A Story from Amale, Maharashtra

In the hills of Maharashtra, a four hour drive from Mumbai, a small adivasi village of two hundred farmers is undergoing a remarkable transformation. Welcome to Amale!

Amale has been the site of a small revolution in sustainable livelihood. Almost two years ago, an incredible team of changemakers arrived in Amale. Rohit Pillai, Nikesh Ingle, Liju George, and Manish Nair had a vision - a vision in which the villagers would have the agency to create their own livelihoods, and thus to shape their own future. Armed with the knowledge they had gained from eight months in Palsunde, a much larger village in Palghar, they were hoping to create change not via typical nonprofit interventionism, but by forging a true partnership with the villagers, and with the village at large.

They had a broad and ambitious vision, yes. But they also knew that they needed to start working from reality on the ground. Amale was the kind of village you would hear being talked in a foundation’s PowerPoint presentation as ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘massively resource constrained’. However, the villagers knew they had one huge asset - the stunning natural beauty of their home. The team realized Amale residents were incredibly proud (and justifiably so! see below) of this, and started to focus their efforts on tourism, something that the villagers were very excited about.

However, tourism is dependent and seasonal - and both Amale residents and the Rural Caravan team wanted to work towards developing a livelihood that was reliable and consistent. So, the team turned to a seemingly simple idea - teaching the villagers to manufacture and sell electric cookstoves to other, nearby villages.

On the surface, bringing electric cookstoves to villages seems like an obvious bet. The old gas cookstoves that were in use are, from the perspective of the typical urban nonprofit funder or enthusiast (ie, me...), ‘objectively’ worse for a plethora of reasons. Women, who often bear the burden of cooking, have to stay in the kitchen with the stove for hours, and inhaling the smoke produced is equivalent to smoking an absurd two packs of cigarettes a day. Young children (who often stay with their mothers), spend hours inhaling the smoke as well. Not to mention gas cookstoves are more expensive in the long run and easier to burn your hands on, and obtaining the wood is difficult - the list goes on. Clear benefits, lower cost - demand should be through the roof, based on the assumptions we make about villagers, and the poor, and what they do and should want. And yet, many nonprofits had tried and failed to get villagers to use, make, and sell these ‘sure bet’ electric cookstoves. Why?

When I asked Nikesh this question, he laughed, and then explained to me the concept of designing for aspiration, not for need . When designing for more privileged populations, it is common to think about what people want, not what they need - but we rarely extend this principle to so called ‘underserved’ communities. The focus is always on addressing perceived ‘basic needs’ without taking the time to understand what the community truly values, and what aspirations people hold. We (and I am certainly guilty of this) often assume that the things we see as lacking in other’s lives compared to our own are the things we should be providing. Rohit and Nikesh taught me to reframe my thinking, to really work towards providing something of value, to be proud of and to cherish, rather than filling a lack that may not even be seen as such.

Can you guess what the team realized was the most important selling point of the new electric cookstove to the village? (I was asked this question during my visit to Amale and was hopelessly wrong, so no pressure). It turns out the gas cookstove had one big detractor in the eyes of its users - the smoke that comes out of the stove turns your entire kitchen (and sometimes, your entire one-room home) black and sooty. This was a source of shame for many of the villagers, who took pride in their land, and in their homes most of all. When the team started suggesting the electric cookstove as a way to beautify the kitchens and homes of Amale, interest spiked. The first few electric cookstoves were tentatively acquired, and then all the other benefits (health, safety, cost) were directly felt, rather than proselytized . And, as is often the case with rave product reviews in a small and tight knit community, the trend spread.

Because the cookstoves were adopted by (very enthusiastic) choice, rather than misguided intervention, committees were self-organized within the village to spearhead manufacturing and distribution of the stoves. Friends in nearby villages were called, and a community was formed around bringing the electric cookstove to villages across Maharashtra. In just under a year, the villagers of Amale were able to manufacture hundreds of cookstoves, creating a sustainable income for themselves and bringing a simple, healthier, and cheaper cooking solution to hundreds of other villagers. Now, they are excited to do more. Recently, Rural Caravan and Amale have begun a program that sells traditionally manufactured honey to urban Indians, which has also brought needed supplemental income to many families in the village.

The villages of rural India, particularly adivasi villages, are often painted as backwards and resistant to change. Obviously, this is categorically wrong, and you don’t need me or the success story of Amale to tell you that. However, our goal in specifically highlighting the story of Rural Caravan and Amale is to show that change can and has come through respectful partnership, community-driven action, and perseverance.

In a recent conversation, Rohit described the transformation he saw in Amale.

‘There are visible changes that I have been able to see. Things that are big. The new couples can actually build homes for themselves. The women are able to spend time outside. There is less sickness. But the most important thing is - now, if you go to the village, nobody is silent. Nobody is shy, or without confidence. Not the women, nobody. They know they can create a better future, have the lives they want. That is the most important thing.’

~ Divya Siddarth