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Three Years Later, Crafts Business Thrives in India

Chetana, a 2009 TechnoServe business plan competition winner in southern India, is creating meaningful economic opportunities for disabled people in the community.

In a bright workshop in southern India, Kiran, a 23-year-old with Down syndrome, carefully applies paste to a sheet of paper. With a series of folds, he creates a small pouch that his employer, Chetana, will sell to a local hospital.

What everyone needs is an opportunity to do what we are capable of doing.

Mala Giridhar Founder, Chetana

Kiran might otherwise be idle at home, an economic burden to his family. Instead, he is practicing a skill, earning income and gaining a sense of independence.

“What everyone needs,” says Mala Giridhar, Chetana’s founder, “is an opportunity to do what we are capable of doing.”

Mala and her husband, both clinical psychologists, started Chetana in order to provide this opportunity to people with mental disabilities. They saw the problems that could arise when such people — already stigmatized in Indian society — were unable to engage in meaningful activity. They also saw how a routine and social interaction could lead to improved physical and emotional health for people with disabilities.

“We wanted to do business and generate revenue so we could create employment opportunities for these people,” Mala says. “But we didn’t know how.”

In 2009, soon after launching Chetana, Mala entered a TechnoServe business plan competition that aimed to support promising social enterprises. Together with more than 20 other entrepreneurs, Mala received 200 hours of training on business fundamentals.

“The concepts were clarified beautifully,” Mala says. “That training program definitely gave me an idea about the different aspects of a business, right from conceptualizing the idea up to generating revenue. Everything was covered in detail.”

Following the training program, the entrepreneurs presented their business plans to a panel of judges. Mala was selected as one of five winners and received $5,000 in seed capital. She invested in a new workshop and set about putting her business plan into action.

Her vision for Chetana is to provide employment for 100 people, including 50 people with disabilities, within the next four years

A visit to Chetana today demonstrates the impact of TechnoServe’s assistance. Nearly three years after the business plan competition ended, Chetana employs 20 people in the workshop and an additional 40 women who work from their homes. Mala runs the business collectively with four trainers and two managers. From its initial offerings of paper packets and pens, Chetana has expanded to produce a range of crafts made from recycled banana fiber. Its products are sold in stores in major Indian cities.

Mala says she has internalized many of the things she learned from TechnoServe’s trainings. Her vision for Chetana is to provide employment for 100 people, including 50 people with disabilities, within the next four years. Although her main goal is social impact, she recognizes the importance of running Chetana as a business.

The excitement of contributing to a competitive business spills over to the employees. Mala says that even she is surprised by the growth she has witnessed in people like Kiran.

“Today, they share the thrill of a new product,” Mala says. “They share the completion of a big order. We go out together and celebrate when we have passed certain milestones. And then, there is no limit to their growth. They become part of something much bigger.”