The Indian Adventure: Purushwadi and Grassroutes

2014-03-04 07.29.03I had now been in India for 8 days, and all of the consultancy work in Mumbai was complete. As part of the trip, I had been fortunate enough to be invited to spend a few nights in Purushwadi, which is a village in central India. It was a 5 hour coach ride, during which time I witnessed some ‘interesting’ motorway driving and some breath-taking scenery. What made Purushwadi so special was that it was a self-sustaining village which had no electricity of running water. This was facilitated by an organisation called Grassroutes, who do a lot of work abroad to help educate people on the way in which other cultures live.

Because of Grassroutes direct link with Purushwadi, portable toilets with occasional running water had been installed for visitors; as had concrete block tents. As you can imagine sleeping on a concrete block mattress wasn’t the most comfortable, but after a long day, where I slept was irrelevant.

The village itself was incredible; stray animals were common – we seemed to adopt a dog – and the villagers were very resourceful. I quickly discovered that dung was used to insulate houses, which, if applied correctly, created a smooth floor, kept houses cool and in fact had no fragrance at all. The amount of work which everyone undertook on a daily basis, sowing and picking crops was astounding. Something which will live long in my memory is playing cricket with the local kids, who, of course, were far better than any of us.

The views were amazing; given that there was no electricity and that we were on the equator, you wake up when the sun comes up – around 6am – and you go to bed when the sun goes down; by 8pm it was pitch black. Without artificial lights which curse our skies, the sky was lit up by hundreds of stars, something I had never witnessed.

From a business point of view, it was a huge personal learning experience. In the west we are focused on material possessions and working for money, because that’s the culture in which we live. In Purushwadi, they have no need for money; everyone eats from the land and works hard to ensure that food is available for themselves and their community. People seemed incredibly content and probably happier given that they didn’t have the constant worry of how they were going to afford to pay bills. Of course there are obvious drawbacks, most importantly the lack of healthcare, however, this had been countered by their link with Grassroutes, who made a Doctor available to them regularly.

I left Purushwadi after 3 days having had an unforgettable experience which opened my eyes and changed my opinions on so many things. Upon returning to Mumbai, I had 9 hours until making my way to Mumbai International Airport to begin my epic 14 hour return journey. Without a shadow of a doubt, my view on ‘international development’ had been hugely altered (no doubt a topic I will discuss in the future), and I had learnt a great deal about business abroad and been proud to have had a part in 3 such ambitious and successful growing social ventures.

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The Indian Adventure: Mirakle Couriers

Before working with the third and final social enterprise, I had the opportunity to meet some of Senior Management Team from RBS India, who had worked with RBS in the UK to recruit and deliver individuals to work with these high potential social enterprises on this consultancy project. I also had the chance to meet the Directorate of India’s UKTI, again providing a valuable insight into how business is done in India and how quickly the economy is emerging and growing in line with the UK.

The third venture was Mirakle Couriers. Mirakle Couriers is a delivery company which only employs deaf people. In India, there is still a view, which would be considered dated in the UK, that people with a disability are socially inferior. For obvious reasons this can mean that people who are born deaf never have the opportunity to get employment and the opportunity to develop real life skills and live normal lives in this sense. By basing their service on this group of people, they buck the trend and have already seen some fantastic results, both from the employees and from those using the courier service.

Through the use of writing boards, employees can deliver packages in the same way as any other courier service, but with the added benefit of breaking down this social perception, enhancing the employability of their staff and removing the social isolation which can occur with this group. In fact, the service has been so successful that many clients believe that the personal service offered by Mirakle Couriers outweighs that of the major players in the sector.

There were certainly synergies between the challenges faced by Mirakle Couriers and the other social enterprises I had worked with in India – in fact, many UK social enterprises encounter the same issue; namely, that of branding. There is often a difficult trade-off between promoting an organisation’s social values and the underlying theory of change which provides the foundations for the enterprise and the quality of product or service. Often the additional social element can create a competitive advantage from other competitors in that sector, although similarly it can be a deterrent. In Mirakle Courier’s case, given the social perceptions of people with disabilities in India, many potential clients wouldn’t use the service for this reason. However, all those who used the service felt that it was an efficient, personable and reliable service.

In general terms, given how strongly the Founders can feel about their social mission, promoting the enterprise purely based on the quality of the product or service delivered rather than the social aims can be challenging. But in this case, as in many others, this would increase the demand for the service, which in turn contributes towards the social objectives; the more people who use the service, the more deaf people they can employ and the further this group can enhance their skills. Ultimately this is what was suggested, and then worked on with Mirakle Couriers.

This topic has created much debate in the social enterprise arena, but what Company Directors must ask themselves is: do they want to deliver as much of their social good as possible, even if it means not fully promoting their cause, or do they want to fully advertise their social objectives and attempt to increase awareness for the issue, even if it means lower sales?

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The Indian Adventure: the beginning

Gateway to IndiaHaving had the opportunity to live and work in France and Italy, when I was given the chance by RBS and Birmingham Leadership Foundation to go to India to work with three growing social enterprises as a consultant, I didn’t need to be asked twice!

Arriving at Mumbai International airport following a 10 hour flight via Istanbul – which seemed more like a street market than an airport: people everywhere with no real sense of where anything was – I was initially struck by the humidity. I finally got through immigration and out of the airport at 6am local time, the heat and humidity punching me in the face. It was then that I had my first experience of Indian roads…lunacy! Considering the time, in the UK the roads would be quite empty, not so in India. Cars littered the road and the sound of constant honking was alien to me. I’m told that people drive on the left-hand side of the road in India, although I remain unconvinced. However, I quickly adapted to this element of Indian life, and in fact, it soon became a highlight of my day. Fortunately I had a driver to take me to meetings and other locations; but the thrill of not quite knowing if I would reach my destination was quite exhilarating. Although the accommodation was located in Bandra East, most of our time was spent in Mumbai. I had arrived on a Saturday, so Sunday provided an opportunity to adjust, being given a guided tour of the vast city centre. This also gave me my first taste of the market stalls and bartering culture, something I found incredibly enjoyable.

Monday was the first day with company number one: Under the Mango Tree. They attempted to increase the production of fruit and vegetables for farmers through bee pollination; by selling farmers small bee hives and transforming them into bee keepers. Bees are proven to enhance the growth of fruits and vegetables, thus enhancing revenue for the farmers. Their social mission was clear: enhance food production to reduce hunger in India, a clear problem given the number of people who officially live below the poverty line – roughly 30%, although this is dropping. In order to generate money to support their social mission, they charge farmers for the bee hive units whilst also selling the honey which is produced; although, the bees chosen produce little honey, but are the most efficient in terms of food productivity. They were eager to build brand awareness and ambassadors to spread their word, and after several good sessions working with them, they left with the blueprint for a strategy and I left with a greater understanding of business in India.

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30 day challenge – Caffeine you fiend

KitchenCraft-Italian-Six-Cup-Espresso-Coffee-Maker--with-Clear-LidTowards the end of 2013, ‘30 day challenges’ were getting a lot of publicity and it became the thing to do to push yourself regularly. For those of you who aren’t aware, a 30 day challenge is setting yourself a new challenge each month, be that doing something new or giving up something you rely upon. The idea being that you constantly develop new skills and push yourself, whilst keeping the challenges fresh and exciting given the relatively short time period.

So, January came along, and I was racking my brains to think of something to do. My friends were very helpful and gave me some great ideas for coming months. In the end, January became caffeine free month.

I should probably put this into a little bit of perspective. Since living in Italy last year, I picked up the coffee culture and became a little obsessed with coffee, particularly espresso. It wouldn’t be uncommon for me to drink 5 or 6 a day. Although in small quantities coffee is good for your heart, this was maybe a little extreme. To quantify what I mean when I say that I gave up caffeine, I’m referring to high caffeine products, such as coffee, tea and energy drinks. Interestingly, when I researched into caffeine, several other products contain a surprising amount of caffeine, such as ice cream, painkillers, sunflower seeds and soft vitamin water drinks. I also discovered that in America, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have set no requirement for manufacturers to disclose the amount of caffeine contained in a product on the nutritional guidelines!

Unsurprisingly, the first 5 or 6 days of the challenge, I was shattered most of the time. This lasted for the first 10 days. I also occasionally found myself with a banging headache, which I deduced must be related somehow.

Culturally I also found not having caffeine a little odd. When you turn up to a meeting, the first question you tend to be asked is whether you’d like a tea or coffee. When I said no, I often got a look as though to say that there must be something wrong with me. It did prove a conversation starter however. Upon telling people about the reason why I wasn’t having tea or coffee, people would always have a reaction, mostly along the lines of “ooh, I couldn’t do that”.

I think much of the effects of not drinking caffeine had on me were psychological. I tried drinking decaffeinated coffee, but although that made me feel more awake mentally, I very quickly realised that I didn’t like the taste, so I gave up on that idea.

However, by the time that the month was half old, all the headaches and tiredness had disappeared. In fact, I realised that I didn’t miss it at all. When it came to February, I sat down in a coffee shop to read the paper, and upon taking my first sip of my first coffee for a month, was immediately hit with the strength, and I struggled to finish it.

So, was the challenge a success? It certainly challenged me and although I have now started drinking tea and coffee again, it is definitely not to the same extent as it was before. I can happily go a few days without coffee and feel fine.

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The end of the Italian adventure

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I was amazed at how quickly I felt at home in Italy, which made leaving quite a challenge.

After returning from Rome, we had time to go over the quantities sold and the net amount made from the event. This provided very good market research, and it was obvious which products people liked over the weekend, which served as a good indication of the types of beers to produce in the future.

It was then time to prepare for the biggest event in Arcidosso’s annual calendar, festival della castagna (the chestnut festival). Arcidosso is surrounded by mountains and nature. Walking through the woods upon leaving the village, as well as the vineyards and olive trees, it is hard to get away from chestnut trees. Mid-end October is the perfect time to enjoy them, so each village has a large chestnut festival, and Arcidosso’s is one of the biggest. Ordinarily the streets are filled with a handful of people scattered around; there are only around 2,000 inhabitants after all. But the chestnut festival attracts huge numbers of people, some of whom have travelled long distances to attend the event.

Several companies open up ‘cantinas’, small pop up shops which sell food and drink. As one of Birra Amiata’s main products is a chestnut beer, then this is obviously a key annual selling point which the company relies on in order to be sustainable through quieter months.  The event had been spoken about for some time, and production seemed to double in the lead up to the week as well as several hours spent organising and stocking the cantina.

The weekend didn’t disappoint; the streets full of tourists eager to eat chestnuts and enjoy the food, drink and music on offer. I personally had a fantastic time and it served as the perfect end to my Italian adventure. From a commercial point of view, I know that Birra Amiata did exceptionally well, which proved to be the icing on the cake for me.

It was with a heavy heart (and slightly sore head) that I embarked on my 11 hour journey back to the UK the following day. My trip involved buses, trains, lots of waiting around (making the most of the final sun I’d see in a few months) and a typically bumpy Ryanair flight.

Friends and family have since asked me what I learnt. They often phrase a question along the lines of ‘so you clearly enjoyed yourself, ate and drank a lot and met some great people, but did you actually learn anything which will be beneficial to your UK business’. I pause and reflect upon the question for a moment and realise how much I got out of it as a learning experience. I got to witness a full production operation in action, I saw the importance of a strong supply and distribution chain, I saw how they market their products and generate sales and I saw how they control cash flow and employ staff in a very difficult economic climate. When I then add the by-products of the trip: the fact that I sampled and now know what real spaghetti carbonara, pizza and coffee should taste like, that I learnt some incredible values which has changed my outlook on life and that I can now get by in Italian, then my answer is a resounding yes!

I genuinely believe that in my short time away in Italy, I learnt more about business than I ever did in education. That takes nothing away from some excellent lecturers, modules and content, but that proves a foundation, and in my opinion, the best way to experience business, life and to challenge yourself is to go to a country that you’ve never been to, with a language you don’t speak and work with a small business in the industry you want to work.

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When in Rome…


I’d been hugely enjoying my time in Arcidosso and had already learnt so much about the food and beverage industry, which I knew would put me in good stead for my return to the UK in terms of knowledge transfer.

But part of my decision to go to work in Italy was to travel and view other parts of the country. I’d already been fortunate enough to have that opportunity through work, visiting Pisa and Sienna among other places.

I very much wanted to visit Rome, and had started making plans to go for a weekend. However, my personal planning was cut short as I was asked if I wanted to attend an International beer festival called EurHop to promote Birra Amiata. We’d be going for 4 nights and I’d have the opportunity to sight-see and explore during the day, so this fell perfectly.

The premise for the festival is to have brewers from all over the world to meet and display their products in one large hall. People with an interest in beer then attend and sample the various types of beer on offer. I was very excited to be attending, but as had been the case for my stay thus far, I didn’t simply want to observe, but I wanted to get stuck in and immerse myself in the industry. I therefore asked what role I could play at the festival, and Gennaro, the owner, asked if I wanted to serve customers behind the bar. My bar tending experience is very limited; my part time job from the age of 16 had been a waiter at a Hilton Hotel, which very occasionally involved serving drinks to take to guests in the restaurant. Those who know me know that beer pouring is not a talent of mine, and that I tended to end up with a 50/50 split between beer and head. However, undeterred by these previous failings, and very keen to continue this adventure which meant getting out of my comfort zone as often as possible, I jumped at the chance. I was also heartened by the fact that in Europe, customers seem to expect a large amount of head on top of their beer.

The car journey from Arcidosso to Rome was breathtaking. The journey itself only took 2 hours and was very direct along a motorway. If you drive along a major motorway in Britain, you may get to see a few trees and service stations, but that’s about as exciting as it gets. However, on our journey south, we were surrounded by olive trees, vineyards, and then for around 50 kilometres, were adjacent to the ocean. I hadn’t realised how long it had been since I’d seen the sea, and in these surroundings, with the sun shining down on us, it looked majestic.

We arrived at the festival, and it suddenly dawned on me how large this festival was. There were around 70 international brewers who were setting up. The first night of the event kicked off at 5pm, but we didn’t see too many customers until gone 11pm. The event closed around 3am, by which time everyone was ready to collapse. But we weren’t going back to our hotel quite yet. Instead we went to a pub where all the brewers gathered and sat down to chat, drink beer and eat spaghetti carbonara. This was certainly a first; I’d never sat down for a (sober) meal at 3.30am before! The tradition continued for the subsequent 2 nights when the festival was on.

I obviously managed to explore Rome, and stumbled across an incredible park at Flaminio metro station. The weather was beautiful, the city was picturesque – the perfect combination of new and old buildings and as always, the food was incredible.

I left Rome with a heavy heart, but had felt how much my Italian had improved, given that I was constantly serving Italian customers behind the bar…a real sink or swim moment. Learning about the industry had also taken a leap forward, but I was ready to get back to Arcidosso, where life seems so laid back it’s horizontal.

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BKSK Inspire on tour

Whilst I’ve been in Italy working with a small business owner in the food and beverage industry, for the benefit of Frumtious (for which the ‘lines’ are still open to vote in the Shell LiveWIRE Award), Karolina, BKSK Inspire’sother co-founder, has been in Naples on the same scheme working with a small consultancy firm; gaining experience which she can apply to BKSK Inspire.

There are around 400km between Naples and Arcidosso, but we were keen to have a face-to-face catch up, and Karolina also wanted to see rural Tuscany. So arrangements were made, and her relatively quick train journey (3 hours) to the nearest town, Grosseto, was followed by a coach trip which took approximately an hour and a half.

The difference was clearly astounding for Karolina. Although Naples is pretty in its own way, mainly given its proximity to the sea and beautiful weather, it is also a very dirty city. So to see a very clean and well-kept village in the middle of Tuscany with only c.4,000 inhabitants was like chalk and cheese.

Of course there was a lot of sampling the local cuisine and wine, but we also took the opportunity to make some key decisions with BKSK Inspire. Having been shortlisted for The Pitch 2013 was fantastic; it was great to know that our efforts and cause had been recognised. But it did also delay our trading start date. We were in the ‘Ones to Watch’ category, and as such, we needed to remain as a non-trading, non-registered company until after the competition. Not winning the competition was of course disappointing, but it gave us some terrific links and feedback, which allowed us to pivot. Originally named BKSK Consulting, we had already decided that the word ‘consulting’ didn’t reflect the message behind the company; it was too corporate. We settled on BKSK Inspire and have since been making changes to how we describe ourselves. It is all very well knowing what you want to achieve, but you need to articulate this to others, the easiest way to get this message across is through your branding.

We’d had some fantastic feedback on our website design, but we didn’t feel that the content really described what we do or how to best engage with us. So we spent a lot of time re-wording, and we should have the website and message re-brand live very soon.

This time also gave us the opportunity to think about our next set of workshops; namely, what we wanted to present, who to, and most importantly where these would be most accessible. One of our location priorities is community centres, and it goes without saying that if anyone is interested in hosting one of our enterprise workshops for young people, to please get in touch and help inspire others.

We’ve since developed our marketing material containing the specific workshop sessions and slowly started to fill our calendar with workshops. Of course the initial ‘business development’ process is a long, and at times demoralising period, but we can’t wait to get our first workshop of the new season underway next week.

This blog is also available on the Kindle Store and you can follow me on Twitter (@benpfsmith) to find out more or get in touch