These cafés are changing lives in India

Founder Alina Alam wanted to build a social enterprise that engaged people with disabilities, empowered them, and created awareness about their employability.

The year was 2016. A young graduate in India’s Bengaluru, Alina Alam, wanted to start a café staffed with, and run by, people with disabilities (PWD). The catch: she had no experience in the hospitality industry or working with PWDs — and no money. Organisations turned her away at the door.

Yet, she persevered.

Alam printed pamphlets, found someone to translate them into the local language (Kannada), and went door to door handing them out. Initially, there was no response.

After a week, she got a call from a woman named Keerthi, who cannot walk. During her first meeting with Alam, she had to pull herself through the doorway. “Her family couldn’t afford a wheelchair. She didn’t speak much," Alam recalls. "All she wanted to know was, 'Are you sure you want to hire me?'"

Alam said yes, and she got her first employee. In August 2017, Mitti Café was born in a rustic shed at Deshpande Foundation in the BVB College of Engineering and Technology campus.

Young woman is founder of cafe Alina Alam is the founder and CEO of Mitti Café (Photo: Mitti Café)

Alam used money crowd-funded from friends and family, borrowed equipment like fridges and mixers, and roped in college students to help (in lieu of coffee and samosas).

“When you don’t have money, you have a lot of ideas on how to implement things. You have to get jugaadu [loose slang for resourceful],” she says.

Today, Alam and the Mitti Social Initiative Foundation (the umbrella nonprofit) run eight cafés across Karnataka, employing 61 PWD. The company has been incubated by IIM Bangalore, sourced one round of funding from social venture partners, and is part of the Disability NGOs Alliance.

The café employs people with physical, intellectual, psychiatric, and multiple disabilities; the youngest is 18, the oldest is 62.

“We train and employ them based on their skills. Our focus is people from low socio-economic backgrounds who find it difficult to find employment,” says Alam.

Part of the training also includes what to do in case of an emergency or sexual harassment. Employees are offered accommodation, transportation, and wheelchairs.

The cafés are collaborations with corporations, and run out of colleges, hospitals, and tech parks — places with enough foot traffic to help it break even. The organisations provide the space as part of their CSR activities, and each café is set up using crowd-funding.

CEO of cafe pushes young girl in wheelchair Alam with her very first employee, Keerthi. (Photo: Mitti Café)

Each space functions on its own, with six to ten on staff, including one manager and one rotational manager. The cook may or may not have special needs, but apart from him, everyone is a PWD. The menus are simple and chosen specifically so that they can be made by everyone on the staff: a range of coffees and teas, health beverages, and snacks like salads and sandwiches.

Every café is accessible, has menu cards printed in Braille, food orders written on notepad sheets, explanatory placards, and flicker lights to signal the staff. Mitti café also undertakes one-day catering events to increase outreach. As Alam has learned over a decade working in the nonprofit space, awareness is what matters most.

cafe employee talks to customer Mitti Café employee M.D. Shareif, left, works to support his family members. (Photo: Mitti Café)

It was an internship with Bengaluru’s Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled that showed the then-college student the untapped potential of people with disabilities. Alam wanted to build a social enterprise that engaged these people, empowered them, and created awareness about their employability. A café made the most sense.

“Food connects people. I wanted a space that could include everybody, where it would be easy to skill people. It was also important to have interactions and questions asked and answered, so as to create awareness around disabilities. It’s important to show what these people can do,” she says.

There is a lot that the employees of Mitti Café can do. When employee Keerti first started, she couldn’t hold a cup or pen. After a few months of motivation and exercise sessions with a physiotherapist, she's now a manager and cashier at the first café.

a customer at the cafe greets employee in wheelchair Ratna, right, started as a customer happiness executie. Now, she is a cashier. (Photo: Mitti Café)

There’s Sabiha, a domestic violence survivor with multiple sclerosis. She has the "gift of gab" and works in the front office, where she charms customers into eating more food.

“They may be slow but they are perfectionists. They feel like they own this place and enjoy coming to work. We learn from each other,” Alam says. “The journey has been easy because of them.”

Alam’s biggest support through the journey has been her religious faith. She credits her parents with introducing in her the will to do something substantial in life.

owner of cafe chats with employee Alam chats with her employee, Bhairappa, at one of the cafés. (Photo: Mitti Cafe)

“Your immediate ecosystem as a child really shapes your thoughts. I learned how to do good from my parents. We were very happy as a family, despite not being rich in resources. They were extremely kind and generous to people much more deprived than us,” she says.

“Whatever has been given to the community has always come back. For the kind of privileges we have, the onus is on us to be responsible for people who are not as privileged,” she says.

In the future, Alam hopes to source more funding, and to take Mitti Café to other cities in India.

writer Joanna Lobo

Joanna Lobo is an independent journalist trying to balance her feature stories with news that impacts, educates, and informs. She writes for Indian and international publications on topics that are close to her heart: food, travel, strong women, community stories, and occasionally, humour.

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