Ek Garam Chai Ki Pyaali Ho

by | Jul 1, 2021

As a part of India Fellow, we are meant to fundraise for the activities and learnings of the cohort. It is to take ownership as an equal stakeholder and to also pick up fundraising as an essential skill set in the development sector. Here, I write about a story from 5 months ago, when I moved to Rajgurunagar in Maharashtra, named after the famous freedom fighter Shivaram Rajguru of Rajuguru-Sukhdev-Bhagat Singh.

While pondering over how I could begin my fundraising, I was talking to a team member at Chaitanya, who was obviously more than excited to tell me all about their hometown, what sells here and what doesn’t. After some contemplation on whether we could sell ‘nimbu paani’, or even vegetables, we finally arrived at the idea of selling ‘chai’.

Every Sunday, the farmers from the nearby villages gather on the streets here. The bazaar opens as early as 6 am and goes on till 2 pm or 3 pm until the stocks last. The farmers gather at dawn and set up their stalls, while the locals have their Sunday chalked out to pick up the freshest off-the-farm groceries at the lowest, most negotiable rates. The stalls are not pre-allocated but are taken on a first-come-first-serve basis. So clearly, Sundays are the days of maximum local activity and hustle-bustle when footfalls would be the highest. 

I thought ‘Chai’ would be a good low-risk starting point. I wanted to understand the people and markets as that was also crucial to my work. We agreed that chai would be welcomed by farmers and their customers on a cold January morning. I also gathered a group of three girls, daughters of my team members. My first pitch was essentially to these three college-going students to convince them to come on board my one-day venture. They agreed to form the tea-selling squad along with me for Sunday’s business.

I meant for it to be a reflective-learning process for all of us and it was mutually agreed that all proceeds from the activity would be directed to the fundraiser. So we decided to get together in office, which also doubled up as our production unit, and meet up after every 25 cups, to see what worked and what did not.

Our mess helper had agreed to help us with the product i.e. ’chai’. She makes some ultimate quality chai, so we decided to have her in on our little experiment. We quickly made a plan and procured the ingredients needed to make 100 cups of tea. We went around to get it all at the lowest rates – tea leaves, sugar, milk, some ‘elaichi’ and ginger for the extra oomph.

We were to begin distributing the tea next morning at 7 am, which was supposedly the first round of chai the farmers at the bazaar had. However, we ended up assembling only at 9 am and after a discussion on selling strategies as well as a final tasting round of our product, we set out for sale at 10 am. We had almost half the time now. The streets were thronged with locals and the activity in the market was beginning to peak.

A cup of chai was sold between Rs. 5-10 here, so to begin with price incentive, we decided to sell it at Rs. 8. We also carried a packet of ‘Parle-G’ biscuits to offer a small free treat to anyone who paid us Rs. 10 or to even out the change. The four of us broke into two pairs and set out in opposite directions to cover the expanse of the Sunday Bazaar.

Within the first 1 hour, we sold 50 cups. However, we realized that missing the 7 am crowd incurred us a significant loss in sales. Also, in hindsight, Rs. 8 per cup was not good enough a price because on these market days, there are tea vendors who specially make smaller cups of tea worth Rs. 5, not only making it more affordable but also keeping the quantity just right. So our idea of selling a ‘more milky’ chai with ‘higher quantity’ was not really an incentive because neither of those were deciding factors for the buyer.

Another interesting insight was that due to the unavailability of public toilets in the vicinity, people preferred not binging on too many cups of chai or to rather have it in smaller cups. The desire was to just have a sip of an energizer at the lowest available cost. Having sold all the chai in our flasks by 11.45 am, we got back to the mess for getting a fresh batch.

The second round was a lot tougher to sell, partially because the sun was over our heads, and it was closer to farmers’ lunch hour. This is when we started approaching the shoppers and the non-farmer shops. They were our second and unintended target segment for this activity. We sold the last cup around 2.30 PM and got back exhausted, tired and hungry. On doing the math, we found out that we made a net profit of Rs. 565. At zero labor cost of 5 people who worked for 5 hours each.

While I felt thrilled about having tried something new and having returned with a bunch of stories, it dawned upon me that it was the hardest 100 rupees I had ever made.

It was triumphant to me for a day, but this is what the farmers and vendors in the market lived, from week to week, to make the ends meet. This was also the time when Farmer Protests in the country were at their peak. Sadly but honestly, it took me this whole experience to even have a tiny glimpse of the actual physical, mental and financial ordeal that the 40,000 farmers at the protests must be enduring. I also thought about what the lockdown meant for daily wage earners. It was on that Sunday morning that I got a bit closer to comprehending their plight and how the last year and a half has probably deepened already existing poverty traps more than ever before.

Featured image by Shefali Gupta, a 2020 fellow

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