Feature story

A start is born

The Nano Unicorn programme has enabled some 300 small and micro entrepreneurs in Odisha to launch their own businesses and find the road to success

Bandana Pal did not fancy working for anyone. “I wanted to run my own business,” says the 31-year-old from Kantabanji, a town in Odisha’s Balangir district. Nothing unusual there, except that her middle-class family, with a jobless father and a homemaker mother, needed the secure income a regular job would bring. Ms Pal went one better with a little help from the outside.

Ms Pal, the proprietor of a tailoring business, is one of more than 300 small and micro entrepreneurs from Odisha who have received training and financial support under the Nano Unicorn programme to set up ventures where they are the boss. Self-employment is the credo for Nano Unicorn, which is being implemented in collaboration with the Odisha Skill Development Authority by Tata Strive, a skill development initiative operating under the aegis of the Tata Trusts.

Tata Strive focuses on skilling youth from economically stressed backgrounds and Nano Unicorn, launched in 2019, is a shining example of the commitment it brings to the task. The path taken by Ms Pal to reach a point where she pulls in about 15,000 a month typifies the project’s approach and outcomes.

Ms Pal completed a vocational training course in sewing from the Bhawanipatna Industrial Training Institute (ITI) and then attended a 10-day ‘mini MBA’ programme — as it’s called — before receiving repayable finance to establish her tailoring shop. Talent and the ambition to back it up have stood Ms Pal in good stitching stead.

Setting up powerfully

Ajit Mohanty, a 33-year-old from Chatrapur village in Ganjam district, has relied on similar attributes to go further still. He had done an ITI course to learn the electrician trade and was already earning when he heard about Nano Unicorn. Mr Mohanty seized the opportunity, pooling the loan amount and his savings to launch an electrical and plumbing sales and service centre.

“I wasn’t confident about my business earlier but it’s different now,” says Mr Mohanty. “The Tata Strive training programme enabled me to become more professional in my outlook, and then there was the financial backing I got to start my enterprise.” Besides earning in excess of 600,000 a year, Mr Mohanty has been able to provide employment to four youngsters. He is not inclined to stop there. “I dream of becoming a big contractor with more than 10 to 15 workers in my business.”

Not many in the Nano Unicorn initiative have done as well as Mr Mohanty, but they all have found a firmer footing with their vocation and their future. Kamalika Roy has translated her flair for fashion into a growing business in designing and sewing dresses for women; Kartikeswar Bhuyan operates a manufacturing unit for decorative lighting panels that he sells and rents out for weddings and other events; and Sumati Badaik has crashed a male bastion to set up a refrigeration and air-conditioning unit.

The criteria for candidates looking to enter the Nano Unicorn programme are simple. Applicants have to be above 18 (and preferably under 35) and they should have qualified from a government ITI or skill development institute. Weightage is given to people with business ideas that can lead to employment for more youth.

Rahu Bhoye at the grocery store he established through the programme
Rahu Bhoye at the grocery store he established through the programme

And now in Nashik

Similar in concept to the Nano Unicorn initiative in Odisha but dissimilar in its details, the Tata Strive entrepreneurship programme in and around Nashik in Maharashtra banks on the network spawned by Sahyadri Farms, a farmer-centric company that is prominent in the region, to help small and micro businesses get off the ground and establish themselves.

Launched in early 2020, this effort to seed and support rural entrepreneurship in Maharashtra has a 10-day training module that runs along the lines of the Odisha programme. The loans disbursed here are of a lesser order, the pool from which applicants are drawn is wider and the ideas that get crystallised into business ventures are centred on agriculture and its requirements.

“The big difference is the kind of businesses we nurture,” says Ameya Vanjari of Tata Strive. “Many of these are supported by the value chain of Sahyadri Farms and the inputs it seeks: agricultural machinery, seed nurseries, poultry and goat farming, facilities for preserving vegetables and fruits, etc.” Such an ecosystem provides the necessary support and encouragement to these young entrepreneurs.

The demographic is also different in an arrangement where Sahyadri provides the infrastructure to run the programme and market linkages as well, with funding support coming from Tata Capital. The plan is to scale up and bring 3,000 budding entrepreneurs into these programmes in Odisha and Maharashtra over the next two years.

The training module in the programme concentrates on building a sustainable enterprise. There are capsules on the basics of business, on financial and legal matters and, not least, a dash of life skills education. The big objective of Nano Unicorn is fostering entrepreneurship — and through that additional jobs — for the less well-off in rural India.

Besides the training and the loans, the programme provides applicants with references and connections that can cement and expand their business. This kind of entrepreneurial network is commonly found in urban centres but almost completely absent in rural regions. Nano Unicorn is an effort to help correct the imbalance.

No banking on credit

The loan amounts are modest — up to 100,000 — but there’s no understating their importance in an environment where institutional financial support is difficult to access. Banks are notoriously slow, if they are willing at all, to lend money to small and micro businesses, and the reality is worse in rural areas. These ‘performing assets’ do not seem to merit the leg up they deserve.

“Not many banks provide loans easily,” explains Ameya Vanjari, who is part of the leadership team at Tata Strive and has been closely associated with Nano Unicorn. “Small and micro entrepreneurs face huge problems in getting that initial credit. It’s different once you have the business up and running, and that’s what we enable.”

There are sundry issues as well that undermine entrepreneurship in the hinterland: the dearth of startup ecosystems of the kind that thrive in some Indian cities and precious few structured training programmes for youth, particularly for those outside the mainstream education system.

Bandana Pal, who wanted to run my own business at her tailoring shop in Kantabanji, a town in Balangir district
Bandana Pal, who "wanted to run my own business", at her tailoring shop in Kantabanji, a town in Balangir district

Tata Strive has since its setting up in 2015 been working to change this situation. “Right from inception, our effort and our mission has been to foster entrepreneurship and community-based enterprises, while enabling jobs alongside,” explains Mr Vanjari. “In Nano Unicorn we started with 49 ITIs in Odisha to create a mechanism whereby we can spot potential entrepreneurs and nurture them. Starting this year, we are reaching out with this opportunity to students of other ITIs and polytechnics.”

Accommodating canopy

A variety of businesses have found space under the initiative’s canopy, from beauty parlours and clothing outlets to grocery shops and even a unit that makes hand sanitisers. The training programme goes beyond the usual to assist beneficiaries with legal and regulatory procedures.

“Being an entrepreneur in India is easier said than done; you face all kinds of hassles and our training has been crafted to help people deal with these,” adds Mr Vanjari. “We handhold and mentor these entrepreneurs. Once they are fairly well established, they come back to the programme and guide new entrants.”

There are several positives in the Nano Unicorn story, the most prominent being the success it has bred. “We have many small entrepreneurs running profitable businesses, earning well and creating employment opportunities for others,” says Mr Vanjari. “This is heartening to see but we want to scale up and replicate this programme in multiple places. We see a lot of opportunities for that across rural India.”

The Nano Unicorn programme has enabled Gayatri Giri to set up a beauty parlour
The Nano Unicorn programme has enabled Gayatri Giri to set up a beauty parlour