The beauty of the Nilgiris (the Blue Hills) with treasures of the tribal communities

Marja Versleijen
Marja Versleijen • 14 August 2023
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I had the honor to travel to the Nilgiris to visit two of our Women on Wings partners, Last Forest and Shalom Ooty. What an incredibly beautiful landscape, it looks like a romantic, fairytale landscape with hills full of banana trees, coconut trees, eucalyptus trees, tea plantations and all the colorful houses scattered against the hills. If you are travelling through India, it is quite common to see a lot of cows walking very relaxed in the middle of the road, but in the Nilgiris you will see lots of monkeys and if you are lucky even elephants crossing the road.

First, Women on Wings’ director of social enterprises Supriya Kapoor and I went to Last Forest in Kotagiri, where we were warmly welcomed by Teny Ann and Mathew John who is one of the founders of Keystone (mother organization of Last Forest) and Last Forest’s managing director. As Last Forest is one of the daughter companies of Keystone, it is located on the amazingly beautiful campus of Keystone. A set of buildings built from stones and mud situated in a beautiful garden with a central building where everybody could eat and have coffee/tea breaks with a snack.

Supriya stayed and slept in a building on the campus, and I slept on the top floor of Jo’s (one of the directors of Keystone) home. It was an adventurous path downhill via a shortcut which I could walk during daytime from the campus, but after 7 PM somebody needed to accompany me because sometimes bison take the path, and monkeys were all over the place. Mathew brought me home twice with his car, even more adventurous than the path I had walked! The road was extremely steep, very narrow with around 5 hairpins within a short distance, but I arrived safely, hahaha.

Last Forest is a social enterprise that pioneers sustainable living choices by connecting communities from the Nilgiris to markets, making every customer a custodian of this planet by offering sustainable living choices. It develops and procures, manufactures, markets and sells organic sustainably sourced wild forest products like unprocessed wild honey, handcrafted beeswax soaps and lip balms, hair care, essentials oils and coffee. It reinvests over 30 percent of its profits in the development of the communities it works with.

We started the sales workshop in the office of Last Forest with a brief introduction with everyone in a beautiful, colorful, open office space with a nice atmosphere. I can imagine that it is a very peaceful environment to work in. After a break we continued in an even more beautiful high-ceilinged large meeting room with very nice paintings. The windows were open, but…… be aware of the curious and cheeky monkeys, they tried to climb through the windows halfway into our workshop.

We started the workshop discussing in small groups Last Forest’s main sales challenges. Last Forest had a tough time during COVID-19. They asked themselves the following questions. What can we do to let sales grow? What can we do differently to think out of the box? Revenue needs to go up.

They need a breakthrough in conversion, prospecting and customer follow-up and they have not yet been able to establish the right value proposition for their products.

During the two-day sales workshop together with the team of Last Forest we formed the start of a sales plan. They defined their unique selling proposition, made their customer segmentation, made choices about focus, B2B customer segments, defined their ideal customers by creating customer personas, analyzed the competition and most important, analyzed sales figures. All of this led, after two days, to a very concrete and detailed SMART action plan to grow sales in the coming months of this fiscal year.

Supriya and I also visited Last Forest’s own retail outlet in Kotagiri, together with Miller Ashok, Last Forest’s most senior member of the sales and marketing team. Next to selling online, Last Forest has two retail outlets, called the Green Shop. It was good to see how they present their own products and talk to the Green Shop sales lady about her experiences. And we also gave some recommendations to increase the Green Shop’s sales.

Then we continued travelling by car to a town called Ooty, through the beautiful hilly landscape of the Nilgiris, to meet Sheela Powell, founder of social enterprise Shalom Ooty, also a Women on Wings business partner. She has a passion for the indigenous Toda community’s women and their unique Toda embroidery. During COVID-19, like Last Forest, she also had to endure a difficult period and now sales are returning slowly. What an amazing power woman Sheela is. It’s great to see what she has done already on her own for her local indigenous communities.

Shalom Ooty enables willing women to strive for some degree of financial freedom to enhance their self-worth and independence within the constraints of their daily routine; it develops, manufactures and markets unique, handmade Toda embroidered products; in doing so it keeps the Toda’s handicraft alive. The embroidery, which has a fine finish, appears like a woven cloth but is made with red and black threads on a white cotton cloth background. It’s very special that both sides of the embroidered fabric are usable and beautiful!

We met the five ladies in Sheela’s office who process the Toda embroidery into all kinds of products. Lovely ladies who all got the chance to develop themselves and earn a monthly salary which they save to use for their kids’ education. They are all very proud of their job at Shalom Ooty and proud of this Toda heritage.

We worked on increasing an understanding of Shalom Ooty’s sales figures and how to correctly analyze and use them to make a forecast and better choices.

A short meeting with the person who does some social media work for Sheela took place just before lunch. He is active on Shalom Ooty’s Instagram account and takes care of its website. Some recommendations were given on how to focus on specific products and customer segments.

Supriya and I stayed in a house in a compound where Sheela lives with her sister Lydia, four dogs and a cat! What a lovely couple of two ladies – very sympathetic, careful and full of positive energy. We stayed in the recently renovated old home of their parents where they were born. Beautiful, old elements were kept in the house and even though we were very close to the center of Ooty, we heard no traffic, only the birds and nature sounds.

We visited her own two shops in Ooty and Sheela took us around the city to some third-party shops where she wholesales the Toda artisan products. We travelled in a rickshaw with the three of us, very cozy. It was good to see that she used all recycled furniture in a very creative way to set up the shops, they looked very nice! We gave some recommendations to make it even more customer friendly and efficient.

The common, ultimate goal of Sheela and Women on Wings is to preserve the traditional Toda embroidery and empower rural and tribal women economically to create a better future for the next generation. It was really great to see all of this and breathe the atmosphere of the Nilgiris!

Marja Versleijen
Sales expert

Image on top: Marja with Sheela and a few women from the Toda community showing products with the unique Toda embroidery

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