Entrepreneur of the Month : Amita Deshpande

I always believe in Four R – Refuse, Reuse, Reduce and last is Recycle. Everyone keeps talking about Recycling but we need to use the other three R s first.

– Amita on Recycling

Amita has worked extensively in Sustainable Development and Corporate Social Responsibility since the past 14 years. An IT Engineer by basic education, she went on to do her Masters at Purdue University, USA with a focus on Sustainability.

She worked with CSR teams of multinational corporations, consultancies, non-profits, and community-based organizations in the United States and India and eventually founded Aarohana EcoSocial Developments with the rich experience she has gathered. After leading Aarohana for 7 years, she has established reCharkha. With her EcoSocial vision and boundless energy, Amita designs EcoSocial projects, heads reCharkha’s communication and awareness generation efforts, and looks after overall management of reCharkha and My EcoSocial Planet. Amita’s long-standing dream is to develop a sustainable village and live in it herself, which she wishes to fulfil through reCharkha and My EcoSocial Planet.

Amita Deshpande, Founder, Re- Charkha

I have heard so much about you from some of our mutual friends. I always wanted to know more about your journey as an EcoSocial entrepreneur. Tell me, how was your idea conceived?

I was always an environmentalist, conscious of usage of plastic, planting saplings etc. However, I thought this was a way of Life rather than a constructive business which I would own and run or even have a career in this space. So like most good students I did my engineering and started working with an IT company.

During this time period, around 2008-09, I was involved in various activities and doing some research in this area. There were some exciting career pathways opening up in the CSR space and I decided to jump in by pursuing a Masters in Business focusing on Business in Sustainability. I worked for few years later for a Company as an Account Manager for a company which focused on Sustainability reporting of some Fortune 500 companies. That’s where I learned how corporations implemented their Sustainability programmes on a larger scale vis a vis my own personal practices.

I then moved to India and started my own consulting practice in this space I.e. to drive CSR programmes and strategy. I realised that we have a strong network of NGOs, philanthropists working in social space. However, most of their activities are focused on the Health and Education sectors. I was surprised that nobody had focused on Environmental matters. Your health would be in top condition if you took care of the environment or that we ate good quality food produced via sustainable means.

Similarly with Education, how our children are taught via rote learning or there is no emphasis on holistic civic education emphasising on sustainability.

That really got me thinking and how I could make an impact in this area as I truly believe that development should be encompassing both environmental and social factors. Our Public sector including NGOs rarely take that into account.

Putting my pen to Drawing Board, I thought about “Kachara” (Garbage). Now, there was barely anybody in the space of Waste Management. The time was 2015, pre-Swachha Bharat and there was general less awareness of this issue. I also looked at it from a livelihood perspective. Garbage is means of livelihood for waste pickers to certain extend but all that ends up in a dump or ends up in recycling.

Weavers at Work at ReCharkha. Carefully weaving waste plastic into usable productshttps://www.recharkha.org/collections/all

Now, Recycling is not the most environmentally friendly method. So, I put on my thinking hat on how I could use Garbage to something more useful and also generate livelihood. Research also showed how a large section of our society in India are employed in the Craft Industry, second to only Agriculture. I also came across some NGOs, who had woven plastic through hand loom and charkha in the past.

We did further research and experiments and then set up a small weaving unit in a tribal area. Now, the tribals in India often find it difficult to sustain themselves with only agricultural activities as means of livelihood. This is primary due to smaller lands inherited by them as generations of families increased over time. It is impossible for them to grow cash crops with small land holdings and the allotments only help them with bare minimum produce. Many of the tribal youth are driven to nearby small towns to work as manual labourers and never return to their hamlets.

So, we decided to start our unit in a tribal area where my family holds a property as we were slightly familiar with people around here. Now began my new challenge, as this was a new space for everyone and there were no “trainers” to teach this new craft. It took about two years for the craftsmen to master this art of weaving plastic on hand loom. That was the beginning of my journey.

A journey of a decade. I believe there were lot of sweat and tears all the way. But, tell me, did you know the end goal…how it would look like or did you go with the flow?

It was definitely bit more with the flow approach. Of course, we knew we had to create a product and our first product was a bag! There were others in this space where we could share our learnings.

But, you conquered the first challenge of training someone so hard and then retaining them in your employment.

Yes, fortunately the young people who came to us were very open minded to learning this art and were not shy of sheer manual labour which goes into this process.

In fact our first recruits were a pair of cousins who throughly enjoyed this process. Then, the other youth approached us as wanting to be part of our unit. We are a team of 12 now, a good number for us at this stage. We will eventually expand as we set-up a unit near Pune which I am hoping everyone will like to visit and witness our brilliant craftsmen in action.

A beautiful clutch from Re Charkhahttps://www.recharkha.org/collections/all

What are your success mantras?

Passion…is definitely a key attribute. You absolutely need to be driven to achieve this. Secondly it is persistence as there are days when you wonder what you are doing. If it makes economic sense and you would be better off in a secure environment with a monthly pay check. And lastly its your family who stand by you as pillars, they are your first customers, suppliers and donors.

Resilience is middle name of entrepreneurship. What would you say about that?

Oh! It has to be the case. The recent Covid-19 challenge has been a truly testing time as our production was hampered and so were sales. At the same time, we kept our marketing efforts ongoing to the best we could. Moreover, our re-branding exercise to Re-Chakra from Aarohana was another personal resilience story.

I would say Resilience goes in hand in hand with passion. As you know you need to get up and get going if your purpose is clear and if that is what you enjoy.

I would also add that you need to be stubborn. There are times when you end up missing important events and family commitments but your purpose keeps you going.

Sometimes it is also dependent on other factors around you. In my business model, we are more dependent on people. We do not require electricity or huge investment for factory set-up. All we need is good pair of hands to work!

All though there are times when People are the biggest challenge. But that could be in any profession or business! Now, you mentioned setting up a unit in Pune. Tell me more about your future plans.

Yes, at the moment we are trying to make Re-charkha a global brand and expanding its presence on the map and spread Upcycling awareness. Our products are designed as an alternative solution to other products in the market e.g. Why a regular polyester laptop bag? Why not use our up cycled one instead!

Taking this into account and the new market trends in favour of upcycling, maybe setting up more such units in smaller villages and possibly even in other countries! Who knows!

Eventually my dream is of a planet where we barely use plastic! Disposable plastic should become thing of the past and we no longer have plastic to recycle.

That is a massive goal to have!

Yes, I know. For you need to educate and bring awareness on this matter. Recycling or Upclying is not the ultimate solution and is not good for our planet.

I always believe in Four R – Refuse, Reuse, Reduce and last is Recycle. Everyone keeps talking about Recycling but we need to use the other three R s first.

As, Little Miss Elf is about encouraging people to donate to good cause, tell us more about the NGO that you are running.

‘My EcoSocial Planet’ was founded in April 2020 and is the non-profit arm of reCharkha.

Under ‘My EcoSocial Planet’ we undertake activities focused on Awareness Generation for schools, colleges, corporates and urban and rural residents. In addition, we also work on rural skill building programs, such as our upcycling and waste-to-craft project. In addition we look forward to take up more activities geared towards our EcoSocial Movement.

Our purview of Environment Conservation consists of Waste Management, Water Conservation, Wastewater Management, Renewable Energy Generation, Organic and Nutritional gardens/farming, Sustainable Livestock, Sustainable / Eco-friendly construction and many other aspects of SUSTAINABILITY. In addition to all this, Livelihoods is of utmost priority to all human beings, and hence, enabling Sustainable Livelihoods is what we are striving for. Thus, we believe that all the facets of Sustainability are interlinked, and providing a holistic approach always benefits the overall EcoSocial Development!

Your kind donations are welcome here https://www.recharkha.org/pages/support-in-cash

Wonderful! Thank you Amita and my best wishes on your journey ahead. Hope we get to see a branch of reCharkha on every High Street.

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