July 04, 2005

Smart red labels

What does a coast devastated by a tsunami look like, six months later? I'm in the middle of trying to find out, and here's a very small story about it.

This morning, I sped down the East Coast Road (in Chennai, everyone's beloved ECR), 80 km to a little village called Koovathur, in and around where AID has been working post-tsunami. Why Koovathur? After all, there were no deaths here, not even any real property damage; this village is substantially inland and the tsunami did not reach here. But then, that's precisely the reason. AID wants to work in the villages that did not get much attention in December and January, and villages without much visible damage are those sorts of villages. AID also recognizes that the tsunami did much damage that's not visible too, to the local economy, to livelihoods, to employment. How should that be addressed, especially in the longer term when the initial flood of effort and money and volunteers dries up?

Banuchander, the enthusiastic young AID worker who takes me around, explains that he is trying to get the women, and especially the lower-caste, more impoverished women, to start small businesses. (Reminiscent of the tomato link I heard about only a few days ago). In the tiny hamlet of Valavadai, we visit Yashoda, who leads one such possible enterprise. Seven women got together and are producing vadams, a sort of translucent papad made from rice, tomatos, chilli powder and lime. They have just got started, and their first shipment of the stuff is at the AID office in Chennai waiting to be sold. (Here in Yashoda's home, she shows me one remaining sackful). Meantime, Banuchandar has designed smart red labels for the vadams, and has brought a sheet of samples down from Chennai to show Yashoda. She and her colleagues will make the vadams and stuff it into bags (200 gm for Rs 20, Banuchander thinks is a reasonable price), and they will slip the labels on, and that's it: ready for market.

Only, there's the usual question: where's the market?

There are fewer competitors for vadams, Banuchandar thinks, than for other Tamil savouries like murukku. So he believes there is a market. Still, that's the challenge, even more than actually producing the things. And then the further challenge -- sustaining this effort for the long term. Only then can the women be assured of some steady, if small, income from this business.

Would you buy vadams made by women affected by the tsunami, and indirectly affected? Would you buy them only because they were made by such women? Questions for the nascent entrepreneurial effort in Valavadai.

And when I next see those smart labels, if it is in some store in Chennai or Bombay, that will tell me the entrepreneurs found some answers to those questions.


Anonymous said...

Ahh... I travelled from Chennai to Mahabalipuram two weeks back and all I saw was the rows and rows of rehabilitation huts... most of the unoccupied. It was slightly weird to see huts in straight, neat rows...

Anonymous said...

Part of the rehabiliation process is to venture into the commercial world, and fall down and get up and learn to keep getting up. Crutches in the form of well-meaning organisations would only prove detrimental to real recovery. Here's wishing them luck!

Anonymous said...

Last Month, I had visited chennai for 3 weeks. My sister lives in Besant nagar. I happened to walk through Canara bank. Ladies who got loan from Canara Bank were selling stuff like vadam, perfume, jewels, wooden crafts and jute bags. I picked up 4 or 5 jute bags and brought it to USA. It was very good and the designs were something people in USA may like. I am planning sell one in eBay and see the response. If the response is good, planning to contact that Canara Bank seller. My point is Jute bag (hand bag/water bag/drinks bags) will have good market down the line.