Inir Pinheiro is clear. Money or position don’t really matter to him, unlike his friends from the Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneshwar. “I had given my father enough warningsabout my inclinations and he was supportive,” he says. “I didn’t look at the placement exercise.”
The 29-year-old Pinheiro consults with an NGO for his upkeep, even as he divides his time escorting weekend tourists to Purushwadi village, a five-hour drive from Mumbai on the Nashik highway, and doing the rounds of the office of the Registrar of Companies (RoC) to give legal shape to a business that promotes rural tourism.
The venture, named Grassroutes, hopes to transform nondescript villages, near the metros, into viable tourist destinations; viable for him and beneficial to the villagers with increased livelihood opportunities. His proof-of-concept village is showing encouraging signs. Purushwadi is a tribal village of Mahadev Kohlis. The principal sources of income for the villagers are agriculture, farm labour and ‘other income’, which include non-farm businesses and petty commerce.
The average other income of households has increased from Rs 3,745 in 2001 to Rs 15,223 in 2008, with almost Rs 2,000 coming from tourism and Rs 8,000 from small businesses. Income from businesses earlier constituted just 12% of other income; today it’s 51%. Grocers, local transporters, small-time dairy and poultry-keepers have all benefitted.
Visitors are charged Rs 1,000 for a night stay in the village and they partake in all the village activities, including farming, livestock rearing, and even a wedding. It’s the taste of the rustic life and the pristine environs that attract city slickers to Purushwadi. A village tourism committee, which includes two women members, presides over the new initiative.
Now comes the difficult part. All of this was achieved through almost two years of capacity building, training and the construction of basic infrastructure—water tanks, solar lighting, common toilets, among other things. The infrastructure investment in each village, which remains common property, is Rs 10 lakh. Who will foot this bill as Grassroutes expands the network of villages?
“I am now partnering with local NGOs who can source grant money for infrastructure building,” explains Pinheiro. A hybrid model—not-for-profit combined with for-profit—is emerging. He will remain focused on capacity building, marketing, and quality control.
Pinheiro hopes to generate Rs 8 lakh turnover from each village, with a 50:50 profit sharing between his company and the community. “I want to take this to 90:10, with the majority going to the village, as soon as I gain critical mass,” he says.
It’s not a tall order as Pinheiro is being groomed for the challenges ahead by a band of corporate experts from Mumbai brought together by UnLtd, a new incubator for social entrepreneurs, already supporting 44 such start-ups. “The financial model of Grassroutes needs a bit of tinkering with,” says Pooja Warier, Director, UnLtd India. But once the loose ends are tied up, the scope for replicating Purushwadi is unlimited.
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