Lockdown Economy Nepal in a Social Enterprise Empowering Elders with Lorina Sthapit
The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Sujan Manandhar
Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.
In this interview hosted by Sujan Manandhar, we meet Lorina Sthapit, the Co-founder of Aji’s, a social enterprise that empowers elders to live healthy and happy lives by providing a platform to showcase their skills and knowledge. We spoke about the problems Aji’s faced during the lockdown. For many months during the lockdown, they did not make any sales. It also affected the income of the elders. Their products were not considered essential and they were not able to deliver them. They faced difficulty in recording their podcasts because it was done face to face. Additionally, they work with elders who are very vulnerable during the pandemic. Their health and safety was a major concern. But recently, they are getting both national and international media coverage. Right now, the health of the elders is their major concern. They plan to bring new products and makers in the coming months.
Could you introduce us to Aji’s?
Lorina: Aji’s is a social enterprise based in Kathmandu. We work with our elders to help them live a very happy and healthy life. We empower them to achieve that. We have three objectives. Firstly, we help them make marketable products. Turns out, all these elders have unique skills that can be used to make products. Our generation takes DIY as a very fascinating concept but our elders are the real DIY pioneers because back then things were not readily available in the market. All the products they make have a unique traditional and cultural value. This is a source of income for them (elders). Secondly, we try to bridge the gap between the younger generation and the elders. We do that through workshops on skills transfer or interactions and dialogue. This helps the younger generation be more interested in the elders and their skills and vice versa. Thirdly, we document the life stories of our elders. This is the intangible heritage that we preserve in our podcasts, blogs and videos. That is what we do. We have a very small team right now. It’s me, my husband (Pursarth) and my sister (Irina) in the core team. We do have some interns (and some other people who support us in our operations). Apart from that, we have around 30 elderly makers, mostly inside Kathmandu Valley. We have our podcast guests who are not necessarily makers. We have elderly instructors for our workshops. We have a #AskAnAji campaign where people around the world can ask questions and the elders in our community provide the answer. I would say it’s a very diverse team.
What was your inspiration behind starting Aji’s?
Lorina: My inspiration was my own grandmother, Champa Devi Tuladhar. I grew up watching her knit these special socks. I could see that she was passionate about knitting and it gave her a sense of purpose. She would forgot all her pains and stress. These materials would simply pile up at home and she would give them away to friends and family members. So I thought I could help her sell them instead. That’s how the concept started and we reached out to other elder members in the community. The podcast has another story. All our elders, including our grandfathers and grandmothers, have stories and they are happy to share them. They have very extraordinary and inspiring stories unlike ours. For example, the first podcast featured my own grandfather whose story was about the difficulties he faced when he travelled to Lhasa and back in a month. We thought these stories are important and the younger generation needs to listen to them. They can learn from them and get inspired. They can take pride and learn their roots. That’s how we came up with Aji’s and the podcast.
How was your organization performing before the pandemic?
Lorina: It only started a little over two years ago. I began with one sock and a photo on Facebook. It was quite informal and we did not really set out to make a brand or a business. It started so that I could help my own grandmother be valued for her skills. From then to now, it’s been a big leap. It was going good before the pandemic. We were being recognized in national and international media. People slowly started to see what we do and understand our work. We were picking up pace but then the pandemic happened.
What problems did your organization face during the pandemic?
Lorina: Firstly, for many months during the lockdown we did not make any sales. It’s true for small and even big businesses. That was a big hit for us because it was not just about our sales, the income of the elders was affected as well. During the lockdown, the government allowed essential products to be delivered. We tried very hard to get the driving pass but many of our products were not considered ‘essential’, although we think all our products are very essential. So we were not able to deliver them but we did get a few orders during the lockdown. We delivered them after the lockdown. Secondly, we record our podcasts in person in a studio. That was a big challenge for us because we had to do it in a good setting.
Did you try to reach out to your clients and makers when the pandemic started?
Lorina: We work with elders and they are the most vulnerable group in this situation. It was very important for us to make sure their health was good. We reached out to them.
What strategies did you adopt to stimulate your business during the lockdown? What worked and what didn’t?
Lorina: Without any sales we were unable to make any income for the elders. However, we tried other things. We had a few retail partners but we decided to go online. We started a campaign where we asked what your grandparent was doing during the lockdown. That was very popular. We received many pictures and videos from across Nepal. We also did some videos where we asked young people to interview their grandparents. We compiled it and published them on our YouTube channel. We also tried to focus on how we can improve the products and our online presence so that we could make more sales once the lockdown was lifted. During the pandemic we realized some of our makers were more creative. Some of them experimented on new ideas and designs with the products that they make. It gave us an opportunity to think beyond what we were doing. We had to think how to do things differently because our podcasts were really catching on. We were getting the attention of people and they were really liking it. We knew we could not stop the podcasts so we tried to figure out alternative ways to continue it. It pushed us to be more innovative. And we tried to deliver our goods by securing the pass during the lockdown but that strategy did not work. The in-person podcasts did not work out for us either.
Now that the lockdown has been eased, how is your organization performing?
Lorina: It is slowly getting better. But it is going to take a long time to catch up on all those months we had no sales. Interestingly, we have been getting a lot of media attention. Recently our story was covered by AFP. Since then both international media (including South China Morning Post and The Economic Times) and national media (The Himalayan Times and Aawaaj News) have picked it up. We are getting a lot of inbound messages and our work is being recognized.
What is the outlook for your organization in the coming months?
Lorina: It is very uncertain. Since we work with elders who are very vulnerable during COVID, we cannot have very ambitious goals right now because the most important thing is their health. We have new products now and we have a few more products and makers in the pipeline. We are hopeful for more sales and media coverage.
What are the three things in your business that you need help with?
Lorina: Firstly, we need more patrons on our page which is patreon.com/ajis. Secondly, we need to make more sales and get more recognition (by that I mean recognition of the importance and the value of the work our elders do and the stories they have). Finally, the Government of Nepal should create more targeted policies for startups and social enterprises like Aji’s. Currently, it is very complicated. The government could provide organizations like ours more flexibility.
About the Guest
Ms. Lorina Sthapit is the cofounder of Aji’s, a social enterprise that empowers the elderly to live healthy and happy lives. She is also the host of Aji’s Podcast that documents the extraordinary and inspiring stories of the elderly. You can learn more about Aji’s at www.ajisproducts.org and listen to her podcast on YouTube.com/ajisproducts. Lorina also has experience of working in gender equality and inclusion space with organizations like CARE, Oxfam and IFAD. She also teaches a course in Women’s Studies at Padma Kanya Campus. Lorina holds an MSc. in Gender and Development Studies from Asian Institute of Technology and recently completed the Social Entrepreneurship Program at INSEAD in Singapore. She is also a professionally trained Kathak dancer and has performed in several national and international events. Aji’s is a social enterprise that empowers elders to live healthy and happy lives by providing a platform to showcase their skills and knowledge. Aji’s enables the elderly to make and sell products through their online store and retail partners, share their stories and experiences on the Aji’s Podcast and blog, and connect with the younger generation via campaigns such as #AskAnAji. They want to create a world where the elderly live happy and healthy lives as active members of their community.