Ms. Parina Subba Limbu and Ms. Laxmi Rai represent the perfect example of incredible results that can be achieved when women support each other. Having worked in the social service sector for several years, they utilized their grassroot level knowledge of Nepal and the lockdown period in March, 2020 to brainstorm for sustainable business ideas. With the mission to promote the reduce, reuse and recycle culture along with uplifting other Nepali women in this process, Oya Initiatives was registered in July 2020.
A couple of weeks back we connected with Ms. Limbu and Ms. Rai who answered all of our questions about their entrepreneurial journey and upcoming visions for this venture.
Read our conversation to find out more about this interesting initiative.
Can you tell me more about the ideation process of Oya Initiatives?
Laxmi: Being a social worker and storyteller, I have worked with a variety of survivors both in Nepal and the UK. Every year I come back to my roots to do workshops and events, that is how I met Parina a few years back. Unlike every year, I was stuck in Nepal for five months due to lockdown in March, 2020. During such restrictions, I got ample opportunity to think about how I can support people in Nepal. After raising funds for PPE distribution for frontline workers, I realized that this approach to support people may not be sustainable.
Parina: Being an abuse and domestic violence survivor, a single mother, and a women activist, I have also worked at a grassroot level in Nepal for many years. While working in an organization, I have understood our tendency to heavily rely on others for support. Hence, I started doing a market survey for the past year and a half to understand the perspective towards thrift culture. The lockdown seemed like the best opportunity for us to come together and brainstorm more on this idea and bring more sustainable support to women from different backgrounds.
What does your operation process look like right now?
Everything in the UK is handled by Laxmi. We start with high transparency from the initial collection of products itself. We keep track of where the donations went and we acknowledge the support provided by individual donors in the UK. Meanwhile, in Nepal, once the products arrive here, we create an entry in our system of the number of clothes along with the state of clothing in terms of quality. We divide it based on A, B and C categories. Then, we wash, iron, repair the products if needed. Additionally, we rescreen the products for quality check and finally it goes on social media with appropriate pricing.
What are the products that you are currently offering?
We initially started with only women clothing. But, now, we have incorporated bags, shoes, jewelries, and other accessories. Most of the products at present come from the UK. As an exception, we have accepted product donations from celebrities in Nepal to raise money for our education fund. Such initiative allowed us to get higher visibility in the market along with raising significant money for our social vision.
What are your thoughts on sourcing products from Nepal?
We are not against the idea of collecting products from Nepal in the future. During our initial market survey which developed the concept of Oya Initiatives, we realized that Nepali consumers are still skeptical about thrift culture. So, we have put efforts not merely on selling, but to make people understand about the benefits of thrift culture. For us, there is always a risk that people will not prefer to buy second hand clothes. Hence, we will focus on sourcing from Nepali market once we aware more people and there is a change in perspective that thrifting does not mean just donating anything and cleaning your closet.
Who are your allies in running the business?
There are currently three staff members who are involved in product management. Both of us are equally involved in all aspects of business from planning to marketing. Having worked several years at grassroot level to solve social issues, we wanted to understand all aspects of business and be transparent in our actions. We do not have any other partners at the moment except for our logistics provider, who support us in bringing goods from the UK to Nepal.
Other than focusing on 3 R’s, what other social impact does your venture target?
Laxmi: Having started my college education journey when I was in my mid 30s, I have always valued education and the impact it can create in a person’s life. My personal vision is to sponsor education of youths. In our first year of operation, we had targeted to sponsor 3 girls, but now given the growth of Oya, I am ambitious to sponsor education for 5 girls. The sustainability and growth of Oya Initiatives will lead to higher profit which will then be collected in our education fund.
Parina: Being a survivor myself, I have realized the impact of lack of financial support on mental well being. I focus towards growing this enterprise to create more jobs for single mothers in Oya Initiatives. It is not limited to their economic sustainability, but rather a means to break the social stigma in Nepali society.
With the escalating growth of the thrift industry in Nepal, how do you feel about market competition?
Competition is inevitable. We have focused on differentiation strategy to handle the growing competition in this industry. Our social vision towards employment creation for single mothers and girls education sets us apart from the rest. Additionally, one aspect that we value since our initiation is transparency, which is not a common practice in this industry. We have seen fewer brands, who ask for suggestions from customers, conduct surveys and provide schemes for customers.
We love to see more growth in this industry to promote the culture of reuse, recycle and reduce. However, one threat from the high number of booming thrift stores in Nepal is the negative impression from one store can affect many customer’s perception of the entire thrift culture. We want consumers to wear thrift goods with dignity and the sellers must also sell it with equal respect. It becomes essential to lead by example in this industry.
What were the main challenges in starting this venture especially during a pandemic?
One major challenge in the UK is that some people do not understand that we are not collecting clothes and donating it to some charity based in Nepal. It takes tremendous effort to make people understand while they may still not donate anything to us. So, there is a high level of mistrust even in the UK. In Nepal, we have understood that people are still not used to online buying and payment systems. There is a high level of skepticism among Nepali people due to discrepancy in the goods seen online and the goods they receive. Hence, we find creative ways to showcase products and come up with schemes to build trust with our consumers.
Where can the customers find your products?
We do not have a physical store. We do all of our sales through Instagram and Facebook. Recently, we have also started participating in local markets where people get the opportunity to see and buy our products. You can check our social media platforms for updates regarding our stall in any upcoming local market.
What are your future plans for this enterprise?
Currently, we do not have any plans in terms of products. We do brainstorming sessions regularly so we can plan ahead about the kind of products demanded in the market. Our major future plan is to sponsor education for a total of 5 girls within one year of establishing Oya Initiatives. We recently sponsored one girl for their entire four-years degree.
How has this entrepreneurial journey been so far for you?
Parina: Although it is an entirely different experience than working in an NGO, I am loving it so far. After dealing with some traumatic experiences in my life, I had not envisioned this venture to be the cause for rediscovering myself. It makes me hopeful for the future and the level of change we can bring in the long run.
Laxmi: Through this company, I have discovered the perfect amalgamation between my passion and profession. I passionately believe in women education, which has been supported by the profits of this venture. Despite years of working as a social worker both in Nepal and abroad, I finally feel like my passion is being directed in the right direction.
Is there any additional suggestion you would like to give to other emerging entrepreneurs?
Despite the popular belief that wealth is the main factor in initiating an entrepreneurial journey, we have learnt from our experiences that factors such as personal vision, mindset, and courage are more significant to start and sustain a venture. It is crucial to understand your own mindset and vision for the venture, which will be the factors that will drive you in both highs and lows. There will be several instances where external pressure and negative comments can significantly affect your plans. Nevertheless, your ability to be mentally prepared and toil harder can get you to your end goal. It is never too late to dream and try!
Get fashionable products while contributing to job creation and education opportunities for women. Let’s shop for a cause with Oya Initiatives!
Interviewed and Article by Shreeya Bhattarai