Avani – Experience Report 2014

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August – September 2014

by Silvan Büchler

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. Originally established as the Kumaon chapter of the Barefoot College, Tilonia, Rajasthan, the organization was formally registered as an independent organization in 1997, and it has been promoting appropriate technology and creating sustainable livelihood opportunities in rural Kumaon since then. AVANI’s endeavour has been to make technology and livelihoods contiguous within the household; the goal is for the technology to become an integral part of living that serves to enhance the joy of being and celebrating life in the beautiful mountain ranges. In order to realize this dream, AVANI initiated work on developing and disseminating appropriate technologies for meeting the energy and water requirements of the local villages, promoting craft-based and farm based livelihood opportunities

Prior to Departure

Vaccinations

I recommend consulting a tropical doctor (Tropenarzt) at least two months 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. Vaccinations against Hepatitis, Rabies and Typhus are the most common for this area. Furthermore, your doctor will most certainly 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

I booked a direct flight from Zurich to Delhi. The carrier was Swiss and it cost about 1000 CHF. However, you will definitely find a cheaper ticket if you book earlier.

Indian trains are usually booked out very early, so make sure to book your train ticket optimally one month in advance. I had my ticket booked by Mr. Joshi (joshi_dn@yahoo.com), who is kind of AVANI’s official travel agent. Mr. Joshi also organized the taxi driver from Kathgodam to Tripuradevi (5500 Rs). However, you will probably be able to get a cheaper taxi driver if you contact AVANI directly, they work together with skilled taxi drivers only and if you are lucky, one of them might be in Kathgodam/Haldwani at the time you arrive there. The other option would be to take a shared taxi which is much cheaper.

I landed in Delhi around 1 am and took the train from Anand Vihar station at 5.30 am to Kathgodam. I would suggest to take this train in the morning and do the whole journey to the campus within one day or to take the train in the afternoon/evening from Delhi and take the taxi from Kathgodam/Haldwani the next day.

Campus Life

An internship at Avani is an opportunity to experience a kind of community living which nowadays does hardly exist in the western hemisphere. The interns will be living among the Indian employees and their families on the AVANI campus. During field trips you will get to spend time with local families and farmers and therefore have the chance to discover their daily life and learn more about the Indian culture in the Kumaon region.

On the campus there are two options for accommodation, the guesthouse and the dormitory. Interns will most certainly stay in the dormitory and share one of the rooms with one to maximum three people and the bathroom with the whole dorm. I shared my room with a French intern and the sanitary facilities with all male inhabitants.

The day mostly started at 6.30 with Shramdaan which includes community work such as gardening, cleaning the kitchen or other similar physical activities. Breakfast was normally served between 8 and 9 a.m. after that office work started from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., eat lunch and work again from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. The working hours were very flexible though, I mostly worked longer but also took some days off for short trips or to visit one of the field centres.

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.

Shopping

Just above the campus 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 will also find some grocery stores and a nice restaurant. To reach Raiagar you can either walk (around half an hour) or take a shared taxi.

Projects

A few weeks before I went to India Mr. Jain sent me a list with possible tasks I could work on. However, I basically chose there which projects I would finally work on and some smaller tasks also changed during my stay. The most important for future interns is to keep in mind that you can really chose what projects you want to work on and you can also bring in your own interests and ideas.

I mostly worked on marketing related projects together with another intern from Germany. The main task was to create a new marketing strategy for the four product lines (Textiles, Natural Dyes, Art Supplies and Lifestyle Products) with a strong focus on concrete strategies and actions. This included a market, customer archetype and competitor analysis, brand building, catch up with current and find new distribution channels in India and abroad, applying for environmental certifications which are necessary for AVANI to enter increasingly the global market. Moreover, I managed the social media sites, organised photo shootings, documented the planting of tea samples and worked on a few smaller tasks to support the management staff.

Challenges

I encountered several problems in working together with and especially gathering information from other employees. It happened a few times that we worked on certain tasks former interns had already been working on without letting us know about it. Therefore, we repeated more or less the work that had already been done instead of building upon it from the beginning on. The major reason for this is that it seemed sometimes that they had lost track of all the existing documents and all the great ideas that already existed. They major difficulty seemed to put all ideas together and start implementing them. However, we tried to link the existing ideas with new ones in the new marketing strategy we created which should make it easier for future interns to get an overview.

Another challenge was the culture and language barrier as only a few employees speak English. Therefore, we always had to ask one of the few English speakers to translate the questions to the non-English speakers.

Success

I 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. Also the moments we spend off work discussing and sharing our different perspectives on life were very interesting and enriching.

Moreover, I could complete the major project and have the feeling that I together with the other interns had a sustainable impact at AVANI. In the feedback talk, the founders told us that they learned from our working skills, which were complementary to the ones from the local people. It was a great cooperation in the sense that we could combine our knowledge and learn from each other.

I am still voluntary working for AVANI to take the projects forward. I met with two other interns in London this October to represent AVANIs work at an exhibition.

Conclusion and Suggestions

This internship showed me the effectiveness of a grassroots approach to creating work opportunities, an approach that empowers local workers (especially women) to be self-determining and self-sustaining. It showed me the impact of an organisation that works on site, meeting the needs of the people, the environment and region. Moreover, it was a really great experience to life in a community with local people in a rural area. I learned new ways of living and the beauty of simplicity.

I encourage everyone to conduct an internship with Avani! It is an extremely enriching experience for your career and personal life. You get a lot of responsibility and are allowed to be creative and bring in your own ideas. However, I would suggest to stay for at least three months (or longer if possible), as it is difficult to fully understand an organisation and have a sustainable impact in a shorter amount of time. Also, I would ask the founders to send you some documents about the organisation and their work before you go there. This will help you to start right away and not lose that much time understanding the organisation. Moreover, you should use the time you have with the co-founder Rashmi Bharti as she travels a lot and probably won’t be there for a few weeks. Also ask apparently obvious questions, it will help a lot to clarify certain things.

Finally, always remember that you are the one coming from outside into a community. Respect the different way of living and handling certain things, adapt to it and keep in mind that you can learn as much (most certainly more) as you can give. If you follow these “guidelines” I am sure you will have an unforgettable experience with lasting impressions and friendships.

If you have further questions do not hesitate to contact me: silvan.buechler@hotmail.com