Educated youth are turning entrepreneurs in their own villages

There is a new breed of entrepreneurs operating in some of the poorest villages of India. And they are making accessible and affordable to the poor a range of products.

Be it through smoke efficient stoves or solar lanterns, sewing machines, affordable water purifiers, or Vitingo - zinc and iron rich nutritional drink meant to fight anemia among women and children, these Village Level Entrepreneurs (VLEs) are offering goods that are environment friendly and can help to improve the quality of life in villages.

The initiative is part of Project Dharma to create employment opportunities for the educated rural youth and address the problem of migration to a certain extent. Delhi- based social enterprise, Dharma’s objective is to scale up its attempt at creating “entrepreneurs who sell socially impacting products to consumers at the base of the pyramid.”

Founded in September 2009 in Pune, Project Dharma has since then created 600 village level entrepreneurs, 40 per cent of whom were previously unemployed. Around 25 per cent of the VLEs are women.

Gaurav Mehta, co-founder and CEO, Project Dharma says that it’s a two-pronged approach. At one level it is a multi-product marketing project, and at another it seeks to create jobs in the rural areas for young people.

Mr Mehta, who has been associated with Pratham, the voluntary organisation that runs schools in rural India, decided on Project Dharma when he realised that many of those passing out of schools did not have employment avenues in their local area. It also helps in reducing migration from the areas.

Dharma is closely supported by Shell Foundation, a social investment initiative of the oil major Royal Dutch Shell, to promote sustainable development. Shell started out with a small supportive grant to Dharma when it was involved in running an operation with 200 entrepreneurs but without a business model. It is now actively involved in upscaling of the model.

Dharma selects villages with below 5000 population and picks locals with minimum educational qualification of Class 10 and in the age group of 18-25, and trains them in sales and entrepreneurship. Currently, around 700-750 people are directly engaged with the project.

While Project Dharma has been operating in Maharashtra, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka so far, it aims to create 100,000 rural livelihoods by 2020, reaching out into more states.

Kamla Devi, a VLE in Musafirkhana, Uttar Pradesh, says that she has sold 25 Envirofit smokeless choolahs and large quantities of Vitingo. “Sales have helped me in income generation and I have been able to use this money to help my family,” she says. VLE’s do not need to invest much in the business as they are allowed to pick up products on credit from Dharma or can use a minimal seed amount of their own. “We first do research on what the village requires and then supply them with the product. Solar lanterns, smoke efficient stoves, sewing machines are products that villagers showed interest in”, explains Mr Mehta.

Since the VLEs are locals who have face-to-face interaction with consumers, they are able to build trust quickly too.

Anuradha Bhavnani, Regional Director, Shell Foundation says, “Through our strategic partnership with Project Dharma, we are creating a pioneering business model for rural markets that will reach out to the underserved.

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