You can’t completely understand the problem until you learn about it from the people who know it best.
This has been a personal philosophy that has grown stronger over the past couple of years. It’s been reinforced even more this winter.
I’m Jen, and I’ve been working on Essmart for over a year now as part of the US-based team. In Boston, I created surveys to assess the needs of village storeowners in India. I helped fundraise through social venture competitions. But this winter, I was finally able to come to India to do on-the-ground work. And as a result, Essmart and what we do has become even more alive to me.
I see the huts and off-the-grid settlements that never get electricity, which are problems that Essmart’s social goods help to resolve. I witness when village storeowners see this water filter or a solar lantern for the very first time.
People sometimes have this perception of international development work as swooping to save these people, heroically lifting them out of poverty or ignorance. This line of thinking perpetuates an unequal power dynamic that should not be the case. When I visit village stores with our sales executives, I meet tough, savvy shopkeepers who are not easily sold on our products. They take the products out of their boxes. Then they touch the products, they explore the finishes, and they carefully examine every detail. They turn off their shop lights so they can better test the strength of our lights. They listen closely when Essmart’s sales agents explain the product more to end users that crowd around in curiosity. It is only after this demonstration that shopkeepers agree to take our business card and have an Essmart catalogue put in their store.
These shopkeepers are not easy sales, but when they believe in us, they continue promoting our products. On one of our daily routes, we introduced a new product to a shopkeeper. When we left, he continued demonstrating the solar flashlight to three or four intrigued end users. Village shopkeepers are smart, and when we say that Essmart is establishing partnerships with local village stores, we mean it—these local retail stores are our partners and equals.
And we know that we’re promising them quality products.
With clock-like precision, at the exact same hours every day, the power goes out. On my first night here, I was shocked. Now, I just follow Diana and Poonacha’s lead and grab our closest solar lantern product to work by. Our appliances’ solar panels charge outside of the apartment everyday. One of ur water filter products sits in the kitchen. Even as I write this, I leap up every few minutes with our bug zapper to swat at the newest member of our resident mosquito army that’s trying to feast on this new foreign delicacy (me). I have never known sweeter revenge.
So, I assure you, these products really come in handy in Pollachi. Our own daily use of Essmart products is a testament to their quality and our belief in them!
It has been amazing seeing the ideas of Essmart translate into action and results on the sandy, sun-beaten roads of Southern India. Yes, Essmart is a work in progress, but that’s the way all things in life should always be. We are a dynamic process. We are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating, thinking about what we could do better, and making the necessary adjustments so that we become better. My time in India has more than reinforced my belief in Essmart and everything the US-based team and I have been working toward. I return to the States, reinvigorated to work for the Essmart cause.
Jen Zhu is a joint degree candidate in Government and Sociology at Harvard University. She has prior experience with two other social enterprises, and worked with Dalberg Global Development Advisors to analyze 80+ social enterprises’ challenges and success factors. She also researches the dissemination of public health interventions through social networks in developing countries. Jen works on market analysis, social media, and U.S. marketing.