Avani – Experience Report 2013

Avani 2013

Juli – August 2013

by Stefanie Heller, Wenke Stalling and Cornel Vogel

Portrait of AVANI

AVANI is a voluntary organization working in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, located in the middle ranges of the Central Himalayan region. It was in 1997 that AVANI started its journey as the Kumaon Chapter of The Social Work and Research Center, also known as the Barefoot College. The Barefoot College focuses on capacity building of rural communities, enabling them to make sustainable and capable contributions to society. In November 1999, AVANI was formally registered, continuing the work initiated in 1997.

The genesis of AVANI came about in the context of the isolation and consequent problems of the far-flung villages situated in one of the highest mountain ranges of the world. Nature, as it obtains in this region, warrants search for local specific solutions to the problems. In the interaction with people regarding the problematic, AVANI’s accent has been focused on conservation rather than distribution; more on self reliance than outside dependence. AVANI’s endeavor has been of making technology and livelihoods contiguous within the household, an integral part of living, being and celebrating life in these mountain ranges.

In order to realize this goal, AVANI initiated work on developing and disseminating appropriate technologies for meeting the energy and water requirements of the local villages, promoting craft-based (development of handmade naturally dyed textiles) and farm based livelihood opportunities. To date AVANI projects include the dissemination of solar technology, water resource management, natural textiles and paints, and the social and economic development of rural communities with projects such as healthcare and micro-finance.

Prior to Departure

Vaccinations

We recommend consulting a tropical doctor (Tropenarzt) at least one and a half month prior to departure as some vaccinations have to be done three times within a month before they take effect. Tropical doctors can be found in every major city in Switzerland. In our experience, vaccinations against Hepatitis, Rabies and Typhus are the most common for this area. Furthermore, your doctor will probably recommend taking some medicines against malaria with you, as there is no vaccination.

Indian Visa

You can apply online for the Indian Visa on the website http://in.vfsglobal.ch, so there is no need to visit the Indian embassy personally as all further steps can be done by post. The whole process will take about 1 – 2 weeks. For the visa you will need two passport photos with a 5cm x 5cm format, which is different to the European format. For the photos you can either go to a photo shop or there are also some photo booths (Prontophot) where you can get passport photos with the required format. Check the following link to find a photo booth in your area: http://prontophot.ovalcube.co/automaten-standorte/

Flight Ticket, Train Ticket and Taxi to Tripuradevi

We booked a flight from Zurich via Munich to Delhi. The carrier was Lufthansa and it cost us about 1200 CHF. Our experience was the earlier you book the flight the cheaper it is.

Indian trains are usually booked out very early, so make sure to book your train ticket optimally one month in advance. We had our ticket booked by Mr. Joshi, who is kind of AVANI’s official travel agent. Mr. Joshi also organized our taxi driver and he booked our hotel in Kathgodam. His contact information is as follows: joshi_dn@yahoo.com.

Our train (Utrahtia Sampark Kranti Express) left at 16:40 from the Old Delhi Railway Station and arrived at Kathgodam at 22:40. There we were picked up by the taxi driver who brought us to our Hotel (Lemon Park Hotel). The next day, the same taxi driver drove us to the AVANI campus. We were charged 5000 Rs. for the Full Taxi.

Life on the Campus

On the campus there are two options for accommodation, the guesthouse and the dormitory. In the dormitory the men and women are separated. The guesthouse is more comfortable because you have e.g. your own shower, toilet and electricity access directly in the room. However, the founders of AVANI told us that all interns should stay in the dormitory, unless it is full.

The daily routine was normally to have breakfast at 8 a.m., work from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., eat lunch and work again from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Additionally, we had two Chai breaks (Indian tea with milk and a lot of sugar), one at 3 p.m. and the other one early in the morning at 6 a.m. (which we never were attended).

The meals on the campus were vegetarian and always good but did not vary much in taste. Normally for breakfast we had roti or fried-roti and daal, or a kind of porridge. The lunch was composed of rice, daal and some vegetable and for dinner we had roti and also variations of daal and vegetables. For more variations in the meals, the next paragraph contains some helpful advices.

Shopping

Just above the campus (follow the street for less than 2 minutes) you will reach Tripuradevi. This is a quite small village where you can buy some snacks like cookies, soft drinks and some fruits. There is also a little store where you can get an Indian SIM card. For an Indian phone number you need 2 photos and a copy of your passport and visa. Furthermore, you can get omelets and samosas, which can be a nice appetizer before lunch or dinner at AVANI.

Berinag and Raiagar are the two other villages, which you can reach quite easy from the campus. The most comfortable way to Berinag is taking one of the shared taxis on the road. The ride takes about 10 minutes and costs roughly 10 Rs. In Berinag there are a lot of stores. This village provides a larger assortment of different types of snacks and fruits than Tripuradevi. Moreover, here you get hygiene products like toothpaste and toilet paper. There are also some restaurants which serve samosa or chow mein. Berinag also has an ATM where you can withdraw money as everything is paid in cash here.

Raiagar is in the opposite direction of Berinag, which means you have to walk the street down from the campus. Raiagar is bigger than Tripuradevi but still smaller than Berinag. There you also find some grocery stores and a nice restaurant. To reach Raiagar you either walk (around half an hour) or take a shared taxi.

Our Project

The founders had various ideas of projects for us, asking us to choose one or more of them and define their scope according to our personal interests and abilities.

Our work so far is mainly concentrated on two business fields.

One is the Kumaon Earthcraft Company (KEC), which, separated from the non-profit AVANI, is a profit company producing and marketing natural textiles while creating sustainable livelihoods through their operations. The other business field we focus on is that of clean energy. The project Wenke was involved in focuses on generating electricity from flammable pine needles and producing cooking charcoal briquettes from residual charcoal. This project is still in the planning phase and will start its operations in September 2013. During our time at AVANI we worked on six bigger projects (in various team combinations).

One project, that Stefanie and Wenke carried out together, was the planning and implementation of a barcode system for the finished goods. Their tasks included to work on suggestions of which barcode system to use and which scanner to buy, to translate 2500 existing codes into the picked bar-coding system, work on ways to have the barcodes codes cheaply printed on labels, and how to synchronize the actual inventory with the inventory system called Tally.

The second project, which Wenke conducted by herself, concerned financial data of the renewable energy project. Her tasks included analyzing the data and the impact of different costs and revenue factors on the overall profitability of the project, as well as recommending monthly targets for the project after operations start.

The third project, which Wenke also conducted by herself, arose out of her work at the renewable energy project and concerned the accounting.  During her first week at AVANI she has realized how flawed available data of the renewable energy project is and thus decided to tackle the problem at the roots. She wanted to identify mistakes in the accounting and help to correct them. Further it was her personal goal to teach the accounting staff how to treat different expenses and revenue sources according to accounting rules. Moreover, this project included the monthly filling out of a data template for a fund, as well as teaching the accounting staff to fill it our in the future.

Stefanie and Cornel continued Alexander’s and Christian’s, the former GTI-interns, work as a fourth project and conducted a sales and inventory analysis. Their main goal was to show the development of the sales and inventory and derive possible improvements thereof. This is necessary as the Accounting solution used (Tally) is very limited when it comes to reports. Rashmi indicated that this might be again a project for the future interns from St. Gallen.

For many years, Earthcraft used some of AVANI’s assets free of charge, which, from an accountant’s but also economical point of view, is not correct. As most of the assets are funded by grants or given specifically to AVANI from other NGOs, they could not be transferred to Earthcraft due to contractual restrictions. That is why Cornel was asked to work out a leasing-agreement between the two companies and determine the yearly fee, which optimally equals the market price for these assets, that Earthcraft has to pay to AVANI.

Cornel was further asked by a representative of the Barr Foundation, which is the main sponsor of Earthcraft’s expansion plan, to set up a Cash Flow Forecast based on the last three years’ history for AVANI and Earthcraft. The main problem was that there were significant Cash Flows between the two companies, which had to be reported separately for this project. As mentioned before, Tally’s reporting functions are very limited so the Cash Flow Statement had to be prepared on the basis of the extensive cash and bank book entries.

The sixth project on which Stefanie worked, was to develop a framework, which allowed KEC to put their business segments in a comprehensive strategy and from which marketing strategies can be derived. The framework follows the market-oriented business management approach. Furthermore, Stefanie supported Tautik Das, the new marketing manager, in all different kinds of marketing questions. For example market analysis, benchmark for marketing strategies and composing a concept for the implementation of the balance scorecard.

Additionally we worked on other tasks that were business related and could not be completed by the local workers. For instance we corrected financial data on a pitch presentation, wrote a draft letter of recommendation for AVANI’s application for the Global Social Entrepreneurship Program at Yale, helped the teachers of the AVANI primary school to formulate a curriculum for the age groups of the 6 to 7 year olds, and wrote a product manual for soap nut powder, one of AVANI’s natural products.

Challenges

We encountered several problems in working together with and gathering information from other employees. The most visible reason for this is that we faced a culture and language barrier. Only very few employees speak English, so we always had to ask one of the few English speakers to translate the questions to the non-English speakers.

Additionally, we faced several general challenges of rural work in India. Since we conduct the project during monsoon time, the heavy rainfalls often broke down the electricity system. Without laptops and Internet most parts of our projects were impossible to carry out. Finally, there were some health problems due to the Indian food in our team that slowed down some of the teamwork.

Successes

We learned much about Indian rural life and the attitude of the local employees towards life, which made it much easier to co-operate with them and to make our ideas consistent with their working and learning possibilities.

Further we gained the trust of both founders by not only putting much effort into our work, but also starting to teach English at the school they set up on campus. We also gained trust of the teachers of the local school by teaching English, so they help us to translate if we needed information for our tasks.

Another success was that we managed to gain trust not only of the founders but also of various members of the local community. For instance Stefanie and Wenke developed a kind of friendship with the head accounting woman after giving her Swiss chocolate after a long working day.

Finally, we could complete most of our projects and have the feeling that we made a sustainable impact at AVANI.

Short Trips

During our stay at AVANI we went on several trips. On our first Sunday at the campus we visited a cave temple called Patal Bhuvaneshwar. The temple is located in the village Bhubneshwar, which is about 1 ½ hours by taxi from the AVANI campus. There, a guide (mandatory for foreigners) will show you round and tell you a lot of interesting stories about what or whom the different stalagmite and stalactite figures in the cave represent. A further attraction is the entrance of the cave temple: a very narrow, slippery and steep (nearly vertical) tunnel that one has to climb down before reaching the underground hall. If you want to visit the cave temple bring your passport, or access will probably be denied to you.

In case you need some food-variety, there are some resorts close to Tripuradevi, which serve mainly North-Indian and vegetarian food. We went for lunch to the Ojaswi Resort in Chaukori and were very satisfied with the food, even though a lot of dishes listed on the menu were not served due to the few tourists in the region during the rainy season.  If the weather is good, Chaukori is also a nice spot to see the Himalayas. The resort can be easily reached from Berinag by shared taxi which costs about 35 Rupees per person.

Further we visited a tea plantation in Kausani. We went there with another intern who wanted to buy tea for his start-up. That is why we were also given an interesting tour of the plant which dries and processes the tea leaves. Kausani also has some good restaurants (e.g. Garden Restaurant) which are worth trying out. On the way to Kausani you will pass Bageshwar, a small but busy city with a lot of shops and a nice temple. We stayed there only for a few hours but if you have time you should definitely give it a try. If you want to do the same trip in one day, we recommend taking a full taxi which should charge you about 3000 Rupees.

In the middle of our internship we went to Nainital for an extended weekend (three days and two nights). Unfortunately, it rained a lot during our stay that is why we spent most of our time in shops, coffee shops or restaurants. Nainital has a wide range of restaurants offering different Indian and also continental food. We stayed at the Krishna Hotel and we can absolutely recommend it, mainly because of its location and the nice view over the lake. The fastest way getting to Nainital is by full taxi, but we were told that there are also several buses a day from Raiagar (about 2 km from the campus) going directly to Nainital.

Important Note: Take your passport on each trip because you never know if you have to show it!

Important Contacts at AVANI

The following list shows all people we mainly worked with during our internship:

  • Rashmi Bharti, Founder
  • Rajnish Jain, Founder
  • Rajnish Pant, Manager
  • Rajendra Joshi, Manager
  • Deepa Mehta, Accountant AVANI
  • Harish Tamta, Inventory Accountant
  • Diwani Arya, Accountant Earthcraft

Packing List

The following list is our suggestion for must-haves for the time at AVANI:

  • Your own Laptop (and a harddisk with movies)
  • Memory-Stick
  • Silk or synthetic sleeping bag (it depends on how much you normally freeze)
  • Umbrella or Rain Jacket (Mostly we only used the umbrella.)
  • Hiking Boots
  • Flip Flops
  • Cord (e.g. to hang your clothes to dry)
  • Flashlight
  • Pocketknife
  • Mosquito repellent and crème for stings
  • Medicine your doctor recommended
  • Toilet paper
  • Handwash for your clothes
  • Swiss Chocolate