Nurturing an entrepreneurial streak

Nurturing an entrepreneurial streak

New Delhi: Tucked away in the middle of a nondescript village on the Capital’s northern edge, streams of loopy noodles hang loose over steel poles inside a home. Men and women in sky-blue uniforms and tissue-thin disposable masks whisk eggs in buckets and transfer flour into kneading machines. At the entrance, above a basin, a poster guides visitors to scrub hands up to their elbows and shut the tap by elbow when done: “Hand wash is not rocket science, but saves lives."

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This miniature noodle factory isn’t easy to find, and just as it’s odd to find men in aprons in the middle of a dusty rural outpost. But the fame of Amdo Food Co. Pvt. Ltd—an enterprise launched by a Tibetan father-son team, Chodak Bhutia and Tenzing Wangchuk—and of its air-dried noodles is spreading swiftly among the 130,000-strong community of Tibetan exiles. Small consignments even travel to Europe, as a band of loyal customers there place orders and reorders.

Amdo’s venture is not big, by any measure: The 1,000 sq. m unit is an extension of a home in Punjab Khore, a rustic conclave within the city’s urban sprawl. It produces only around 800kg of five different kinds of noodles every day, more than half of which is retailed in select stores and hotels around Delhi and Jaipur. It employs just 15 people. And as many small businesses are run, father Bhutia controls production, and son Wangchuk handles marketing.

But for all its modesty, this nine-year-old venture inspires as much as represents a new kind of dynamism within the Tibetan community, and a new willingness to take part in India’s growing economic opportunities.

Tibetans in India have primarily depended on the sales of traditional handicrafts such as carpets and incense sticks for income. Others have opened travel agencies and restaurants, spurred by the tourism economy in Dharamsala, the seat of the exiled leadership. Some migrate to the West. As for any refugee community, the road of struggle has been long and hard, traversing more than five decades.

When waves of refugees began crossing over to India following China’s annexation of Tibet in 1951, they first lived in tented camps in the northern foothills, scraping together a living by doing hard labour, often building high mountain roads along the very border they had crossed. Later, as they gradually moved to settlements, many undertook countrywide expeditions to sell sweaters, a thriving seasonal trade for a majority of Tibetans even today.

Bhutia arrived in the eastern hill town of Kalimpong, desperate for a job, in 1959, the same year the Dalai Lama escaped into India seeking political refuge. Bhutia constructed homes and loaded goods on trucks. His wife, Tsamcho Dolma, accompanied by a young Tenzing, sold woollens at a nearby town. Their small three-room home, which they shared with their three children, turned into a noisy guest house; for extra income, they took in 12 children from neighbouring Nepal who arrived there to study.

Opportunity knocked when Bhutia found work at a noodle factory that had been set up to employ Tibetan youth by the Dalai Lama’s brother Gyalpo Dhondup. “Making noodles was the only thing I knew," says Bhutia, who worked in the factory for two decades before moving to Delhi in the early 1990s.

While many educated Tibetan youth are becoming a part of India’s professional class, raising resources for new ventures has been difficult, since many continue to hold documents certifying them as foreigners of Tibetan origin. Amdo Food, for example, relied on a Rs2 lakh loan from the Tibetan Central Administration, which governs the three dozen-odd Tibetan settlements in India. Assistance also came from its buyer, the Netherlands-based Fair Trade Organization, to procure air conditioners and blowers.

But a new wave of Tibetan entrepreneurship is in the making. The Welfare Society of Tibetan Chamber of Commerce, an industry lobby set up four years ago to raise investment and support business, has recently released a handbook on how to do business in India.

Targeted at Tibetan youth, the slim yellow book contains step-by-step information on how to set up a firm, and it is intended to be distributed free in refugee settlements. With a first print run of 1,000 copies, it offers details on how to obtain factory licences and tips on setting up small businesses such as cab services or dance schools. Perhaps unintentionally—or perhaps to infuse competitive spirit—it also acknowledges China’s bottle-blowing prowess.

Until recently, members of the Tibetan lobby group could only afford sponsored luncheon meetings at the New Delhi restaurant Berco’s. A month ago, however, the lobby group moved into its own office—a basement in south Delhi. Around 200 members, some of whom run businesses in other parts of the world, are already on its rolls.

The group is primarily focusing its energy on raising funds—$15,000 (around Rs7 lakh) has already come in from a US-based non-governmental organization, National Endowment for Democracy—and on gaining recognition among business and government entities around the world. Its first action plan is to take a batch of 40 Tibetan youths for a European tour this year to look at opportunities of setting up new businesses in settlements.

“The chamber is meant to bring all Tibetan businessmen on a single platform," says Dorjee Shewatsang, a member of Tibet’s Parliament-in-Exile and an architect by profession. Shewatsang, who runs a real estate development firm with an Indian partner, started his career building monasteries around the country, some replicating the old monuments destroyed in Tibet.

Like many second generation Tibetans, Shewatsang, the son of a former guerrilla member, feels at home in India, but finds it important, as a member of the exiled community, to pursue its political interests collectively before his individual business interests. India is home, but not a permanent one.

In early 2000, when the Tibetan administration decided to “privatize" (to fund its burgeoning deficit) some of its many businesses, from hotels to handicrafts, Shewatsang bought its publication business for Rs20 lakh. “I knew it was not a cash-generating business," he says. “But I thought it was important to carry on."

Sonam Tobgyal, who is the lobby group’s chairman, runs a travel business. He’s also launched a media company called Bodgyalo Media Ltd to disseminate information through “video news". “I find there is a huge gap between what the Tibetan government normally likes to communicate and a big mass of people who are illiterate," he says.

Bodgyalo, which means “Hail Tibet", sells 500 DVDs a month on subscription; for wider appeal, he includes the teachings of the Dalai Lama as content material.

In a way, the lobby group’s emphasis on entrepreneurship is also inextricably linked with the functioning of the Tibetan administration. While the larger goal is to create employment through new enterprises, the group also wants to channel more chatrel—voluntary tax—to the government as businesses grow, a small step towards achieving economic power and towards fulfilling the bigger dream of a free Tibet.

All administrative expenses are currently met by contributions from the community, amounting to close to Rs100 crore a year, according to two estimates.

The idea of Tibet is never far from the mind. Tobgyal’s media venture, he says, is to preserve Tibetan heritage, and that includes spreading the message of doing business the Tibetan way. “One way is Ratan Tata’s, who says: ‘I am giving you a job, and that’s where it starts’," he says. “The other is the theory of interdependency, which says, ‘I exist because of others’. It makes a big difference...[it] helps to avoid worker troubles."

In the modern rat race, 36-year-old Tenzing of Amdo Foods concedes that one can strive for such visions, but they are difficult to attain. Last year, however, four long-time Amdo workers were rewarded with a 4% equity stake in the company. The impulse to get workers onto the company’s board has largely been influenced by standards outlined by its biggest buyer, the Fair Trade Organization.

Under fair-trade guidelines, workers are also entitled to development bonuses. Desert coolers were given to employees, by popular demand, a year ago. Amdo now has other plans for next year. “We want a fridge," says Tempa Bhutia, one of the workers who holds a stake in the company.

The secret of success is all about fairness, concludes Bhutia. “When I say I put three eggs in my noodles, I mean three, not two."

Every year, many people from neighbouring countries arrive in India to pursue ambitions, both personal and universal. In four parts, “Neighbours at Home" will track a few lives among these hundreds of thousands, examining the hopes that brought them to India, and the hopes that they take with them when they leave.

Tomorrow: Hazara students, victimized among the victimized in Afghanistan, find opportunity in India.