For an average urban consumer, scores of apps for doorstep food and grocery delivery services fight for screen space on his or her smartphone. But, even in 2019, thousands of villagers in India have to walk miles to access the basic minimum.
Similarly, most of the grocery products found in the modular kitchens of Tier-1 cities are mass-produced by large-scale corporate firms, allowing little profit for the farmer toiling hard in sun and rain.
While most choose to be oblivious towards the struggles of the village farmers and their families, one man from Andhra Pradesh was iron-willed to be an extra pillar of support.
No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank
While working in England as a software engineer, Lova Raju Katari from Rajahmundry used to reflect upon a piece of news his father had read out to him in childhood – how a farmer family perished to death unable to bear their debt burden. “As a child, it struck me how the family desperately wanted to provide a decent education to their son but failed. From that day, I always thought of doing something for such farmer families which cannot support their children’s education,” shares Lova Raju, in a heartfelt conversation with Efforts For Good.
He is the founder of Village Dukaan – which delivers products from farmers’ homes to city inhabitants, without the involvement of any middleman, thus ensuring that a substantial profit goes to the farmers.
Farmer Suicides Deeply Affected Lova Raju
During 2011-12, a large number of farmer suicides became a terrifying reality in India, especially in Lova Raju’s home state Andhra Pradesh. At that time, Lova Raju was at the prime of his career in England. However, this news unsettled him deeply. Previously, he had tried to launch an initiative for educating underprivileged children in Rajahmundry and adjoining villages. But, to his disappointment, he failed to find any student who was truly keen on pursuing his education.
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“So, I thought if I can somehow help the families earn a decent income, they would automatically ensure that their children avail proper schooling,” shares Lova Raju. So, in 2012, Lova Raju returned to India and started exploring the villages, trying to get a first-hand idea about the farmers’ plight.
Understanding The Deep-Rooted Distress Of Indian Farmers
“I would not directly go and talk to them. Rather I would be on my way and observe their daily lives from a distance. I found that the landless farmers were the most distressed. The landowners lease off their plots to these farmers and collect a major portion of the produce after the harvest. As a result, the farmers were left with little to run their families,” he recalls.
Lova Raju spent around three years in surveying and reflecting upon the condition of the farmers in Andhra Pradesh. He brainstormed day and night to figure out a feasible way to help them. “That’s how Village Dukaan came into being,” he narrates.
The story behind Village Dukaan’s name will give readers an idea of how passionate Lova Raju is about his initiative.
He shares, “The first name was Village Shoppers. But, it lacked the emotional connection that I wanted to foster with the people. So, I zeroed in on ‘Village Dukaan’. There have been days when I would practise saying the name out loud in my room, for hours at a stretch. After a point, I would feel a deep connection with the name. That’s when I knew it was perfect.”
Eliminating The Middleman From The Product Chain
Lova Raju’s main target was to eliminate the middleman from the marketing chain, thus channelising the major portion of the profit to the farmers. At first, he got recruited a student to work for him on weekends.
Sagar was a student of 11th standard back then, who wanted to fund his own education through the weekend job. He would cycle around villages, going door to door and identifying grains, groceries and homemade food products which can feature on the e-shelves of Village Dukaan. As per Lova Raju’s instruction, he would also pitch the idea of the shop to the uninitiated farmers.
At the same time, he roped in potential customers from Rajahmundry who expressed their eagerness to be a part of this ‘desi’ doorstep delivery services.
Gathering all the information from Sagar, Lova Raju would write down all the details on the four walls of his bedroom in London, spending hours on connecting the dots to a beautiful future.
Nobody Believed In Lova Raju’s Idea
“They said my idea was a sure shot failure. They brushed off my appeals and advised me to stall my initiative before I run into losses,” Lova Raju speaks about the investors who, one after another, turned down his business idea.
He thus started fundraising – approaching his friends in India as well as in the UK. Some of these friends were the same ones who had once helped him to buy his first ticket to London.
Despite Lova Raju’s honest confession that it would take him years to repay them, his well-wishers chipped in graciously.
The Days Of Struggle
In June 2016, Lova Raju sent his wife back to his hometown to start the on-ground work on his behalf, while he worked on developing the Village Dukaan website.
“At that time, I would wake up at 4 AM to start working, then head to the office at 8 AM, and resumed the website work late at night. For two long years, I knew no holidays, vacations or even weekends,” he remembers.
The work before the final launch was slow, painstaking and unquestionably hard. So much so that his friends started losing faith in him. The stress, the sleepless nights and the hard work led Lova Raju to suffer from a prolonged phase of severe illness. He continued his work even from bed. Finally, all his efforts came round when Village Dukaan was officially launched in May 2018.
We started with 30 products. Within two months the number increased to 700. In six months, Village Dukaan expanded beyond expectations and Lova Raju had to recruit a team of full-timers, starting with his first employee – Sagar. Aside from Rajahmundry, Village Dukaan is now delivering to Hyderabad, Pune, Mumbai and Bengaluru as well.
Village Dukaan’s Secret To Success
Village Dukaan maintains a very unique and transparent way of operations. Their eight delivery personnel deliver rice, pulses, grains, honey as well as homemade food products like pickles, sweets, jams, jellies, chutneys etc.
Traditional delicacies from Andhra kitchens and lost recipes from grandmother’s cookbooks are the speciality of Village Dukaan. Sustainable packaging in traditional clay pots or leaf packages is another striking characteristic for Village Dukaan.
Explaining their working mechanism, Lova Raju cited the example of a paddy farmer they recently welcomed to the network. He quoted to sell his 2019 winter harvest of rice at Rs 1400 for 70 kgs. Village Dukaan offered him Rs 1700 for the same quantity. With the extra Rs 300, the farmer has been instructed to mill the husked paddy grains into the rice. The rice is available for pre-order now on their website.
The most interesting feature about Village Dukaan is that Lova Raju publicly shares both positive and negative feedback of a product. For him, quality is the utmost priority.
“I didn’t start this enterprise to make money or impress others. I am accountable for my products to the customers. So, if a product is below-the-par, I have to convey the same to the producer/farmer. That way, they will also learn to practice honest business,” his words express his unflinching integrity.
With the extension of the lockdown the crisis of migrant labourers and daily wagers has just grown bigger due to uncertainty and fear of future. In the migrant colonies, slums and for people in the villages hunger and desperation is building up day by day. This is high time we step up our efforts to support our people who are in dire need of food and hygiene essentials to survive the pandemic, Covid-19.
After the India-wide lockdown, a lot of jobless migrant workers are stuck in cities with hardly any resources while many started retreating back to their villages. With the loss of livelihoods, a large number of them are now struggling to support their families.
Goonj activated its pan India teams and a pan India network of partner organizations and volunteers in urban and rural India. This network, built over the last two decades, helps them learn from the ground, reach material quickly and review and adapt strategy periodically. Intensifying this network has helped Goonj reach and start work across 17produced states/UT in the last three weeks.
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Majority of the Covid-19 relief work by non profits right now is in the metros and cities but Goonj is the only non profit that is also simultaneously focusing on the people in the villages and the ones stuck on highways or somewhere.
Goonj is targeting daily wagers, migrants and other vulnerable groups, who even traditionally are left out like the disabled, sex workers, LGBTQ community.
“COVID-19 is a crisis, yes…But, it’s also an opportunity for us to build the society anew. Not ‘for’ the people…but, ‘with’ the people. And in the process, we will build ourselves too.” – Anshu Gupta, Founder-Director, Goonj.
Direct Monetary and Material Transfer
Wherever Goonj got the permission to open their centres for packing and disbursement of relief material kits, they are creating a kit consisting of 20-30 kgs material including dry rations, masks, sanitary pads and other hygiene material and reaching them to people, as per needs and as per regulations with all safety precautions. This kit will help a family survive for 30 days.
Information till 10th April 2020:
Distributed 15,100 ration kits reaching thousands of people
Reached 17,700 families
Supporting 12 community kitchen across India with 16,600kgs of ration
77,800 food packets provided to migrant laborers and daily wagers walking on the roads across the country.
Provided direct financial support to 32 organisations
In Goonj’s processing centers its trained team of women are making cloth face masks and cloth sanitary pads (MY-Pads), keeping all the precautions and with the permission and cooperation of the local authorities.
In this lock-down phase if you are facing any difficulty getting sanitary pads or you are running out of stock, here’s a detailed but very simple process of making Cloth Pads at home created by Goonj. “This is how we make Goonj MY Pads.” This is how our mothers and grandmothers turned their spare cloth into pads.
This disaster, unlike any other, is unprecedented in its scale and impact and that’s why we all must do our bit with Goonj to continue its relief work for millions of people in this still unfolding long-tailed disaster.