In Nepal, INGOs and NGOs are ‘notorious’ for their ‘projects’ that they launch for a period of time. They carry out the projects ‘effectively’ till the deadline, but after they are done, what is left is the dependency of people.
But, that was not the case with Helvetas, a Swiss development organisation, when it ran the ‘Safer Migration’ (SaMi) project with White Lotus Craft Private Limited in Kathmandu. After completing the assignment of its donor, this ‘sewing training institute’ transformed into a ‘lifestyle brand’ by drawing from the idea of the project.
This is the story of The Mint Studio, which is competing with international brands in Kathmandu with its locally crafted products. Among mushrooming startups in the city, it stands out not only because it started off as a donor-funded project, but also because of its tall promise about doing ‘social business’.
Inspiration and inception
Under the SaMi project, White Lotus Craft provided sewing training to unemployed women and Helvetas assisted them in getting jobs in Jordan. According to Richa Rajbhandari, Managing Director of The Mint Studio, Jordan is home to a number of big garment manufacturing companies and they are always in need of more staff in order to meet demands they receive from global lifestyle brands like Adidas and Nike.
“Under the contract with Helvetas, we had to train 40 women for three months. However, we worked with more than one group simultaneously and in one year and eight months, we trained 600 women in total, which was the quota we had to meet for the project,” the young entrepreneur continues, “But, we liked the idea behind the project. Hence, we wanted to continue. And, The Mint Studio was born.”
The SaMi project’s objective was to empower women going abroad for jobs, but the training institute wanted to have a slight modification. “While conducting the training, we also learned why they had to leave the country for such jobs. Then, we wanted to do something which would help women stop thinking about going abroad, and get income generation opportunities by utilising their skills here.”
“For that, we had to start our own project because Helvetas was not going to fund it.”
The team, however, still hoped that other national and international development agencies would help it achieve its objective of women empowerment.
Trainers associated with the SaMi project—namely Ritu Rajbhandari, Ankita Joshi, Avant Shrestha and Bishal Rana Magar—worked together to establish the new company in March 2017. Richa Rajbhandari, who was working with another startup company after completing her Bachelor’s from Bangalore University, joined the team after months. After her sister Ritu left for Australia to pursue her further studies, Richa Rajbhandari has been leading the company for the last one year.
Frustration and modification
The younger Rajbhandari says that it is not as easy as people think to empower women ‘effectively’. “After the project was over, we tried to continue with the training. But, it was really challenging.”
The biggest challenge, according to Rajbhandari, is funding. Whereas the company cannot provide training to the women free of cost because it has to pay for the machinery, trainers as well as the venue; it cannot make the women pay the price for training either. Rajbhandari says she knows her beneficiaries cannot solely shoulder the heavy cost.
Therefore, after the company failed to establish a partnership with an NGO working for women who suffered various forms of violence, it has now stopped thinking about continuing the training programme for now.
“Our mission is to do a social business,” she expresses her frustration, “But you know it is quite difficult in Nepal. You have to be either social or business.”
“We have sufficient resources but nominal revenue,” she succinctly puts it, “Therefore, we have to modify our focus temporarily.” Accordingly, for the next two years, the company wants to concentrate on manufacturing and establishing itself as a popular lifestyle brand.
Perhaps the best model to continue the training programme could be letting women learn the skills free of cost at first, and making them pay back the cost later with their labour contribution. But, this model is also not free of problems.
“We realised that some women were ready to attend training sessions; but after the completion of the course, they would question—why should I work for you when I already have the skills?”
“This problem is related to people’s mindset. They always want security to their investment of time and money,” she explains, “Of course, there are some people who are ready to pay for the training; but they ultimately want to go abroad.”
Determination and continuation
Despite the challenges, the company ultimately wants to compete with internationally established lifestyle brands, at least in the Kathmandu market.
Rajbhandari is confident that her company is capable of achieving it. “We are special; we are exclusive. We are one out of 100,” her tone sounds much like an advertisement, “You cannot find products like ours in the market. Ours is essentially different.”
Being different is not enough to sell the products. The company’s ‘sincere’ efforts made to give its products a feel of Nepali branding makes its products a bit expensive in comparison to other brands. She encounters questions about the price from her company’s fans and general customers almost every day. “But our products are more user-friendly, more durable and more artistic than what you can find in the market. Besides, we are also providing after-sales service.”
After coping with challenges related to pricing and branding, the company is determined to continue with the primary mission of women empowerment.
Whereas the company is primarily focused on expanding its market with its own retail shop and more visibility on social media these days, it has also continued efforts to take back the object of supporting women to go independent in their life.
“Recently, we have found a unique school in Byas of Tanahun district, which collects revenues in the form of labour contribution from parents. We are in conversation with the school team on if we can train these parents and lead them to more lucrative employment opportunities.”
Some NGOs and community organisations working with local women in various parts of the country are also being consulted. The company, however, does not have any concrete plan to resume the training programme anytime soon.
Rajbhandari says the Mint Studio will go back to its original mission one day as the idea of empowering women can also be helpful in promoting its products in the market.“We know that our social side, helping women empower financially, can be an additional unique selling point for us because everyone else is running after money. We will surely do it, but we have to be capable first.”