Our Story So Far

It all began on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, the 2nd of October 2007. A group of friends (us) had held 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 for their families and reflected together on
  • How are our lives intertwined with the lives of these farmers?
  • How are our choices and destinies inter connected?
  • Why is knowledge being commoditized?
  • Why are corporations being exploitative?
  • Why is there an unprecedented surge in crime, violence, pollution, addiction and corruption?
  • Why are we growing indifferent to what’s happening around us?
  • Why is there so much disparity in wealth?
  • Why is poverty becoming more intense?
  • Why do we have more scientists with information and less people with wisdom who care for the environment?
As we reflected on these questions we came to see the larger picture.

It is what we call the Old World based on the Old Story which in turn is based on values such as big and fast is good, competition, consumption, fragmentation of knowledge, homogeneity, commodification, Centralised control, all of which works against life.

What we are experiencing is a severe breakdown of both community (culture) and nature leaving us feeling very scarce. 

And out of this feeling of Scarcity, we are feeling a collective sense of fear and insecurity, holding on to the sense of “I”, “Me” and “Mine” more and more aggressively. We have grown insensitive to the needs of our fellow human beings and other living beings and we feel disconnected with life around us. We have become numb to news about poverty and environmental destruction which is most times mere entertainment.

How do we respond to this crisis?

What would it be to come together and attempt a small experiment to restore some of these and rebuild community and nature? Will these lead us to experience ABUNDANCE within, which will then heal our hurt spirits and bring down crime, violence, pollution and corruption?

What if we restore the values that are as ancient as the mountains and oceans?

How do we invite every person in the city to be a part of this experiment?

Since each one of us is a consumer and since we vote everyday with the food we choose to buy and the products we choose to use, how about we start a store where every product can narrate a story and start a conversation?

And how about we call it reStore

A bunch of us city folks with no experience in starting or running a retail store decided to venture into it. Our concept note 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 an intimate relationship”. We were very clear that this spirit of relationship building was going to be a non-negotiable core value along with a long list of ideals we held close to us.
  • We will run our operations with volunteers. 
  • We will keep our prices as low as possible. 
  • We will only source from small and local farmers. 
  • We will sell hand-made products made by small producers and Self-Help Groups. 
  • We will sell only millets and traditional rice varieties. 
  • We will sell only organic food products, which have not used any synthetic chemical in its production, processing, storage or packaging. 
  • We will use no plastic in our packaging. 
  • We will pay our farmers a fair price. 
  • We will not sell any certified organic product. 
We will be absolutely transparent about our processes and decisions with everyone in the community An important decision that then followed was that we would 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 them, connecting with them, their families and their stories and staying in touch with them.

We made initial visits to small farms and organisations working with small farmers (like Tribal Health Initiative, Timbaktu Collective, CIKS) and tried to understand their work. We decided to provide a platform to sell and promote 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 the households of the communities growing them.

We learnt about millet processing and cold-pressing of oils being revived by these communities, and their health benefits.

We, a group of 13 individuals, launched our organisation on Feb 2008, in a community hall with 330 people and a millet dinner. 

Women farmers from Deccan Development Society (DDS) Andhra Pradesh came to share their story of reviving millets and organic farming, and millet recipes. Back then, Chennaiites did not know much about millets but were ready to enthusiastically welcome these long-forgotten grains into their lives. We experimented with them ourselves and went to various gatherings, talking about these wonder grains and offering sample meals to introduce them to our people. 

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 and 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 wherever and whenever 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 we continue to ward off enquiries and requests about exporting organics, including those from sincere friends 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 absolutely no ecological sense to burn fossil fuels for long-distance transportation.

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. 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 from the community signed up to run the show week after week. They stepped in to maintain accounts, design billing applications, weigh vegetables, bill, package, set up, clean, wrap up, etc. Gradually, we hired our first employee.

Our Saturday bazaars were an opportunity for us to tell the New Story through Wholesome Food that cared for soil, soul and society. We decided to start a vegan store and have remained so not selling meat, egg or dairy products.

Running an organic grocery store was a huge learning for us, with constant exploration and experimentation in grain cleaning, storage, processing and selling. Fumigation with Neem and Nochi leaves was one of the many things we learnt along the way.

However 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 we trust them. We too buy from here’. Initially, this was a strange answer for many people but whoever it struck a chord with stayed with us. Others left. We once had to stop procuring from a vegetable farmer who was found to be cheating. Our sharing of this information transparently helped build more trust. Our trusting community grew slowly and steadily. One could say that, among all that we attempted to restore (fair price, traditional practices, desi seeds, local foods, etc.), trust was the biggest and the most important.

Some customers, who came in with the feeling of 'being entitled to good service' and hence were impolite, gradually became cooperative and courteous. Mature customers soon began to stay back for an extra hour or arrived earlier to volunteer with us. Volunteers started contributing ideas and resources to improve the store and stepped into operational decision-making processes. Our suppliers would stop by our store 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 across the city, state and country with similar visions and values. Right in front of our eyes, intimacy was becoming the primary agent of transforming economics. 

Decisions around packaging were and have always been a big part of many of our discussions. We started with zero plastics used in our packaging. After facing heavy losses during a humid monsoon season, plastics gradually made an entry into reStore.

‘Bring your own containers for oils!’ was a line one could see right from our very first poster. Though our oil sales were 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 allowing a new way of relating to a store.

What started as a Saturday bazaar, extended into a one staffer half-day shop, and soon into a full-time store in a garage space offered by a well-wisher, with four staffers.

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 model was to remain small and deepen our relationships with our already growing local community, we opted out of the former. 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 more soulful and meaningful. 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 that work collaboratively sharing similar values and policies and source reliable products collectively. Thus was born OFM (Organic Farmers Market) which became a separate entity, but more a sister-organisation. 

In three years, OFM has become a collective of distributors/retailers and has grown to have about twenty stores spread across the city of Chennai. 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 other shops. Each store has its unique colour and flavour. They all meet once a month to see how to collaborate efficiently, while remaining small and engaging with their own local community. The second hub with 10 spoke stores has recently begun in another part of Chennai.

OFM and reStore remain hubs of questioning, study and learning. Our periodic talks, farm visits, workshops, film screenings and campaigns on various relevant themes attract a steady stream of members, who started their journeys as our 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 
is sustainable from end to end: organic, rain-fed, traditional cotton which is handspun, hand-woven, naturally dyed and tailored.

Today, reStore and OFM are a large community of seekers, doers and learners coming together to share their gifts to enable more of their friends and family to do so.

Many who walked into reStore to be conscious consumers have journeyed with us and are now ready to go deeper into their exploration and experimentation about what it means to meaningfully in today's time of global crisis. The growing community of back-to-the-landers is one such community facilitated by reStore.

1 comment:

  1. First I would like to Say Thanks for your initiative. Really a great work. Nowadays conventional product kills our native organic products slowly. People should aware of natural products and its health benefits. Great job!!!

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