Arjun Sen, New Delhi
Anshu Gupta is an entrepreneur like any other. He identified a major consumer need, found an efficient way to meet it and went on to create a sustainable and scalable business that generates profits year after year. But with a small difference: the profits don’t accrue to him or his business but to millions of the rural poor in India.
His consumers, the really destitute, buy his products – refurbished clothes and garments. They pay with the only currency they have – their ability to work. And that work brings about rural development. It creates valuable economic infrastructure such as roads, bridges, wells, cleaner water bodies and forests. All this happens from discarded clothes that people in cities donate to Anshu’s social enterprise, Goonj.
Starting in 1998 with 67 discarded clothes that he and his wife, Meenakshi, collected in their own home, Goonj, has built up a “trash-based, not cash-based parallel economy,” says Anshu.
This year Anshu Gupta won the Social Entrepreneur of the Year India Award instituted by the Schwab Foundation For Social Entrepreneurship and the Jubilant Bhartia Foundation.
In fact in 2012 Goonj achieved major global fame. The National Aeronautics & Space Agency (NASA) and the US State Department chose it for ‘Game Changing Innovation’ after a worldwide search and selection process while the Global Development Network (GDN) awarded it the Japanese first prize for the ‘Most Innovative Development Project’.
Yet, Anshu is unhappy. “More and more people should begin to realize that this debate about social enterprise and donation-based charity is utter bunkum,” he said frankly.
“We are always willing to learn but we are not willing to be taught how we need to make profits to be ‘sustainable’ and ‘scalable’ or how to be more efficient in the way we handle resources. This is mere jargon propagated by learned people. We are neither a charitable organization nor a social enterprise. We are an idea that the innate desire of people to help others can be converted into a sustainable, scalable and replicable enterprise.”
“Give me one good reason why we should change our model as we are often told at various forums. Why?” he asked in anguish.
“Show me one temple, mosque or church that has failed for want of donations? More companies fail than donation- based NGOs. People donate out of faith and guilt. We want to channelize this into development rather than for building religious buildings,” Anshu said.
Any business starts with identifying a consumer need and Anshu did that with great insight. “Clothing is not a developmental issue. People talk of gender issues, housing, energy, food… but no one sees clothing as a major need. When we reach clothing to the poor, there is larger value addition in economic development because it frees up money that individuals would have otherwise spent on clothes for more critical needs such as food, health and education,” he said.
Besides, like any other business, he is offering what consumers need. “When people donate they simply give away what they have discarded. And whatever is collected is dumped on the poor without a thought to what they really need. People sent warm clothing to victims of the tsunami.”
Anshu explains that Goonj processes everything that they collect and give the poor exactly what they need against the only currency in which they can pay for – their ability to work. Not for free.
“The greatest asset poor people have is their dignity. They will die but they will not beg. So we give against work that people do for themselves, their community and by extension, the entire nation. We fill an important gap – we use discarded material to bring about development where it is stuck due to lack of financial resources. Ultimately, all development is about materials – even with money you buy materials. Now, we are not only giving clothes for development work but also infrastructural materials to build schools and office buildings,” Anshu explained.
“What you see in this office except for the laptops and printers is all recycled,” he said as we sat in Goonj’s office and talked across the table. “As you can see there is little uniformity in the furniture – everything is collected, recycled material.” Amazing.
Goonj’s workshop is equally amazing. Piles of discarded clothes, utensils, toys, books, furniture, what have you, are being carefully graded into what is directly usable, what needs some repair and what needs complete recycling. Nothing is wasted. Not even a rusted pin.
From clothing materials that would be dumped as unusable Goonj conjures up a range of useful products from hygienic sanitary napkins to designer accessories. All designed by ordinary people using their own wisdom and knowledge. “No designer or consultant has ever been engaged,” Anshu said.
Goonj has a dedicated team of 150 employees – mostly economically disadvantaged women. The joy on their faces is obvious. They know they are in a wonderful business where they work for themselves and for their fellow brethren.
“Yes we do need cash to meet the expenses of collecting, processing and transporting our clothes and products to poor people in rural areas. We are now going to make it mandatory for those who donate their discarded items to also donate at least Rs 100 in cash to pay for the logistics. Right now 40 per cent of our annual budget of Rs 3.5 crore comes from individual donations, another 50 per cent from selling our products and all kinds of sponsorships and 10 per cent from our awards,” he said.