Tussle and Triumph in conversation with Hasina Kharbhih, Ashoka Fellow and Aspen ILI Fellow. Hasina is also the founder and managing director of Impulse Social Enterprises and Founder Chair of Board of Impulse NGO Network, which was conceptualized in 1987. Hasina is credited for creating what is called the Impulse Model for tracking human trafficking. The Impulse Model has been replicated in all eight states of Northeast India. It has been piloted for national replication by the Government of India, and also adopted in Myanmar, Nepal and Bangladesh.
She has, for 30 years now, been working to provide a sustainable livelihood in a safe environment for women and children. What started out as a mission in her home state of Meghalaya, has today evolved into a global program that aims to put an end to human trafficking and exploitation worldwide.
Her work stands on two pillars: the first is Impulse NGO Network which today is a significant force against human trafficking; the second pillar is Impulse Social Enterprises which aims to promote local artisans and create a sustainable livelihood that helps prevent unsafe migration, which often leads to human trafficking.
1. You have been one of the most successful social entrepreneurs from the Northeast. Who has been your role model?
First of all, I grew up in a matrilineal society where women have a strong opinion on matters of decision-making and careers. I had seen my grandmother and mother being independent women, who pursued their choice of work with confidence and without any interference. Both my grandmother and mother used to trade food products, cotton and textile with Bangladesh, before the partition. After that, my mother got married and switched professions, becoming one among the first women contractors in Meghalaya. She was into building roads, bridges etc., at a time when women elsewhere weren’t taking up such a profession. Naturally, I was inspired by their resourcefulness and independence to follow my own path and do my own thing. They are indeed my role models.
2. You have worked in the area of addressing human trafficking and livelihood sustainability? How do you think the things have changed overtime?
The issue of human trafficking is at large. But it is still a scarcely discussed matter even in developed countries like the U.S. I am shocked when communities deny its presence point blank. No, this doesn’t happen to us. It happens to that community but not ours, they say. How can we solve a problem if people don’t even admit that there is one?
We have to begin by accepting and addressing and follow up by workshops, training, one-to-one meetings etc. Impulse NGO Network has easily made this exercise, a habit.
As for all stakeholders that can bring change through their authority, it is our duty to remind and remember our constitutional and legal obligation to the country. That is the only way to take this conversation forward. Things are slowly but steadily changing.
3. How did you build your core team?
The core team, apart from me, comprises of AG Kharbhih, Debotosh Purkyastha, Rosanna Lyngdoh and Puspa Uthum Hargovan. AG Kharbhih is my elder brother and has been a very strong pillar of support. He was involved in the conceptualization of the idea behind impulse as well as takes care of financial, legal and structural module of the organization. Debotosh is our go-to man for everything related to accounts, transactions, tax and Rosanna is our operations head who takes care of connecting the dots right from vendor negotiation, management, delivery, anything and everything related to managing the organizational functioning.
4. How is Impulse NGO Network impacting the lives of people?
Over 25 years, the network had managed to intervene in 72,500+ cases of trafficking.
And its biggest success story now serves as living proof at ISE’s cosy office in the Lower Lachumiere area of Shillong: the company’s inventory is now managed by the diminutive Ella Sangma, trafficked at 13 to Delhi’s brothels and repatriated thanks to Impulse’s intervention.
5. What socio-cultural challenges did you face in mentoring these women?
Initially, from the context of North East, we have diverse tribes and sub-tribes who have their own socio-cultural identity and engaging themselves in first generation business practitioner and never utilized traditional skills that they possessed as the business opportunity. They produce handloom textile for their own use, festivals etc. Impulse Social Enterprises took some time to monitor and make them understand on economic needs, values and how this will help them curve unsafe migration and their participation in producing for “Empower” Brand as well as engaging in their agricultural practice as part of holistic food security support, thus resulting in overcoming the challenges.
Our artisans usually live in remote areas, under a constant threat of unemployment, natural calamities, militancy or loss of youths to militant employment. Often, women become both the immediate bread-earner and caretaker (of children and elders), after losing their husbands to militants or human trafficking. We, at Empower, enable these at-risk women to be self-dependent entrepreneurs, by checking unsafe migration. But though we look out for the women, we also help empower men who have taken interest in the training, learning and would prefer to pursue the entrepreneurial journey. Empower is expanding this network every day by providing design development training, raw material, designs, packaging, branding, marketing and financial support.
We have also created an exclusive centre called the Empower Resource Centre at ISE to cater to the needs of the artisans, train them with new skills through expert visits, and work with them to develop designs and products that are marketable.
We are also linking the artisans with national and international buyers for direct and sustained marketing, apart from taking care of quality control, logistics and supply chain management. Additionally, we provide micro-entrepreneurship training to encourage new start-ups.
6. What is the objective of Impulse Empower?
Impulse Social Enterprises is in the business of and for positive socio-economic change. While we aim to generate profits, the objective is not wealth accumulation or maximizing financial returns for stakeholders.
Impulse Social Enterprises’ (ISE) Empower brand was conceptualized and developed by Mehernosh Shapoorjee of Digital 5 in July of 2010 and it was officially launched in the same year.
Empower brand’s strength lies in its women artisans. Being an artisan brand focusing on women-centric livelihood options, ISE strives to reach out to different tribal women of the North East with a purpose of incorporating diverse traditional weaving in our products. The objective is to ensure sustainability of livelihood to our artisans by providing sustainable markets to these products. Therefore, the target is to help our women grow socially and financially. This, in turn, will help our brand grow holistically!
It functions along the lines of the hub-and-spoke model, with the company’s Shillong office acting as the nerve centre for a 30,000-strong network of artisans spread across districts and communities across the eight north-eastern states. The focus here is on weaving as the team realised this was a traditionally inherited skill all over the northeast.
Local organisations in each state act as facilitators, identifying artisans and ensuring their skill sets are updated to a databank. The facilitator collects yarn from ISE’s supplier, Guwahati-based Oriental Processor (costs range from Rs.650 – Rs.750 per kg, depending on the colour), at certain locations and rations it to the artisans in the villages it covers, along with details on the quantity required, the tribal designs, colours and patterns to be woven into the fabric, which is customised for a fixed set of products.
Initially, the products launched under this brand consisted mainly of multi-utility scarves and tablemats bearing the traditional motifs of the Mishing tribe of Assam. Then after, conference bags, laptop bags and cushion covers were introduced.
We are now planning to expand the scope of business to enter tourism sector with eco-holiday and bread & breakfast homestays under the EMPOWER brand name, while also offering northeast India specific research and consultancy.
7. Is there a point of convergence where Impulse Ngo Network and impulse empower complement each other?
I truly believe that “Trade, not aid, can change the lives of people.
After spending nearly 25 years fighting the evils of anti-trafficking in the northeast, I decided to innovate. And realised that I, or for that matter anyone, cannot stop human trafficking unless women at the grassroots become economically self-sufficient. So as a small experiment, using my brother Sen Kharbhih’s fruit and spic export company, I started marketing the prototypical textile, bamboo, cane and silk articles made by my network of artisans. The response was really good. That’s how the idea for Impulse Empower germinated.
8. How are you marketing your products to the larger audience?
Most of Empower branded products are available through retail outlets at Guwahati airport Jangfai store and Shillong. A major part of the business is done through corporate networks and E-commerce. Impulse empower products are available at retail outlets in Guwahati airport Jungfai Plus store, Amazon.in Saheli store and at the northeast store.
27% of the money from the sale of each item is reinvested in the business (11% helps cover operational costs, 22% goes to the facilitators and 40% to the artisans).
Advertising is limited to social media for now, with the story of each pattern and tribe involved shared on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
Here is the list of the stores apart from Amazon Saheli:
9. Can you share the response in terms of total sales of revenue impact?
In 2010 we launched the Empower brand with a capital of (Rs One Lakh only). Since then Impulse Social Enterprises has managed to achieve a turnover of Rs 7 lakh per annum and is close to breaking even this current financial year. The bulk of the orders are from small boutiques, with the average ticket size being Rs.60000 – Rs.100000. Add to this corporate orders ranging from Rs.10000 – Rs.30000 in ticket size for the scarves and table mats and promo sales at events, where Empower nets Rs.30000- Rs.40000 at one go.
10. What are the next steps for the Impulse in building more sustainable avenues?
The company is also planning to harvest the interest in tribal crafts in the UK and the US, with exports to these locations set to begin from October. The weaving will be done here but the tote bags — priced at $60 — being made for these markets will be stitched in Jaipur to comply with international specifications. Talks are on with Amazon to hold and ship the stock after Delhi for a small facilitation fee.
11. What will you advice to fellow social entrepreneurs who are looking to build a sustainable venture?
Social entrepreneurship has to have social outcomes.
It is not about selling products or creating something new for the sake of creating something new. It’s not about ‘I made this and I’m doing it on my own.’ That might be entrepreneurship, but not social entrepreneurship.
Social entrepreneurship has a lot to do with human beings. Growth is not measured by the volume of profits, but in the change brought to the system or community values. That is something very important that anyone who decides to become a social entrepreneur needs to understand and define very clearly.
12. Awards & Recognition
2000 – Commonwealth Youth Program Asia Award for Excellence in Youth Work
2002- US Department of State, International Visitors Program (IVLP) on NGO Management
2004-2006 – Commonwealth Youth Ambassador represented India and was featured as Yuva Star or Young Achiever for BBC World Service Trust Award Winning Production of Haath Se Haath Milaa (Lets Join Hands)India largest HIV/AIDS awareness mass media campaign that reaches over 50 million viewers
2007- Rising Talent award from the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, France
2011-2012 – North East Excellence Award in the Achievers Category from the Indian Chambers of Commerce
2012 -YFLO Women Achievers Awards for Social Entrepreneurship Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce
2012 -Asian Activists Award from Human Right Now – Japan
2012 -CNN-IBN India Positive Award 2013 Winner India’s CNBC Awaaz – Masterpreneur Season 1 Reality Show
2013 – IVLP Gold Star Alumni, US State Department
2015 State Bank of India North East Circle Award in recognition of her Selfless Service and Outstanding Contribution to Society.
2016- University of Science and Technology Meghalaya, an Award for her outstanding and visionary contribution to the field of social service and her endeavour to ensure equality and social justice
2017 is the recipient of the Most Powerful Women in Business – Impact Award, 2017, in the Social Business category, announced by Business Today, of the India Today Group. The award honours most remarkable women leaders, who have taken India to new heights through exceptional talent and endeavour, and have made a positive transformation to society.