Friday, April 11, 2008

XLer as Social Entrepreneur: Aparna Banerjee

From The Hindu Business Line

Further information on Project Sukanya website

Manned by women
Soma Mitra
Aparna Banerjee's mobile retail chain, Project Sukanya.

On the move: In six months, nearly 500 such 'boucarts', will be launched. WFS

Big retail chains such as Reliance Fresh, Spencer's Daily and Big Bazaar have competition. Not from a rival business group, but from a Kolkata-based enterprising woman - Aparna Banerjee. An alumni of the prestigious Xavier Labour Relations Institute (XLRI) in Jamshedpur, Bihar, Aparna, 36, retails her goods under the name of Project Sukanya. Interestingly, the goods are not sold from huge showrooms, but from 54 roadside mobile kiosks, manned by 141 women who work in shifts. Another 3,500 women directly benefit from this project by making products such as handicraft items, edibles like papad , pickles and jams. Packaged spices and ready-to-eat lunches are also sold. And in the next six months 500 more `boucarts' would be deployed across 18 districts, again manned by women.

"When I got the idea of these mobile kiosks, my first step was to finalise the design and patent it under the Intellectual Property Rights Act.," says Aparna. The project was the result of extensive research based on material gathered from 62 villages across India during her studies on Anthropology at Calcutta University.

"I did my MBA in Logistics and Supply Chain Management from XLRI and realised during that time that I wanted to become a social entrepreneur. I then did a course in Anthropology to get a grip on human rights. I realised that women need financial independence to get freedom from restrictions, abuse and social taboos," says Aparna, who struggled to complete her studies under great financial constraints.

She realised that marketing was the bottleneck of small-scale enterprises and blocking cash within a supply chain was not advisable. "I found that retail was the only option. But setting up huge retail space was beyond my capabilities. I hit upon the mobile kiosk idea and worked on it for two years, getting all required permissions and licences to place them on the roads. No loophole was left open. The carts are manufactured at our own unit," she adds.

PM, CM encouragement

When Aparna sent her pilot Project Sukanya to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) in 2005, the PM encouraged her to go ahead, assuring assistance in case of hurdles. When apprised, Chief Minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, also instructed his secretariat to offer support. The attractively-designed sleek kiosks, which are placed at major crossings in the city, easily catch the eye. The apron-clad women manning them are polite and knowledgeable about the products. Kakoli Das, 24, is one of the smiling faces at the Rashbehari kiosk. "We don't have any problems with the police regarding parking of our kiosk. Our paperwork is watertight. The customers, too, are friendly. We get repeat clients on a regular basis now."

The turnover for the Project, which started rolling in early 2007, has already reached Rs 1.05 crore. The target is to touch Rs 50 crore by 2009. "We market a range of handicrafts and home-made edibles under the brand name Sukanya. The organised sector never bothered to tap the potential of the cottage industry, but we are giving a brand identity to these products," says Sudakshina Sen, 43,Chief Coordinator, Project Sukanya.

Project Sukanya has a 20,000 sq. ft. common facility centre at Topsia. The rural women who supply the products come here with their samples.

The products are graded into three categories. Under A category, the product is immediately bought with a 10 per cent advance. For the B category products, Sukanya gives support for better packaging and then it is bought. Falling under the C category are products that have market saturation. Sukanya trains these women to shift focus to products that would have more market demand.

`I am committed'

The edible products are tested and certified by the central government's National Test House. The success of the venture is obvious from the fact that several big retail chains have started making offers to buy out Project Sukanya as well as the patent for the mobile kiosks.

"But I am committed towards my social responsibility. Rather than entrepreneurship, it is the emancipation of women that is my primary concern. My venture helps several needy women take home a well-earned salary," says Aparna.

Success stories

All women within the project are, as Aparna puts it, "those in need of a livelihood". Jayanti Chatterjee, 49, from Baharu village in South 24 Parganas district, responded to one of the first advertisements placed by Sukanya in a newspaper and approached Aparna for a job.

A school dropout, Jayanti had done menial jobs for over three decades and had managed to send her six siblings to school. However, they all went their ways once they were well settled, leaving her to cope with an ailing mother. Jayanti, who is in charge of the Sukanya Tollygunge kiosk, today earns a regular Rs 3,000. She and her mother now reside in a rented one-room unit in Kolkata.

Swapna Dutta, 50, was dumped by her husband during the initial years of their marriage. She managed to educate her son up to higher secondary by doing odd jobs. However, when he secured admission to an engineering college, Swapna found herself helpless.

The Sukanya project came to her rescue and she pays the tuition fee from her regular monthly salary of Rs 2,800. On the anvil for Aparna is a rural initiative. Project Sukanya is set to adopt a village, offering alternative livelihood development. "There are many villages which have poor irrigation or flooding problems that restrict agriculture activity. I have approached the government for adopting one such village to set up the Sukanya Village Common Facility Centre," says Aparna.

"It's a Chinese model for promotion of alternative employment. We would provide the infrastructure and training required for setting up the centre," she adds. Sukanya is also set to spread its wings beyond West Bengal with 30 new outlets. Groups of needy women have already been identified in States such as Kashmir from where consignments of saffron and apples have already arrived to be sold from the mobile kiosks. Here too, it is women who are at the back and front ends of operations.

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