Sometimes we learn more from things that don’t go to plan than things that do. Biolaya turned out to offer many learning opportunities. Below are a few reflections on some of the challenges we faced, how we could have done things better and some of the lessons that I took away from the experience.
#1: What would Gandhi have done?
It has always been hard to define exactly what Biolaya was. We wanted to be many things at the same time; we wanted to create a profitable enterprise, but we also aspired – as Gandhi once said – to be the change we wanted to see in the world: to live a simple life in a village, grow our own organic food and medicinal plants, and create a haven of conscious ecological living.
In hindsight, depending on which perspective I look at it from, the combination of running a business with living and working in a remote Himalayan hamlet was one of the best or one of the worst decisions we could have made!
From a personal perspective, life in Deushar was the richest part of my Biolaya experience. I gained a deep insight into a very different way of life and learnt more about organic farming than any amount of study could have given me. It also allowed me/us to develop a relationship with the plants in a more direct, intuitive way that would never have been possible through occasional visits to farms. The plants were our main source of inspiration, and we were never short of that.
But from a commercial perspective, our gandhian aspirations were the cause of many headaches. We were very much at the end of the road (and a bit further), a long way from the nearest town. Communications were often an issue. The cables for our long-awaited broadband connection were stolen so many times that the telephone department eventually gave up on us. Important skype calls often required a 20-minute drive to a nearby hotel. Regular meetings in Kullu were a half-day round trip.
But perhaps the biggest issue was the lack of access to human resources. There were many local people who could do an excellent job of coordinating field activities, running the distillation unit etc., but as the business grew, so did our need for people who could manage the day to day requirements in the office. The only way we could do this was by bringing people in from the outside, but finding capable people who were willing to move to a remote village (such as Nomita) wasn’t easy.
This resulted in Surie and I spending ever-increasing hours in the office to manage communications and administration. Rather than embodying the change we wanted to see in the world, we spent a lot of time telling others what to do, and sat in front of our computers feeling increasingly stressed by the workload.
Ultimately it meant that we didn’t do either as well as we could have; the location became a leash round the neck of the business, and the business prevented us from fully engaging with the land.
So, that leaves me wondering what is the solution. Did we need to be clearer on our purpose and just focus on one thing? Or should we have set up separate offices – one in a town and one in the hills? Or could we have found a solution to carry on the way we started? I’ve always wondered, what would Gandhi have done if he was running Biolaya?
#2. NGO? Company? Or Both? Creating a sustainable business model
Just as it was difficult to define exactly what Biolaya was, we also had the challenge of creating an appropriate institutional framework. To legally operate in India, we needed to form an official organisation with a bank account etc, but it was never entirely clear whether we were a non-profit, a for-profit or a not-very-profitable-for-profit.
Initially we set ourselves up as an NGO (which in itself was a very long process), but we made the mistake of including myself and a few other foreigners on the managing committee. This meant that we were unable to register under the FCRA (the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) and could not receive funds from foreign sources (which we were dependent on to operate). In a typical quirk of Indian bureaucracy this was an irreversible decision and the only way around it was to start again from the beginning.
The second time around we decided to set ourselves up as a Private Ltd company – Biolaya Organics Pvt Ltd – and to focus on developing a profitable enterprise. Instead of raising funds through grants, we would need to seek investors and generate our income through the business. In the end we survived through a combination of consultancy and donations. The latter were channelled into the company through an extraordinarily convoluted and time-consuming process of selling shares – not a solution I would recommend.
In hindsight, it was a business model that was never going to be easy to sustain. Growing Himalayan herbs requires a lot of time and investment, as does creating new products from wildcrafted herbs. The more the business grew, the more I had to spend time doing consultancy work to generate income to pay salaries, and the more time I spent doing consultancy work, the more I took my eye off the ball.
Having seen similar models, I have come to the conclusion that it would have been best to run an NGO and a company in parallel; the NGO focuses on non-profit activities such as education and training, and the company focuses on the commercial aspects of the project. There are other options to set up a non-profit company, which may also have been a good solution.
My advice to others in a similar situation (and myself if I could go back in time) would be to start with the best legal advice you can; don’t try to save money on this – it will save a lot of time and effort to get it right first time. The same applies to financial advice and chartered accountants – spend money on talking to the best, otherwise you’ll lose months and months lost in the quagmire of Indian bureaucracy.
#3. Local Leadership & Empowerment
I always knew that at some point the time would come for me to return to the UK, and that Biolaya would need to stand on its own feet. Surie was/is an exceptional talent, and I never had any other vision than for him to run it on his own.
So I was always mindful of the need for Surie to feel empowered, and to create an environment in which there was a sense of local ownership. Other than a few foreign volunteers, most of our recruitment of staff was organised and decided by Surie, and he did an excellent job of bringing together a committed group of local people who managed many of the day to day activities.
But in hindsight I can see ways in which some of my own ideas and decisions, although supported by Surie and the rest of the team, would not have empowered them. Much of our business plan, for example, was based on products and markets that only I was familiar with – none more so than the idea to make an oregano oil spray for hospitals and nursing homes in the UK. The concept itself was good (good enough to beat hundreds of other applicants to win a SEED award) but in reality it was so far removed from the rest of the team’s experience that it was never going to be a project they could fully own; they would always rely on some external support for it to succeed.
In hindsight I can also see more clearly how much a sense of ownership is determined by a) who comes up an idea in the first place and b) how much each person has invested financially in the successes (and failures) of an enterprise. In the case of Biolaya it was me that approached Surie with the idea, and although we were very much equal partners in the business, certain key decisions and much of the subsequent investment (and financial losses) were mine.
So what could I have done differently to further empower the Surie and the rest of the local team?
Asking the locals to invest money in a costly and high-risk enterprise was never an option. But I do think we could and should have placed more emphasis on the Biolaya team coming up with ideas for products that were needed in the local market (or at least the domestic market). It would have narrowed our options but may have created a more sustainable business model.
We also needed to identify other leaders – people who have the vision and capability to step up if required. Easier said than done though; sometimes people (such as Surie) have skills and knowledge that are very hard to replace.
If I was to do it again, or give advice to others, rather than coming up with the idea I would try to find local people and projects whose existing ideas need support, or facilitate existing organisations in coming up with new ideas. Rather than investing on my own, I would look for ways to match their investment. If the project looks like it might trip up, I would let it trip up and find its own way back onto its own feet.
In summary, unless I planned to be in it for the long haul, I would sit in the back seat, offer my support where needed and try to help them avoid getting lost, but ultimately let them choose their own path to their destination.