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Introducing Sanghamitra, Business Incubator

 

Sundeep Pattem

On the joyous occasion of Babasaheb's 129th birthday, we are very excited to announce a new venture:

sanghamitra business incubator

Sanghamitra is a business incubator that aims to engage the creative energies of local communities in building socially conscious business practices and products. We are motivated to build local self-sufficiency via rooted knowledge, entrepreneurship, and apprenticeship. What follows is a sketch of our motivations and initial experiences. We welcome friends who have similar interests to explore working with us (online store: https://sanghamitra.store/, contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ).

Local self-sufficiency, production vs. consumption

Our first product is a humble face mask. This is how it happened: while following the global impact and implications of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the potentially critical role of face masks in preventing its spread, their immediate shortage globally, and volunteer groups forming to make masks at scale, it occurred to us to enquire about the mask situation in Wardha, Maharashtra (where one of us is from). While some masks were available, their rates had risen considerably and most of them were of the disposable variety. So we decided to explore making masks that could cover for any local shortages in quantity/quality and also make them durable/reusable for extended use. A quick survey of online marketplace sites showed that low-quality masks were selling at previously unbelievable prices, and so, if we could come up with a high-quality product and have a surplus over local needs, there could be a business opportunity to set up an online store. Hence https://sanghamitra.store/

In the midst of the pandemic, people in many countries are shell-shocked to find that their countries cannot start mass producing something as simple as a surgical facemask or protective gear for healthcare workers or essential medicines. The reason being that the materials needed were not being produced locally and hence production facilities for the same do not exist. The globalized supply chain was so tightly optimized for the cheapest immediate costs and apparent competitive advantage that there was no redundancy or contingency plan. Observers, such as Nassim Taleb, who had been warning of this impending disaster and were previously dismissed as cranks are now being heeded to as prophets.

A global rethinking is in order and local self-sufficiency at all levels (national, state, district, city, village) should become a necessary goal. In a recent interview with Round Table India, Gaurav Somwanshi laid out how the supply web operates and one can infer how, without such plans, some regions could be stuck with tons of grapes but not many vegetables.

masks for asha workers

Local mask distribution in neighborhood.

Rooted knowledge

With a countrywide lockdown announced literally in the midst of a meeting in which we decided to start producing masks, procuring cloth, elastic and filter material for the masks turned into an unexpected challenge. We soon found out that the local stocks of elastic had almost vanished. We had to investigate.

Who were the wholesalers in Wardha?

Sindhi banias.

Where did their stock go?

Hamare log bhi mask bana rahe hein.

Where did they get their supply from?

Surat.

The cloth was available, but only in a few patterns. Where could we get more patterns?

Nagpur, now inaccessible.

What does polypropylene filter material cost?

Rs. 300 a metre, but you have to buy at least 1000 metres from the wholesaler in Surat.

The situation was both exciting and frustrating. We had hardly, if ever, given thought to the local economy in this way. Between us, we had studied, discussed and worked on economics and finance over several years, but most of it had stayed in the abstract. This here felt very palpable, very real. And the Sindhi kaka had almost certainly never studied any of this, but he understood the local economy and economic relations like we never did, and in the here and now, he had power over us, because no one we knew locally was in the wholesale business.

National economy, world economy, micro, macro, economic history, capitalism vs. communism, development economics, poor economics, financial institutions, risk modeling and management, hard money, cryptocurrency. Of course, Bahujans should study all of this and more. However, it is pertinent to ask some questions: What role do Bahujans play in this economy? What kind of agency do Bahujans have to influence the economic structure and decision making at the national and international level? What is the situation at the local level?

It is probably human nature to believe that the real action is happening someplace else, but ambitious Bahujans need to build awareness, pay critical attention and connect the dots for what is going on wherever they are. This kind of rooted knowledge will hold them in good stead when they get to the big fish.

Education, skill development, apprenticeship

Here are some questions we ask and work on at Sanghamitra on a daily basis: What will it take for our maker to be a business owner? How can our artist launch a design studio? How does an educator cut deals and figure out scaling to mass production of a new product? What skills do they need to explore and develop? How can they help train apprentices - the next maker, artist, educator, entrepreneur?

Here is a bit of a caricature: Typically, most students across India spend many years preparing for competitive exams and completing degrees of very questionable value. They think about jobs and employment at the end of the course. On not finding a suitable job, they pursue a completely new course of study for better job prospects or further 'higher education', often because scholarships are available. At the end of this very long cycle, some may succeed in gaining jobs they are happy with, while others end up disillusioned and having to start again from scratch on finding a livelihood. This situation is compounded in the case of Bahujans, with many lacking approachable role models, guidance, and support structures in these fields.

Why are gifted Bahujans wasting so many years of valuable time chasing after this non-education leading to limited or no prospects? Even if these are the only available options, what kind of prior preparation do you need to have a fulfilling learning experience?

We assert that there are many better pathways and opportunities for all knowledge seekers, and especially the Bahujan.

■ Already, the best material for learning almost anything is available for free on the Internet. There are successful businesses that are delivering high-quality material, mentorship and skills training over the Internet at a small fraction of the cost, both in terms of time and money, of universities.
■ There is a need to focus on gaining skills, either relating to a particular passion/interest or known to be in-demand in the market. Apprenticeships, where less experienced newcomers gain skills by working with and benefit from the expertise of more seasoned practitioners, provide a natural way of learning and giving back.

masks for asha workers 1

Presenting 100 masks with thanks and free of charge to ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers at the Primary Healthcare Center (PHC) in Waifad, Wardha, Maharashtra, which serves a population of 90,000.

Bahujan entrepreneurship and economic capital accumulation

While there is a large number of Bahujan entrepreneurs, capital accumulation is still very low, and very far from being proportionate by population. Without capital accumulation and economic parity, there is little hope of achieving social and political parity. Of course, there already exist several support and mentorship groups working on this, and we hope to learn from them and bring something of our own to this shared endeavor.

There is a chicken and egg problem with capital. Those who have the most of it can easily get access to more and those who have the least and need it the most cannot get it. The peril of falling in debt and failing to repay is well understood and rightfully feared by the sensible. With Sanghamitra, we are exploring cooperative models for providing capital so that individuals are not taking on too much risk on their own. Right now, our team has voluntarily provided their time and services, from managing all operations on the ground to design to web development. With the right kind of vision, mission, and approach, we hope that many such contributions can be pooled in, and some of the obstacles usually faced by entrepreneurs can be smoothed over.

Skin in the game

We're in this to learn and experience the ups and downs and are currently working on launching several initiatives with our own capital. While we have combined experience across industry, government and nonprofits, we're pretty new to launching and running a business, let alone an incubator. Having been part of failed startups, job layoffs, failed political parties, prolonged unemployment, failed social initiatives, years and decades wasted in preparing for competitive exams and obtaining degrees, we have both the confidence and humility gained from experiencing and climbing out of failure.

Inspired by the determined, consistent efforts of Round Table India, The Shared Mirror, Prabuddha, Phule-Ambedkar Center for Anti-Caste Thought, and others in promoting Bahujan autonomy, knowledge production, and dissemination and community building, we hope to achieve the same in proportionate capital accumulation and economic parity with the Sanghamitra Incubator.

We welcome friends who have similar interests to explore working with us.

Jai Bhim!

Kapil Wankhede, Sonali M, Santoshi Pattem, Sundeep Pattem

Online store: https://sanghamitra.store/
Contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

~~~

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