Seeing Hands Clinic is a social enterprise established with the aim of providing training to visually-impaired people in the area of professional massage therapy. Currently, it has entered into its 10th year of operation and we couldn’t be more happy to have covered their story.
In conversation with Chiranjeevi Paudel, the founder and CEO of Seeing Hands Clinic in Kathmandu which has its Head Office in Thamel, and two other outlets in Bouddha, and Bakhundole, Lalitpur.
1. Could you tell us about your journey of starting this venture? When did it get established?
Seeing Hands Clinic has a long and interesting journey. It was originally established by a British Couple- Rob and Susan Ainley in Pokhara. While, Rob was a massage therapist, physiotherapist, and an osteopath, Susan was a Marketing Manager back in the UK. They had been visiting Nepal since 1993, fallen in love and thought of starting an enterprise together. The primary intention was not to start a social enterprise. However, when the couple visited Cambodia, they realized that the sensation of touch among visually-impaired people is relatively higher than others. The blind community of Nepal, especially in those days, was highly marginalized. Hence, with the intention of empowering this community, Seeing Hands Clinic began to operate as an enterprise in 2005.
I was one of the first four blind students who received qualified massage training in Pokhara. After my qualification, I worked at Seeing Hands Clinic, Pokhara, as a massage-therapist, provided training to other visually-impaired people, and also managed the staff there. After gaining valuable work experience for 5 years, I proposed the plan of starting my own venture here in Kathmandu. In this manner, the first Seeing Hands Clinic of Kathmandu Valley was established in Thamel on November 1, 2010. Currently, we have three outlets located in Thamel, Bakhundole, and Bouddha.
2. What is the social problem you are trying to solve or what social change do you see your product or service bringing in society?
We are especially trying to change the financial and social status of visually-impaired people in Nepal. We are also trying to change the negative outlook of people towards blind people and their perception of massage as a profession.
Massage has a history of more than 3500 years and is performed in almost every household across Nepal. However, the sector is not managed in a systematic and professional way. Through Seeing Hands, we are trying to show that massage has a huge medical impact, without any side effects.
3. What challenges did you face while starting the company?
While starting this venture in Kathmandu, we realized that Thamel as a tourist hub would give us the advantage of reaching out to our target market. However, Thamel also has a bad reputation in terms of massage-parlors as some operate as sex-trade centers. Hence, differentiating ourselves as a professional, ethical massage clinic was a major challenge.
Similarly, being visually impaired brought its own set of challenges. The land-lords and other stakeholders doubted our capacity of running an enterprise. Thirdly, getting access to finances and investment was also quite challenging. Due to these reasons, in the initial years, it was quite challenging to get clients and pay for our operational costs.
4. How did you overcome your challenges?
We used marketing techniques to aware people about our services. In 2010, many did not have access to the internet. So, we used to place our brochures in famous hotels. Our initial clients became the verbal advocator for our business, who started recommending us to other clients. After a year into operation, we were registered in trip advisor, which gave us a platform to be reviewed and recommended and thus provided us with an opportunity to reach out to a larger audience. Surya Nepal Asha Social Entrepreneurship Award 2012 also helped us for better recognition.
5. What are the current challenges that you’re facing?
Most of our trainees come from Government schools. The massage course that we provide is affiliated to the London School of Sports Massage. So, one of the major challenges currently comes in the form of a language barrier, as most of the medical terminologies are either in English or Latin.
6. What were your initial investment in the company and the source of funds?
I began this enterprise with 8-9 lakh rupees. 5 lakh rupees were funded by a charity in the UK, and the remaining was invested by Seeing Hands Clinic Pokhara as a loan. Soon after the operation, I paid off my loan to Seeing Hands Clinic Pokhara.
7. Is the business running on a self-sufficiency or profit-making model?
As this is an enterprise, we work on the model of profitability and sustainability. Currently, we have not received any form of foreign aid and we are running on a profit-making level of output. Basically, we divide the payments from our clients into three parts- operational cost, therapist’s fee, and the reserve fund. The money in reserve fund is used to provide training, food, and accommodation to our potential therapists When our trainees graduate, they either receive placement in our existing clinics, or we open a new branch which recruits them.
It was because of the income from Thamel Clinic, that we were able to open our branch in Patan. Similarly, we were able to establish a brand in Bouddha through the combined income of Patan and Thamel. In this way, we plan to expand our services in Chitwan and Solukhumbu by the year 2020.
8. What is your current staff strength and how many people did you start with?
We began with four people, two therapists, one receptionist, and a cleaner. Today, we have fourteen employees working in 3 different clinics. Also, this year we took 4 more visually impaired trainees for the expansion of the new clinic.
9. How many customers (monthly basis) or client do you have?
The number of clients that we receive varies on a seasonal basis, just like any other tourism-based business. The month of January is a loaded season for us, where we receive up to thirteen to fourteen clients on a daily basis. In peak seasons, we have almost 30-35 clients per day, the highest recorded number of clients received in a day is 55.
10. What is the future plan for your company?
We want to run our enterprise in all seven Provinces of Nepal. We also want to expand the area of employment opportunity, and not just limit it to Seeing Hands Clinic. I believe that everybody does not have the skill to provide massage and communicate in English. So, I want to extend the range of services provided by visually-impaired to handicrafts, and hence generate employment outside of Seeing Hand Clinic. This is an experimental effort that will commence in a month or two.
11. Do you measure the impact of your product/service?
We began this enterprise with a motive to solve certain social issues. I believe we have created an impact in the lives of many people by opening a dialogue for this conversation. However, we have not carried out any scientific method to measure the impact, but we would be happy to welcome anyone who is interested in measuring the impact of our services.
Interviewed and article by Shambhavi Singh.