Five years ago, Fatima Anis Sheikh (34) could not hold a brush in her hand; much less draw. Today, she is able to draw beautiful designs and even takes art classes. Like her, Kamrunissa Bhat (38) had never heard of or seen a tissue box or paper folders that she is now such an expert at making. “Four years ago, my life revolved around raising four children and doing the household chores. While I always wished to improve the financial condition at home and give my children a good education, I never believed I could do anything for a living as I had no formal education,” she says.
Ms Sheikh and Ms. Bhat earn around Rs. 6,500 per month for four hours of work each day, and Ms. Bhat is proud to be able to send her children to a private school. The demand is greater during the festive season, and the women put in more hours.
Shalini Datta (38), a chemical engineer by training, is responsible for a turnaround in their lives. Like them, she has touched the lives of 23 other women in Malad’s Ambujwadi slum through Aftertaste, which she started in 2013.
Born in Agartala, Tripura, Ms. Datta’s desire to do something for society stems from her childhood. Her father headed the orthopaedics department in a government hospital and treated many patients from remote areas. “My mother would open the house to the patients’ families as they did not have money to live elsewhere,” she says. It was this gesture that infused the values of compassion, service and empathy at an early age in her.
After completing her engineering in 2000, Ms. Datta worked with companies in Pune and Kolkata, and within six years, was an active participant in the Corporate Social Responsibility activities of both companies. “However, I realised that I was unable to do anything concrete for society. I did not want to be part of a passive discussion in a cubicle.” So she quit her job in December 2009.
Unsure of her next career move, Ms. Datta applied for a Teach for India fellowship in January 2010 and got selected. With a stipend of Rs. 15,000, Ms. Datta started teaching in the BMC School, Malwani, Malad where most of the children came from Ambujwadi and the slums nearby.
“Two years of teaching helped me develop a deep understanding of the socio-economic challenges that women in low-income communities faced. Their stories of relentless struggle and their hope to change their circumstances made me feel the need to empower them through economic independence. That sowed the seeds for Aftertaste,” says Ms Datta.
Her regular interaction with her students’ mothers helped her develop a bond with them and their families. This helped her to convince the women to join her in starting up the enterprise that would not only give them financial stability but also help them become self-reliant.
Aftertaste took off in September 2012 with three women. “The name was suggested by a friend, who said the joy that comes with our products should stay with people for a long time after they are bought,” says Ms. Datta. Although not a trained artist, Ms. Datta was good at art and craft, and decided to train the women in paper craft, drawing etc.
The women started their training in an 8x8 ft room in Ambujwadi slum. Within a few months, they had created around 50 folders, bags and lamps, which were showcased at a corporate exhibition in January 2013.
“The exhibition was a huge success and proved to be a turning point for us,” says Ms. Bhat. Gradually, more women joined in. At present, the women work for 24-25 days a month and design and paint over 20 types of products.
Funds and revenue generation
Initially, Ms. Datta herself put in her savings but with the help of exhibitions in corporate offices and educational institutions, Aftertaste began to sustain itself.
Depending on the hours of work, the women are paid a salary ranging from Rs. 6,000 to Rs. 10,000 for four and seven hours of work respectively. “There are months when we have a lean period and sales are negligible,” says Ms. Datta. To be able to sustain themselves during such periods, Aftertaste has collaborated with another foundation, which provides them financial help whenever needed
Aftertaste receives orders through its Facebook page, which has around 1,900 followers. It also has a following on Instagram. However, the biggest challenge is generating enough sales to sustain itself and expand its reach.
With Aftertaste’s intervention, 25 women have been transformed to skilled artists. Most of them send their children to schools and colleges and even have their own bank accounts. “It is comforting that we are able to earn our livelihood without compromising on our domestic responsibilities and at the same time, get an opportunity to learn new skills and work together in a healthy environment,” says Ms. Bhat.
Shehnaaz Sheikh (40), who has been associated with Aftertaste for the past three years says, “I am happy to be able to shoulder responsibility of the family along with my husband, a rickshaw driver. I can now fulfill my children’s desires.” Ms. Sheikh, who has participated in many exhibitions, now feels confident enough to travel on her own and train many other women.
For Salma Begum (45) too, Aftertaste is a “boon”. When her husband died a few years ago, she was devastated, and unsure of how to take care of her four children. “With no education and skill, finding a job was impossible.” She puts in seven-and-a-half hours of work each day and earns Rs. 10,000. Her children too go to private schools.
For Ms. Datta, however, this is a small beginning. “Our dream is to scale this enterprise to 100 underprivileged women in the next couple of years in various parts of Mumbai through the creation of sustainable livelihood opportunities.”
Founder: Shalini Datta
Funding: Self, donations