“Knitting is like meditating for my Aji who forgets about the excruciating pain in her legs while she makes socks and other woolen wear for her family,” says Lorina Sthapit- co-founder at Aji’s.
Lorina grew up wearing knitwear made by her grandmother. It wasn’t just her who enjoyed these warm goodies but everyone in her family got them as gifts almost every winter. Noticing how skilled her Aji was at knitting, Lorina thought of selling these goodies to her friends just to see if it had a market. Surprisingly, everybody loved them and that sparked an idea in her mind to both help elders get recognition for their skills that are often overlooked and to create a way to help them connect with younger generations.
Team Blincventures met Lorina at PechaKucha Night at Cousine Court Nepal where we quickly connected and exchanged cards. After a few emails, I was able to sit down and talk to her about Aji’s and her transition from a full-time INGO professional to a startup founder.
Here’s what she has to say.
1. Let’s start with what Aji’s is and how does it help the elderly?
Aji means grandmother in Newari language and quite surprisingly, I found out that it means the same in other languages in India too. Since I got this idea after noticing how much my grandmother enjoyed making knitwear for her family, I thought naming the business after her would be perfect. Later on, I kept asking around and looking for more elderly people who had these kinds of skills. There was a lot! If you think about it, these people are the real makers since they didn’t have much during their time so they had to make everything themselves. We just have been so used to seeing them make the stuff over and over again that we forget that these are actual skills. So, we either connect with them directly or with their younger ones to help them get aboard.
If you think of it, elderly people are a neglected group in society. Plus, their old age makes it difficult for them to travel to places or meet friends so they’re quite lonely in terms of having people around too. We established Aji’s with the intention of harnessing their skills and giving them a place in the modern marketplace, and in doing so empowering them to live healthy and happy lives as active members of their community.
2. Aji’s is still in the startup phase but in the past months, do you feel like it is making an impact?
Yes, it is! At Aji’s have three objectives in mind. First is to harness and preserve the elderly’s skills. I’d also like to clarify here that we do not provide any kind of training to them. We believe that they’re already skilled and need no training thereafter as they’ve practiced it their whole life. To meet this objective, we make their products accessible to people all over the world and so far, we have been doing really good at that. In order to preserve the skills, we organize workshops where they transfer their skills to the younger generation. We did a free workshop on sewing and crochet making in a community school with a grant that we received from IFAD.
Second is we help them connect with younger generations. As the elderly are not acquainted with social media or the internet so to say, we coordinate with their younger ones. By doing so, the younger generations take the time out to talk, discuss or help their elders.
Third is we document their stories through blogs, podcasts, and videos. You can check them out here.
We have been successful in meeting these objectives with the 25 makers currently. We’ve recorded and published five podcast episodes where the elderly, including some of our makers, have shared their stories and how they feel working us. Some even tell us that they give some part of their profits to their younger ones because they feel like they’ve contributed their time and effort too. That makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something with Aji’s.
3. How do you find the makers? Do you pay them on a monthly basis?
In the beginning, we asked friends and families around but now we have a lot of queries from a lot of people as Aji’s was covered by a lot of media like Setopati, Republica, BBC, Kathmandu Post, Himalayan Times. Because of resource constraints, we haven’t been able to cater to all of them but will expand in the coming days.
Our makers aren’t our employees. We freelance their work so we pay them according to the sales we make on their products. They do not have to work with us full time or come to the office as such.
4. Can you tell us about your team?
We are three co-founders of Aji’s- I and my husband, Pursarth Tuladhar and my sister, Irina Sthapit who is currently in the U.S.and helps with operations there. Then, we have 2-3 interns who aren’t regular as they have colleges to attend. Lastly, we have 25 amazing makers who provide us with their fantastic products.
5. How did you decide to make podcasts with the elderly? Also, you sound like a professional, did you take any trainings as such?
To be honest, I had never been a fan of podcasts or listened to one ever. I came to know about them through my husband who is an avid listener. As mentioned earlier, the elderly are a neglected group in society. People do not have the time to sit and talk to them. So, when we used to meet them to talk to them about their work, they would go on and go from one topic to the other. They’d start telling us how they learned the skill of their childhood stories which used to be very interesting too. So, we thought maybe giving them a platform to record their stories in their own words and voice might be the best way to go on about it.
Most of the people have complimented me on that part but no, I did not take any trainings or classes as such. I think I learned to do it along the way because as a startup founder, you need to learn how to do a lot of things by yourself.
6. A lot of social enterprises don’t have a business background and miss out on profits. Has this been your case in any ways?
Well, I agree that I too do not come from a business background. Actually, I have been educated and worked in the development sector for 10 years so business was never something I thought I would be doing. However, this did not get in the way of fulfilling my purpose through Aji’s. I recently completed INSEAD’s one-week intensive course on social entrepreneurship with a full scholarship. There we did so many case studies, learned about business model canvas, scalability and all those stuff. So, that’s how I became well aware of how to run a business and scale it.
Besides my husband who is also Aji’s cofounder has extensive business background particularly in the startup space. I’d also like to add that just because this is a business doesn’t mean we should focus a lot on making profits as the core might be forgotten and hence the impact.
7. What problems did you face while starting Aji’s or the problems you are currently facing?
There are a lot of problems that we’re currently facing but the one that stands out is regarding the transactions and delivery in Nepal. It’s a little easier within Kathmandu as we can do cash-on-delivery but it is tricky when we get orders from Pokhara or Bharatpur. We get a lot of orders from outside the valley but we haven’t been able to cater to them since the delivery charge here is a lot, sometimes even higher than the cost of the actual product. Plus, there are legal procedures right from the registration of a company that make it difficult for startups. You get charged a lot of fine if you make a single small mistake.
It’s hard for startups to flourish in Nepal given the policies and rules it gets entangled in.
8. What did it take for you to leave your 9-5 job and join the startup world?
It wasn’t easy, honestly. I thought about it for almost a year before actually deciding to quit the job. My husband played a great part in this too. He used to work in San Francisco, that’s where we met too, in a startup so he knew the ins and outs of it. So, getting huge support from him motivated me to embark on this journey. I had been in the development sector for 10 years working in NGOs and INGOs. Plus, I had been used to a certain position and the income and lifestyle that came with it. So, I had to make a calculated decision before deciding to start something on my own. I still do a bit of consulting and teaching because I need to pay my bills too.
Nevertheless, there are a lot of perks that come with being your own boss too. I have the flexibility, freedom, and sense of achievement when I work for myself meeting my own set of goals.
9. Do you make sales on a regular basis? How does the average number of sales look like?
Well, the sales depend mostly on the season. We get more orders during the holiday season such as Christmas and New Year since people are on the lookout for meaningful gifts and less during summer. Also, some items sell well in one place and some of the other so I’d say it’s always fluctuating throughout the year. However, I pride in having loyal customers who frequently buy our products.
10. Do you think Aji’s is making fewer sales because of limited products?
I wouldn’t say that because we have a variety of products. The only thing is that the culture of ethical consumerism is gradually growing in Nepal. People prefer buying a Chinese product that is 10-15 rupees less than that made in Nepal. However, they are becoming more socially conscious and ethical in their purchasing decisions. So, there’s a lot of scope in the future for our products.
11. Have you breakeven?
Yes. Mostly because we haven’t invested a lot of cash but our time and effort. So, if we take our opportunity cost into account, the number might come out different.
12. Is Aji’s open for investment?
Yes but only from impact investors as we do not want just funding from them; we want them to understand the essence of our business and be guided by impact rather than just profits.
Interviewed and article by Yangzum Lama.