In The Himalayas, An Organic Beauty Business Empowers Women

By Kamala Thiagarajan

After decades as a successful corporate lawyer, Kavita Khosa decided to quit her job and try something she had virtually no experience in — by tapping resources in one of the most remote parts of the world.

This was, naturally, one of the soundest decisions she ever made.

Her company, Purearth, crafts beauty products that have gained international recognition for their natural and holistic ingredients — all while empowering local women in the Himalayas to earn a fair living wage. Khosa spoke candidly to The Establishment about the challenges of social entrepreneurship and how women’s economic empowerment could eradicate existing social structures of gender inequality in South Asia.

Kamala Thiagarajan: How did the decision to give up a cushy job and turn entrepreneur come about?

Kavita Khosa: It’s natural to be apprehensive when you move out of your comfort zone. But when you’re so passionate and clear about your purpose and vision and are ready to accept possible failure, then the fears just vanish.

I had taken sabbaticals during my career in the past. I’d set up a not-for-profit yoga school years ago, taught for three years, and then found myself disillusioned with the commercial trend in yoga. I dove right back into the corporate world, but my heart was never in it. I knew I wanted my work to impact social change, so I quit for good in 2010. It wasn’t a moment of epiphany or anything. I was guided by many wonderful people I met along the way on my quest to put the whole concept together.

But that said, it is a path less trodden and family and friends, of course, couldn’t understand why I’d leave a lucrative career behind and go traipsing around the mountains. Time and patience can help make believers.

Kamala: What did your business idea look like?

Kavita: I decided to start a social enterprise with three criteria for my chosen field of work — women, India, and the earth.

I spent time researching the organic farming industry in India because I am passionate about food democracy, fair trade, and sustainable food choices. I studied and researched organic farming — the sourcing of plants seeds and herbs. I decided to work with ingredients like apricot, honey, pomegranate, walnut, and turmeric to formulate a skincare line.

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Kavita Khosa currently works with 16 women self-help groups in the Himalayas, engaging them in sourcing organic raw materials for her range of cosmetics.

Kamala: Why did you seek out the world’s most formidable mountains to source your raw materials when there were easier ways? Did you always feel a deep connection to the Himalayas?

Kavita: It was a surprise to me, too, how I gravitated to the Himalayas. I was born and raised in India and am currently based in Hong Kong. I had zero connection to the Himalayas. Years ago, I’d taken a trip to Tibet across the entire Friendship highway from Lhasa to Nepal over 12 days, and that was my first time experiencing the raw power and sheer majesty of the Himalayas.

The spirituality steeped in the mountain air was palpable and left a deep impact on me. When I decided to found Purearth, it was the Himalayas that beckoned. I took many study and field trips up to different parts of the Himalayas, to research and study the forest, as well as the agricultural and demographic landscape.

Kamala: What do these collaborations involve and how do the local women benefit from this effort?

Kavita: I partner with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Community-Based Organizations that have established clusters of women self-help and micro-credit and savings groups. These are groups of usually around 10 or 20 women from a village or area. They are paid fair-trade prices for picking non-timber forest produce that we use to create our products.

The NGO sets up a joint bank account for each group. They use the income from the sale of goods to Purearth to obtain micro financing (lending it out to a member of the group in turn) or to purchase raw materials to procure goods and sell them at prices that they establish themselves, giving them greater control over their own financial well-being.

Kamala: What struck you about these women’s lives?

Kavita: I first learned the art of making cold process soap (in the Himalayas) and got stung by a nettle bush while foraging for plant botanicals in the forest. Fortunately for me, local women plucked some cannabis leaves, crushed them and rubbed the juice on the stung areas to give relief to the skin.

My first encounter with the Krishna Women’s savings group was in Manali, India, in the spring of 2012.

We met a group of 12 ladies from a remote village. One of them was pregnant and had a baby girl with her. Another lady asked her if she and her family were hoping for a boy. She [responded that she] felt that ever since she was able to earn an income and have the support of the group, it had changed her viewpoint of gender equality and she was not concerned about the gender of her unborn child. She wanted to provide an education to her children. I realized then that income independence is fundamental to eradicate gender bias and inequitable societal structures.

Kamala: How have you implemented fair-trade policies?

Kavita: We pay fair trade above market prices for the making of soaps and train [local women] in formulations. We are working with a self-help group in Ladakh to provide them with protective gear to harvest sea Buckthorn berries, to buy equipment, and to train them to make value-added products from the berries.

The food democracy movement is very close to my heart. I am an advocate of open source seeds, non-GMO farming, and bio diversity, but I couldn’t see myself running a business of food grains. The ingredients we source — rosehip seed and sea buckthorn oil — are handpicked from the remote high altitude regions in the Himalayas and extracted employing methods that are safe for the workers handling the ingredients and the environment.

Kamala: What’s next?

Kavita: It is the cornerstone of my vision to provide income opportunities to the women within their environment and not to pluck them out of their eco-habitat. Purearth will need time and funding to create decentralized cells for the scattered women groups across the Himalayan belt to make this happen.

The commercial viability of the business is key if I want my vision to materialize and to see our women become empowered and successful enough to engage with urban markets on fair-trade terms.