How a group of women is spearheading an eco-conscious movement in Thiruvannamalai


Wild Ideas, a rural livelihood programme for and by women, is focusing on skill development and turning households chemical-free

Imagine a lush rain-soaked landscape, where clouds kiss the hilltops, and nature paints trees with delicious shades of green. Wild Ideas is nestled is one such place. “It is a transformative enterprise, not a transactional one,” says Maithreyi Lakshmi Ratan, describing Wild Ideas, a rural livelihood programme for and by women, in Thiruvannamalai.

The project has been a decade in the making. Maithreyi, who studied artificial intelligence, computer science and psychology in the US, and her architect husband, Ajay Nityananda purchased land in Chengalpet in 2008, for farming. Then, Ajay moved to Thiruvannamalai for construction of Marutham Farm School. Wild Ideas, started in 2014, was born of a desire to connect with the earth, as they started a family.

“We didn’t want a set of checkboxes for our children’s education. In the urban expanse, there is no handshake with the earth, just conspicuous consumption, and with accumulation of the external, there is shrinking inner space,” explains Maithreyi. Their home in Thiruvannamalai, built with lime walls, oxide flooring, bamboo and reclaimed wood, is completely off the grid. “We generated solar power, treated our own sewage, composted our waste, but realised we were contaminating our water with the chemicals used in all our cleaning products. So I drew up a long list, and started scouring recipes for natural cleaners,” she adds.

How a group of women is spearheading an eco-conscious movement in Thiruvannamalai

Maithreyi rests comfortably on the cool floor in her living room, as a steady drizzle chimes in as background score. “Elders in tribal groups, friends, and family shared their knowledge of amazing recipes and ideas. We further experimented, perfected proportions, tested the products, and employed locally-available ingredients. Soon the household was 100% chemical-free.”

Friends and family using the products found them effective. “It was at this time that we started meeting a number of women from the neighbourhood who were burdened with debt, violence, disenfranchisement, and family issues. People needed economic independence and we had products that if sold, could provide them a viable livelihood besides being a way to clean our water systems. Thus began Wild Ideas.”

A short walk away from Maithreyi’s home, stand five simple structures, that house everything created at Wild Ideas — vadams, soaps, dishwash and laundry powder and liquids, palm baskets, and cotton bags. Women in their late 20s into the early 80s work happily together. In one hut, Sennamal paati sits with rice and ragi vadams drying on a stand next to her while the next unit houses an oven that will create just the right texture for the snack.

How a group of women is spearheading an eco-conscious movement in Thiruvannamalai

Recycled brown paper is used for packaging all the cleaners, the bestsellers at Wild Ideas. The gorgeous botanical visuals on them steal the show. “That’s all Ajay, he’s the design force behind us,” says Maithreyi. Most of the women have barely finished primary school education, and the varied floral motifs are with which they distinguish labels for packaging.

Vetiver, eucalyptus, patchouli and turmeric soaps are mixed and poured in moulds at one end of the largest unit. Bamboo shelves house packaged products, that carry a distinct ‘know your producer’ seal.

Outside on a verandah, rainbow-hued palm strips are being fashioned into roti baskets, holdalls, laundry bins, torans and gift boxes. All the women, except those who sew cotton bags at the tailoring unit, rotate roles. They learn about procurement, billing, customer service calls, and this gives them a sense of ownership of the business. Profits from sales go back to the women.

All the ingredients are sourced from forests with certified pickers, or from local farms and vendors, who ensure a chemical free supply chain. The year 2020 will be exciting for the team, with the launch of 15 new products and a spiffy new facility that can house more employees and materials.

How a group of women is spearheading an eco-conscious movement in Thiruvannamalai

The journey so far has not been entirely smooth. “Starting a business of this kind and scaling up is not easy,” says Maithreyi adding that she wants to lay the groundwork so that “women can sustain this enterprise on their own.”

The focus has been skill building to ensure timely manufacture, consistency, quality and punctual delivery and capacity building so the women can take on leadership roles.

“By taking care of the women and their families, we have seen zero attrition. There is stability in their monthly salaries, despite fluctuation of revenues,” sums up Maithreyi, as she packs an order of seasonal decorations that will make its way across the country.

She adds, “From our very first order at Restore in Chennai in July 2014 to where we stand today, it’s been the same mantra — be good to yourself, your home and the earth.”

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2020 11:03:03 PM |

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