The role of networking and community in building a business bottom-up

Entrepreneurs working in rural India are the unsung heroes of our economy, driven by passion and vision, and they just know how to get things done. One such remarkable entrepreneur is Ekta Aggarwal, the founder of the Pagdandi Foundation. 

Ekta hails from Dehradun in Uttarakhand and has been working in 13 villages in a Gram Panchayat since 2019. Pagdandi Foundation works on the factors that lead to migration, impacting education and livelihood. She moved back from Mumbai because she wanted to settle in her hometown and be closer to family. Her passion is to create opportunities in villages so that rural Uttarakhand can become a holistic place where locals thrive, and ‘ghost villages’ become a thing of the past.

Pagdandi Foundation at the flower show at Raj Bhawan in Dehradun

Being an entrepreneur working in rural areas has unique challenges, including the isolation that often accompanies working in remote areas. What initially began as an organisation focused on education,ventured into marketing of agri-produce and is now established as an organisation that stands by the connection between women and ecology by empowering women through the art of natural fabric painting and sale of hand-painted textiles.

Preparing the fabric for dyeing

When one takes the needs and well-being of the community in mind, often what you start to do is different from what you end up doing. For entrepreneurs like Ekta, who aim to market products while improving the lives of those who create them, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, they require extensive networking and strategic thinking, beyond simply listing their products on e-commerce platforms like Amazon.

Building Trust as an Outsider

Ekta’s journey began in September 2019, when she started visiting 13 villages in a Gram Panchayat in Dehradun district. From September 2019 to January of 2020, she visited each household in the area and established a relationship with the community. Initially, her primary goal was to improve children’s education, however, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted her plans, making it difficult to stay in the community.

Exploring possibilities during community outreach in the village

During this time, Ekta and her organisation adapted to the evolving needs of the community. They provided sanitary items to address immediate challenges. Ekta also played a crucial role in creating economic opportunities for the locals. She facilitated the sale of agricultural produce, such as ginger and chilies, which would have otherwise gone to waste due to transportation difficulties and lack of market access.

She recognized the disparity in earnings between the producers and middlemen and ensured that the farmers received a fair share of the profits. By offering fair prices and building relationships, she managed to support the livelihoods of local farmers.

What are the needs of a rural entrepreneur?

As rural entrepreneurs spend time understanding the needs of their community, a gap is felt where they themselves need to be supported. And that is what Margshala is all about. Our focus lies in asking the question: What can help the entrepreneurs themselves?

Sheetal didi enjoying the process of tie-dye in her backyard in Dwathra village

As Ekta says herself, I signed up for Margshala for a very different reason altogether. It was not exactly to learn about marketing because I have studied marketing, that’s my masters. I joined Margshala to meet other entrepreneurs in Kumaon and in Uttarakhand villages. I wanted to understand, how does their brain function when it comes to running a business?”

“Margshala has really helped me in executing things, because you might know things but kabhi kabhi you need a push.” Workshops and assignments provided structure and planning, enabling her to create a three-month strategy that was then monitored and refined, ensuring accountability.

For example, as she tells us, the last module of Margshala focused on strategy and where she made a work plan for the next 3 months. “So now if you’re doing it seriously, you have created a plan for 3 months and in execution they would help – by keeping a check, in the next session, what is happening not happening so there was accountability.”

Way Forward: Evolving strategy for business & finding the right market

For rural entrepreneurs like Ekta, finding a niche in the market is of utmost importance. She doesn’t want her organisation to compromise on the benefit to the community as a result of the profit motive, and neither does she want to create the role of a middle-man for herself at the expense of the community. Finding a niche in her business would help break away from competition and make her business viable.

She tells us that being an outsider, she was not able to grasp the agriculture market fully. In natural colours and painted fabric, she saw a big opportunity.

In the last 3 years, Pagdandi Foundation has been on an upward swing since they have ventured into hand painting fabric with natural dyes. These dyes are environmentally friendly and produced by locals, giving them an edge in the market. So far, Ekta has worked with and has trained 7 women farmers between the ages of 30 and 50. She consults with the women on the price they would like to receive, and the women are also starting to participate in the selling of the products at exhibitions, thereby gaining experience and exposure. 

Ekta and the SHG members she works with showcasing their products

She has also noticed their self-confidence and decision-making skills getting stronger at home. While they had never held a paintbrush in their hands before, they now earn money as well as respect from their families. The community is supportive as well, and the Gram Pradhan has recently provided a separate space to them for their work.

Ekta hopes that Margshala can help her further with more connections related to her business and ways to market, and looks forward to consistent and constant mentorship from Margshala. Connecting passionate entrepreneurs is the way forward, where the need for profit doesn’t overtake the want to do good.

Specially Written for Vikalp Sangam by Tanya Singh