reStore Our Community

by Sangeetha Sriram

It all started on Gandhiji’s birthday, the second of October in 2007. A group of us friends had organised a candle light vigil at the Chennai beach to mourn the death of thousands of farmers from across India who had committed suicide that year. We prayed and reflected together. “How are our lives intertwined with the lives of these farmers? How are our choices and our destinies interconnected?” The logical next step that emerged from this reflection was to co-create a space in the city for those of us who cared to continue to explore these questions and make conscious choices about what we ate, what we wore and how we lived.

Our concept note for a community store began with the Gandhian economist J.C.Kumarappa’s dream of an Economy of Peace & Permanence, which he said, could be made possible “only by bringing together the consumer and the producer into intimate relationship”. We were very clear that this spirit of relationship building was going to be a non-negotiable core value. An important decision that then followed was that we’d source products that were not going to be ‘certified’ in the conventional manner, as in, by a centralised institution. We were going to know our suppliers in a very different way, actually in the most natural way: by visiting and connecting with them, their families and their stories and staying in touch with them.

We made initial visits to small farms, organisations working with small farmers (like Tribal Health Initiative, Timbaktu Collective, CIKS) and tried to understand their work. We decided to facilitate marketing the produce of these farmers only when they promised to retain enough for their own consumption; especially the nutritious millets which had been hugely replaced by polished white rice in these very communities which were growing them.

Small, Slow and Local

We, a group of about a dozen friends who came together towards this purpose, met for many days to attempt to establish some of our core principles. And one of them was about our size and speed. How big and fast do we want to grow? That Chennai was ready for an explosive organic market was becoming more and more evident. Now, the question was about how we should go about occupying that space.

In our meetings, we considered various strategies. Ideas around growing big and fast, getting big investors, doing online marketing in a big way, designing a franchisee model, coming up with metrics of success, didn’t garner much support. Most of the group felt right about a warm and friendly weekend bazaar experimenting with gift economy where and when possible, connecting with people and staying open to see how it all unfolded. Our discussions were fuzzy with dreams and values we held dearly. Members who preferred a more corporate / business-oriented approach left the group. We had to, and continue to ward off enquiries and requests about exporting organics, including from sincere friends from within the community. This is because we care about creating a paradigm where consumers are connected to the sources of their food, and it makes no ecological sense to burn fossil fuels to transport food long distances.

Building on Community Strength / Garnering resources from the Community

We did all we could to see what infrastructure and resources our community of friends and well-wishers already had in order to get started. A friend connected us to a home for the elderly women, who offered us some space in their premises to stock, clean and package our products. Our work was guided by old and caring paattis (grandmothers) from here who were so excited to see the return of the millets that they had only seen and consumed when they were young. We listened to their stories as we worked. A well-wisher offered his garage space to hold our weekly bazaars, where he also sold fresh produce from his own organic farm. Another friend who had a printing press offered to do all our printing free of cost. Volunteers from the community signed up to run the show week after week. We started with a small investment of Rs.40,000 pooled in by all of us. Our weekly bazaars began with a turnover of Rs. 1 lakh per month. Small stocks and short purchase cycles kept these manageable. Volunteers stepped in to maintain accounts, design billing applications, weigh vegetables, bill, package, set up, clean, wrap up and all else. Gradually, we hired one employee.

Restoring Trust

Apart from all the hard and painstaking work of procuring our products, fumigating our godowns with neem leaves, drying and cleaning tons of grains, maintaining bills and accounts, sending out weekly mailers, the big task at hand, was to engage with people who walked in. “How do I trust this is organic?” was a question that we had to repeatedly answer. But knowing that this engagement was essential in building community and redefining economics, we did it quite willingly, answering the same question day after day “You buy here by trusting us. We know the farmers and their collectives and trust them. We all buy from here too!” Initially, this was a strange answer for many people. But whoever it struck a chord with stayed with us. The others left. We once had to stop procuring from a vegetable farmer who was found to be cheating. Our sharing this information transparently actually helped build more trust. Our trusting community grew slowly and steadily. One could say that, among many things we attempted to restore, like fair price, traditional practices, desi seeds, local food, etc., trust was the biggest and the most important of all!

Consumers / Producers / Staff to ‘Community’

Some customers who came in with the feeling of ‘being entitled to good service’ and hence being impolite, gradually become cooperative and courteous. Mature customers soon started staying back for an extra hour or arriving earlier to volunteer with us. Volunteers of some time started contributing ideas and resources to improve the store, and stepped up into operational decision-making processes. Our suppliers would stop by during their Chennai visit for a friendly chat. “I’m traveling to Trichy next week and wanted to know if I could visit a farm there!” a customer would ask and collect some contacts from us. We connected with other initiatives with similar visions and values, across the city, state and country. Right in front of our eyes, intimacy was becoming the primary agent of transformation of economics.

Slow and Deep

Decisions around packaging was and have always been a big part of many of our discussions. “Bring your own containers for oils!” was a line one could see right from our very first poster onwards. Though our oil sales was not bad, it was clear that we could be selling so much more of it if we packaged it in some way. The policy was revisited several times in our initial meetings. Thanks to the insistence by one member of the community, we stuck to the practice of selling oils only in customers’ own containers. After 8 years, we still do that and only that. Bringing an oil container has become a habit for all our regular customers; a habit which has been discretely imprinting a new way of relating to a store.

Small and wide

After we completed a year in action, we started receiving calls and visits by people who wanted us to either start a branch in their neighbourhood or wanted to start a store themselves. Since our very model was to remain small, deepening our relationships with our already growing local community, we opted out of the first. We invited all those who wanted to start their own stores to volunteer with us for a few weeks, understand our motivation, our values and see if they resonated with them. Many left. Some stayed. And those who did stay wanted to start a store for the right reasons. They were usually people who wanted to transition out of their corporate jobs into doing something that was more soulful. We shared our carefully and painstakingly put together directories of farmers and producer groups and supported them through their journeys.

Five years after we started, in 2013, one of our founding members mooted the idea of a network of small stores working collaboratively: share similar values and policies and source reliable products collectively. Thus was born the OFM (Organic Farmers Market) which became a separate entity, but more a sister-organisation. In three years, OFM is a collective of distributors / retailers and has grown to have about twenty stores spread right across the city. A not-for-profit Central Unit aggregates products from many sources, stores, cleans and packs for all the stores. The expenditure incurred by it is absorbed by the retail unit housed there. Thus the cost of sourcing, storing, cleaning, etc. is not passed on to the other shops. Each store has its unique colour and flavour. They all meet once a month to see how to work collaboratively and efficiently, while each remains small, engaging with their own local community.

Learning, Deepening

reStore and OFM remain hubs of questioning, study and learning. Our periodic talks, workshops, film screenings and campaigns on various relevant themes attract a steady stream of members, who started their journeys as customers. Regular gatherings organised in the spirit of gift culture, around themes like ‘urban gardening’, ‘moving back to the land’, ‘natural learning’ have been offshoots of this small and local initiative.

Our members are constantly asking new questions that stem from situations and information constantly flowing in. One of them is an initiative by a member in the area of ‘clothing’. After researching into how unsustainable and inhumane the industry was, he set out to start Tula, a whole new way of producing clothing which was sustainable from end to end: organic, rain-fed, traditional cotton which was handspun, handwoven, naturally dyed and tailored.

ReStore has also been experimenting with new ways of power sharing, democratic decision-making and conflict resolution using tools like Sociocracy and reStorative Circles.

In spite of challenges we do face in keeping things going, reStore and OFM are success stories in imagining new possibilities in the realm of economics. Could we call it Communomy, an economy embedded in the community / society, its rightful place?

New lessons about the Small

The conventional idea of small is that it is limited, weak, restrictive and not very impactful. But quite contrarily, our experience has been quite the opposite.

Small can be limitless

One of the most important learnings for us is that when we remain small, we are able to form more relationships within our entity and across. And since the number of connections that we can form is limitless, the small opens up a new paradigm for limitless growing in multitudinous ways.

Small can be resilient

Remaining small has enabled us to embrace diversity, build and strengthen relationships. This intimacy, and the limitless connections in the web makes the small so much more resilient.

Small can open up new possibilities

Remaining small has helped create the right kind of space spawning off deeper questions and learning processes, which have in turn opened up many new possibilities.

Small can be deep and impactful

Small initiatives are in and of themselves very impactful. When such deeply impactful small initiatives come together to collaborate, we build extraordinary synergy.

And more than anything, small can be very beautiful!