Kick-starting a new life

Sep 22, 2017

Once a cobbler on the streets of Rajbiraj, Kari Ram now runs a successful shoe-making enterprise—a flip of the switch he says he couldn't have managed without help from UNDP’s Micro-Enterprise Development Programme

Kari Ram had felt a sense of alienation as far back as he could remember. As a member of the so-called “Dalit” community in Rajbiraj, he and others from the community had long been subjected to different forms of discrimination—from being barred from entering temples and hotels and even sitting with the “high-caste” folks, to being regularly dismissed as a “Chamar”, a derogatory label that translates to “untouchable” within the Hindu caste system.  

Kari Ram had always been baffled by this kind of treatment, but had never been able to do much about it, particularly given his restrictive financial circumstances. For 26 years, he had worked as a cobbler on the streets, and as much as he exerted himself, he wasn’t able to earn more than Rs. 4,000 per year, hardly enough to fulfil his daily needs.  

Until the day he found himself enrolling in a training organized by UNDP’s Micro-Enterprise Development Programme (MEDEP). It was 2008, and after meeting and talking to a MEDEP staff, Kari Ram had decided to given the week-long training in entrepreneurship development a go. Swiftly after that, a group was formed with five members, Kari Ram among them.

With the advanced technical skills on shoe-making that they had gained from the training, the group of aspiring entrepreneurs rented a house in Rajbiraj. MEDEP supported them further with sewing machines, shoe frames and other raw materials—locally sourced to ensure sustainability—to kick start their business.

Today, shoes made by the group have become popular in Saptari as well as markets in adjoining districts, and production in full swing. To keep up with the demand, Kari Ram has brought members of his family to work in the enterprise.

With business going so well, it’s not surprising that Kari Ram’s personal circumstances have improved considerably. Just last year, for instance, his earnings amounted to Rs. 720,000, a far cry from what he had once been making, and one of his top priorities has been to invest in his children’s education, and the future of the family, for which he has bought a 1.25-acre plot of land and built a house of his own in the village. And he’s not done yet: he has plans to expand the business further in his hometown where he has put up a small cottage, hire more employees and increase production, taking his brand to new heights.

Aside from the profits he’s made, the enterprise has also offered him the opportunity to visit different parts of the country, participate in workshops and even speak at a number of knowledge-sharing meetings and trainings. He says he has gained a great deal of confidence in addressing so many eager listeners at such events who see his journey as something to aspire to.

There are times, Kari Ram says, when he can scarcely believe the distance he’s come since his days on the streets. And he is keen to ensure that whatever he’s gained so far—not just financially, but also in terms of social standing and self-belief—can be used for the broader benefit of his community, others who are facing the sort of ill-treatment that was once meted out to him.

In this regard, Kari Ram has been actively at work raising awareness about the need to end caste-based discrimination. He is also a member and former vice chairperson of the District Micro-Enterprise Group Association (DMEGA), through which he helps to promote small-scale businesses like his own, encouraging others to emerge from poverty and improve their livelihoods through entrepreneurship.

“My story is proof that a little bit of help—and a dose of confidence—can absolutely change lives,” Kari Ram says. “I could never have gotten where I am today if not for MEDEP’s support.”

For the 19 years that it has been active, and with funding from Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), MEDEP has created above 130,471 MEs till August 2017—a significant proportion of whom represent women, marginalized and excluded groups—engaged in different types of micro-enterprises.

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