasing the efficiency of existing small-scale industries, leading to a rise in employment opportunities and better living conditions for the people in and around these regions.

Plate production by a tribal woman in a remote village of Assam, India.

But when Arindam & Co started off, they needed a push and a prod too. And help came from various sources. Friends and colleagues who had shared the same dream of doing something on their own but couldn’t or didn’t take the plunge were willing to render their services in any fashion possible. It began with providing free photocopies to buying laptops, where they would pay the monthly instalments, and even organizing capital funds at the start. Others who couldn’t help financially, played key roles in brainstorming for brand names and writing content.

Thoughtfulness and leadership qualities are not new for the people from Jamshedpur. At the end of the 19th century, Jamsetji Tata, met steelmakers in Pittsburgh to get the most advanced technology to set up the first Steel plant in India and built this city around it. But he envisioned far more than a mere row of workers’ hutments. He insisted upon building all the comforts and conveniences a metropolis could offer, for the employees.

“It was my years as an Economics student at Delhi University that made me understand and see the social, economic and political issues and challenges that rural India is faced with. And that’s when Arindam and I decided to be change makers, work in rural areas, and make a difference to people’s lives.”

Anirban met Nidhi, the third musketeer and his now life partner, during his MBA in Rural Management course. The three of them took up jobs in the rural development wing of big organisations in Delhi and Guwahati. But massively influenced by their learnings of the ‘Amul Model’, soon they quit their respective jobs, realising that entrepreneurship was the only route to making the changes they wanted to see in the world. “There’s a huge imprint of the Amul cooperative movement, which is based on the production by masses model, in our Tamul Plates project”, recounts Nidhi.

The machine operator producing plates and bowls out of the arecanut sheaths. Only heat and water is used during the production process.

Dhriiti implemented the Arecanut Leaf Plate Manufacturing Cluster Development Project in Barpeta district, in the North East of India in 2004. Since then, the enterprise has been helping rural producers in that region to establish micro-enterprises through capacity-building and other technical support. Not only has this initiative had a positive impact on the employability of the large rural population in this region, but it also lead to the production of ‘Arecana’, a biodegradable, refrigerator & microwave safe, disposable range of dinnerware made from the fallen sheath of the Arecanut (Tambul/Tamul) palm, a natural resource so abundant in this region, and was usually trashed.

“We got to know about the product from South India, so the technology existed for years but no one took it up as a business model which can provide employment and livelihood to the poor and rural population in this region.”

The North East regions of India is blessed with boundless expanse of plush green forests and gets abundant rainfall every year. But sadly it’s also a high insurgency area and has seen extreme conflict and violence.

Final stocking of the arecanut sheaths. this stock ensures a year long production in the factory.

“Dhriiti was our dream, where we work with young people in rural areas via various smaller projects, squeeze out the deeply embedded fears off their minds, train them and empower them to become entrepreneurs, make them realise the potential change they can bring about in the world, and how they can ultimately realise their dreams.”

What were your initial challenges?

“The first challenge was, we were too young with no hands-on experience. So when we were talking about enterprise and entrepreneurship, people obviously had no confidence in us. We were super energetic and enthusiastic about the project, ready to work 24×7, but due to the existing bureaucratic occupational structure people in those regions worked only 3-4 days in a week. And though the primary occupation is agriculture in these states, the biggest aspiration was to get a government job. Manavendra, one of our initial investors and co-founder, is a local from this region. He was the biggest catalyst in this project in terms of bridging the language and the mindset gap.

Another big challenge was that the North-Eastern states are prone to floods. So in the initial years we had huge setbacks, from raw material to production to the factory units, everything would be ruined each year with every monsoon. But over the years we resolved this issue by incorporating new technology and re-built the infrastructure so that production is not affected by the floods.

Next was to begin the manufacturing process we needed machines that could run on gas since there was no electricity in the regions we worked in. So we did our R&D and implemented new technology and indigenously devised machinery to suit the conditions.

After our first round of production when we took the products to the wholesalers, they refused to stock our products because it had no shelf life as they would catch fungus, which led to huge losses. So we changed our technology solutions for the products. The arecanut sheaths collected across the villages are dried in an indigenously designed dryer. The dryer runs on bio-waste generated by the production facility hence reducing the carbon footprint in the environment. The dried sheaths are then tied in bundles and stored in specially designed bamboo warehouses to keep it moisture free.

What milestones have you achieved? 

“When we started the Tamul Plates project it was not even considered an enterprise in the banking sector in India. But with almost a decade of work, in 2011 ‘Arecanut Leaf Plate Manufacturing Cluster Development Project’ finally acquired the private limited company status. We were able to link the producers to the mainstream BFSI sector, make them members of the company, and the government of India now recognises and promotes this enterprise as one of the biggest source of employment generation in the North East of India. Our next achievement was in 2014-2015, when we started getting global recognition for our innovation and services and received the United Nations SEED award in 2014 apart from a few others.”

What are your expansion plans and long term goal? 

“We have exported Arecana to 9 countries till now and soon wish to expand worldwide. In India we are now present in the organised retail segment. But we need to increase the volume and scale of production to meet the increasing demands for our products. Also we plan to produce Arecana in new shapes and sizes catering to different markets. In the pipeline is also a variant, producing dinnerware with Sal leaves. And we are now expanding into the packaging industry.

Our ultimate goal is to change the disposable and packaging industry which is currently so heavily reliant on plastic and other hazardous material like Styrofoam. These materials not only have massive harmful impact to the environment, but also have carcinogenic chemical reactions when used to serve or package food. Not only is Arecana a 100% eco-friendly, disposable dinnerware solution, it can serve hot food without any chemical reaction. We dream to make the planet and its beings live healthier and better.

By: Saroni Roy

Photos: Jonathan Kalan & Abhirup Dasgupta