• Niraj Joshi

How 'make in rural India' can help to resolve issues of waste-management, globally.

Updated: Dec 7, 2020

Most of us have been witness to the growing use of Styrofoam (commonly referred to as Thermocol) dinnerware in social functions ranging from birthday parties to weddings and international conferences. More recently this has become ubiquitous with the rise of take-away food culture part of the growing disposable incomes (and disposable dinnerware) in urban India. This use-and-throw culture adopted blindly from the west in recent decades has led to a huge solid-waste management challenge in India. According to the Central Pollution Control Board of India’s 2017-18 annual report, estimated plastic waste generated in India in 2017-18 was pegged at 660,788 tonnes, enough to fill 66,079 trucks at 10 tonnes a truck. Scarily however, this estimate is only a fraction of the real situation in more than 60 percent of India’s states and union territories as only 14 (less than 50%) of India’s 35 regional pollution boards filed information on plastic waste generation in 2017-18 .

Fortunately for India, its abundant biomass has always been put to innovative use through the age old tradition of recycling and reusing resources. One can still find rural communities using plates, bowls etc made from the ubiquitous Khakhra a.k.a. “Flame of the forest tree” leaves or the Areca nut palm leaf sheath plates widely used in parts of Southern and Eastern India are slowly are now being replaced by cheaper Styrofoam counterparts. Assam, a northeast state of India is plagued by ethnic conflicts coupled with high rate of unemployment. A young team of entrepreneurs led by Arindam Dasgupta, an alumnus of the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA) ably supported by Anirban Gupta, Nidhi Chopra, Manabendra Pathak and Debaleena Dasgupta, have found a solution to this vexing problem through their social enterprise, the Tamul Plates Marketing Private limited (Tamul henceforth). Operating from remote Barpeta town in Assam, which is located in the ethnic conflict prone region of Bodoland, the enterprise is not only providing a dignified livelihood to thousands in the North-eastern states but also fighting to save our planet from this Styrofoam scourge. Arindam and Anirban were schoolmates and got together in early 2004 to found Dhriiti, a non-profit to support micro and small enterprises to promote livelihoods. At Tamul local youth were trained to produce dinnerware from the waste of the Tamul tree (areca nut palm) which is abundantly grown across the northeastern states.

The social in the enterprise

Tamul Plates originated in Assam in Northeastern India. The name Assam is derived from the word “asama,” meaning peerless, or unrivalled, in the now-extinct ‘Ahom’ language. The state’s physical beauty does justice to its name, boasting majestic Himalayas, the great river systems of the Brahmaputra and Barak, and the one-horned rhinoceros. Unfortunately, this natural richness is in stark contrast to the social and economic issues that plague the state. With a fast growing population, now reaching over 31 million, Assam lags behind the Indian average on all Human Development Indicators (HDIs), especially on those relating to per capita income. One of the causes can be attributed to the high unemployment rates, predominantly in rural areas. Indeed, the unemployment rate is now reaching about 8% which is the highest in Northeastern India. In recent years, the situation has deteriorated, affecting predominantly youth who now face a greater risk of unemployment. In turn, the difficult labour market in Northeast India is seen as one of the primary causes for the increasing insurgencies and terrorism which affect the area, with recruits being drawn mainly from unemployed youth. Recognizing these issues, the founders of Tamul Plates decided to promote non-farm employment opportunities for rural youth, ensuring steady incomes from credible alternatives to agricultural employment.

Tamul Plates originated as a livelihood programme under Dhriiti, a non-profit initially based in Barpeta, Assam, which promoted arecanut leaf plate-making in the poorest districts of Assam: Baksa, Bongaigon, Barpeta, and Chirang (collectively referred to as ‘Lower Assam’). Dhritii’s model leveraged grant funding to provide indirect credit support and technical knowledge to low-income households, helping the first few village-level entrepreneurs for leaf plate manufacturing in the region. Over time, the organization’s founders recognized that a for-profit model would enable sustainable operations, and so established Tamul Plates in August 2009. This move brought three significant changes in organization strategy. First, a greater focus on creating a strong end-market through coordinated marketing of the disposable areca nut tableware. Second, simultaneous expansion of manufacturing operations, encouraging village-level entrepreneurs in other districts of Assam such as Tinsukia, Lakhimpur, and Cachar (commonly referred to as ‘Upper Assam’7), and expanding to districts in other states such as Meghalaya (West Garo Hills and Ribhoi districts) and West Bengal (Jalpaiguri district). Third, a transition from indirect credit support for households to facilitating loans through established banks. Tamul has since spun off as a separate social enterprise with a combination of centralized and decentralized production units. More than 3000 unemployed youth including men and women from marginalized social communities have found a local and seasonal source of employment thanks to Tamul’s efforts! These youth are residents of some of the most remote locations of districts like Baksa, Chirang, Cachar and Bongaigaon.

These steps not only streamlined operations from a business perspective, but also enabled Tamul Plates to create a bigger geographical impact. By providing manufacturing technology and market linkages, Tamul Plates has supported 100 village level entrepreneurs across three states in the region and created alternative employment for more than 500 households. Arindam initially thought that any entrepreneur coming up with a brilliant idea to solve the unemployment problem in one of the most strife torn states of the country would be embraced with open arms by the state, but far from it!! He faced huge challenges beginning from refusal for a small start-up loan to almost losing out on an international investor due to changes in the company laws.

This was partly due to the delay in receiving a major international grant of USD 62,800 which arose because of changes in regulations. The lack of collateral meant that Tamul was unable to apply for a bank loan instead and the enterprise struggled to secure the working capital to pre-finance input materials. As a result, the enterprise missed its intended business targets for the year in terms of turnover and investment funds raised. Indeed, one of the main challenges Tamul has experienced revolved around the lack of working capital. This has affected their purchase of raw materials, their own production of plates, and their ability to purchase plates from affiliated producers. Tamul’s starting budget was INR 4.5 million including INR 0.9 million from capital investment and INR 3.5 million from loans, both obtained from its network of supporters, employees and plate producers. For three consecutive years, the enterprise experienced a growth of about 100% per year. However, in 2014 sales growth declined and the enterprise incurred a loss.

Tamul’s social impact

Social impact has been created by Tamul as a result of employment and additional income that is secured along the value chain. As of 2018, around 1,000 arecanut leaf collectors were earning an income of up to USD 160 per month (seasonal). For many, this was the only source of cash income complementing subsistence farming. In 2014, Tamul had already raised sheath procurement prices by 30%, increasing income at the first step of the value chain. As 75% of those collectors are women, income is spent largely on improved diets and children’s education (Baseline survey, Upaya social ventures, 2014). Local youth have been provided with skills training which enables them to find employment with local village level plate production units, or even to set up their own unit. Each of the 110 initially established village unit consisted of 4-5 people. 90% of the units were run by men. While Tamul initially concentrated mainly on training and employing young men in the production of plates, it has more recently begun fostering women’s empowerment, encouraging women to set up smaller household-level production units and to become entrepreneurs. Thus by and large, around 500 young men and 400 women are working in the external production units and have received training on the job or in formal training


Government support

Increasingly governments are looking for entrepreneurs and other opportunities for a public-private partnership. In Tamul’s case, the government did at one time buy into their local entrepreneurship promotion idea and supported this through the purchase of machines and sponsoring of capacity building of unemployed youths in Assam. However, this supply of machines was to be channelled through Self-help groups only and not to individual micro entrepreneurs as per government guidelines. This actually did not work out as groups did not have ownership over maintenance of machines and many became defunct. However, individual entrepreneurs who invested in machines survived and thrived! Thus the enterprise went through a series of phases reminiscent of roller coaster rides.

However, to their credit Tamul’s founders still managed to keep it afloat through loans (at a steep rate of interest) from a surprisingly friendly lender who despite the fluctuating fortunes of the enterprise has remained invested in the enterprise. To be fair though, Tamul on its part has managed to pay up all their EMIs on time and have now launched two exclusively women run export units near Guwahati! Their commitment to rural development remains strong! Tamul’s journey also demonstrates the dire need of an enabling ecosystem to keep such unique social enterprises afloat in their incubation and post incubation growth phases as well as the need for blended finance.

For me, investigating the case of Tamul as a social enterprise has personally and professionally been a very enriching experience. Not only have I made very good friends in Assam, I would not have really understood the opportunities and challenges well enough had I not been to the scene of action.

I strongly believe that by visiting the field and interacting first hand with the social entrepreneurs to understand what motivates them, how they innovate to stay afloat despite daunting challenges, how they tweak their supply chains to ensure social inclusion and leverage blended finance to overcome production and social challenges such as ethnic conflicts etc.

In Tamul’s case I was additionally interested to find out how ‘green’ the enterprise was and therefore my field visits also included closely examining the centralised as well as de-centralised production units at ground zero.

Niraj Udayan Joshi completed his Doctorate studying India’s emerging eco-enterprises, which are a type of social enterprise. He has more than twenty years of experience working with leading national and international non-profits. Apart from teaching and research on development issues, he enjoys studying birds and contributing to books such as the State of India’s Birds as part of the citizen science movement.

He can be reached at: niraj.joshi@alum.cept.ac.in