Palak a journalism graduate believes in simplifying the complicated and writing about the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. She calls herself a " hodophile" or in layman words- a person who loves to travel.
If you are looking for a hassle-free place to relax or catch up with friends over a cup of coffee, Mitti Café can offer you an exceptional experience! Located in Bengaluru's Koramangala and Jayanagar, this chain is completely run and managed by specially-abled people, right from individuals with visual, hearing impairments to people with Down Syndrome and Autism. It offers a warmly-lit ambience that is relaxing and cosy at the same time; this quaint café provides indoor and outdoor seating options and visitors are greeted with bright gleeful faces.
27-year-old Alina Alam is the founder and CEO of Mitti Café who took it upon herself to follow the unconventional route to entrepreneurship in a bid to build an inclusive society. Speaking exclusively to The Logical Indian, the vivacious entrepreneur shared the ups and downs of her journey, challenging the status quo and empowering people with disabilities in the country.
TLI: What was the idea behind this non-conventional startup?
Alina: I was in college, prepping up for the placements. During one of the final sessions, I watched a documentary that changed my perspective on the significance of human lives.
It was about Emperor Nero. He ruled ancient Rome from 54 to 68 AD. The story said that Nero would go on to win one war after the other till the time he won the biggest battle of his life. And then, it was time for a celebration!
He threw a grand party and invited the royal kings and queens of the tinsel town. As evening approached, Nero wanted to light his town as a mark of success and he decided to make use of waste to colour the merrymaking. He burnt prisoners of the war and people who were captured during the combat. He equated them with waste.
I was barely 23 but realisation dawned on me that the problem was not Nero because the world is always going to have people like him; the problem was with the individuals who treated others as inconsequential.
I understood that if you feel passionate about something, you have to do something. If you are not willing to take action, that should be alright. Since we have our own reasons. But one needs to know that they have taken a side by not doing anything about it. And that side is of the Oppressor.
I couldn't live with this realisation. Therefore, I decided to skip college placements and instead started volunteering with organisations working in the disability inclusion sector in a pursuit to find my true calling.
As per the 2011 census data, there are over 26.8 million people with disabilities in India. The number must have definitely increased over the last decade. Choosing to look at their disabilities and disregarding the magic in their special abilities is the real culprit. I wanted to create an interactive business model to propagate that idea, not involve merely preaching.
TLI: What is Mitti Cafe's business model? How did you zero-in on it and set it up?
Alina: We started with setting up food stalls in partnership with institutions, corporate colleges, hospitals and business parks entirely run by adults with a physical, intellectual or psychiatric disability. This included each and every activity including preparing and serving meals by the specially-abled. Empty pockets, failed sales attempts, multiple rejections. I remember being rejected at every incubation centre across the country when I was starting-up and planning to expand.
I had written to almost every corporate institution in Bengaluru while pursuing post-graduation at Azim Premji University. All I was asking the incubators was 100 square feet of space that would be managed by the specially-abled. A majority of the respondents refused. A few others said this was not the right time to dive into such a novel project.
However, the Deshpande Foundation which extends aid to budding entrepreneurs, said that they won't be able to help me with finances but perhaps, offer me something I needed the most.
To turn a tin shed into my first cafe. Hence, I shifted base to Hubli, a small city in North Karnataka.
I can proudly say that the cafe was built with the efforts of the community members. About 90 per cent of the equipment— second-hand fridge, oven, furnishings were donated by strangers Awareness regarding the importance of inclusion was gaining momentum and hence I reached out to a number of organisations to help me with two or three specially-abled individuals to kickstart the cafe. I was interrogated on a number of aspects. If I had relevant experience in the restaurant industry, had run a restaurant before, or had worked with the differently-abled or at least knew sign language.
I was like, no, then they responded with a "go".
And then one call changed Mitti Cafe's fate. A lady called to inform me that her daughter has a disability, however, they could not diagnose the disorder.
The girl was crawling because her family could not afford a wheelchair. After joining and undergoing intensive training, today, that same girl sits in a wheelchair and manages ten other people with disabilities. She's the manager of our first cafe.
Over a period of four years, we have hundreds like her across the fifteen cafes. We have experientially trained 800 such individuals and helped them earn with dignity along with our partner organisations.
How has the journey been over these years especially during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Alina: Our team of specially-abled adults have served over five million meals and beverages. Cooking and serving five million meals has enabled us to create awareness about inclusion with every meal or beverage that we have sold and continue to sell.
It has also helped in rehabilitating people who had either resorted to begging or were homeless. They found a home in our accommodation during the COVID-19 induced lockdown.
During the lockdown, the offices were shuttered and we had shut down the cafes as well. Most of our employees were the sole breadwinner in their families and it was difficult for a normal human being to stay indoors for a longer period of time, think about the differently-abled!
So we went back to our roots and in less than 15 days, we could raise over ₹90 lakhs on Milaap. We knew that money was finite and it would not help solve long term issues. Hence we immediately pivoted and decided to start cafes in public spaces.
Leveraging networks, help from mentors, well-wishers and community members came to our rescue. So, we started our first cafe in Bengaluru's Koramangala during the COVID-19 crisis and this one in Jayanagar is going to be our second one.
TLI: How difficult it is to train differently-abled employees? ?Have you ever encountered a difficult situation with a consumer?
Alina: Ultimately the consumer experience has to be impressive and it does take significant efforts.
The biggest challenge is to make differently-abled people look in the mirror, to help them believe in their abilities because years of bullying and rejection has led them to reduce their value to their disabilities.
All that we do is show them that they are so much beyond that and then magic happens!
There is this person with a motor disability called Bhairappa who was rejected at more than 80 jobs. He did not know the concept of wearing slippers or interacting with people. He was constantly told that he would never land a job and would always be dependent on people for survival and would not even find love! He joined our team, worked hard and eventually ended up being one of the trainers at the cafe in Infosys. At Mitti Cafe, he also found his love—Rupa. He was at this cafe and she was at the one in Wipro; they met, fell in love and got married last December.
We, as an organisation, are very clear to identify every individual for who they are and not their disability. We feel that everyone is good at something and hence a disability cannot define a work role. Interests, strengths and weaknesses apart from one's disability get to decide what one can or can't do.
Money is an essential component but it does not necessarily drive people. When you give them respect, dignity, provide them with an opportunity to express themselves—fail and then get up.
In the food and beverage industry quality, standardization, consistency, food and safety standards are of paramount importance. They are non-negotiable. Customers will not pay a second visit if the quality is below par.
Therefore having standard operating procedures in place, stressing on providing experiential learning has helped up in scaling the business.
You know it is 1% the idea 99% of the implementation, the simplest idea doesn't have to be rocket science, 99% implementation. In a startup, the most important word is to start. That's the only way you can overcome your fears. And if you're consistent and adamant and have faith, there's nothing that can stop you.
We have all faced lockdown when we were asked to stay within the four walls of the house and we all were going crazy! So many of us were frustrated. And imagine these adults with disabilities, and persons from so many other vulnerable communities are shunned by the society with a lack of accessible infrastructure, lack of opportunity and perceptions that do not enable them to show the magic of their abilities all their life. So they are in lockdown all their life.
It is important for institutions to accept that there is a problem that requires changes at the policy level but policies can only work if communities are mobilised and engaged.
Lastly, Why Mitti Café? Why the word 'Mitti'?
Alina: Mitti means mud. Despite each one of us being so different in terms of religion, race, sex, caste, geography ideologies, we all come from mud and to mud we will return, which means that our existence and our end are the same despite us being so different. So unity in diversity.
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