Wealth of generations

  • Aji’s makes innovative use of the skills and talents of the elderly to keep them busy while also providing an income
- Bibhu Luitel

Nov 19, 2018-

Champa Devi Tuladhar has been knitting socks for over 60 years. In her 76 years, she has given away more socks than she can count—to her family members, friends and just about anyone who would visit her. So when her granddaughters, Lorina and Irina Sthapit, approached her to market her warm handmade socks and sell them, she was hesitant. She had always expected nothing in return.

“It took some time for us to convince her to sell the socks,” says Lorina, “but the wait was worth everything.” Champa Devi’s socks are now sold as ‘Lumu’ socks (Lumu means warm in Newari), marketed by Aji’s, a social enterprise founded by the Sthapit sisters and Lorina's fiance, Pursarth Tuladhar, seven months ago.  

Aji’s has a simple but heartfelt conceit—the elderly have skills and talents they have accumulated over their lives and these can be used to not just keep them employed and earning but also allow them to pass their time productively. Aji’s, which means grandmother’s in Newari, came about as a way to perform a social good while also making some money for the elderly in their advanced age. Although grandmothers and grandfathers tend to give away the fruits of their labour, the founders believe that monetising products are important, since they add value.

Aji’s started with Champadevi but in the seven months they’ve been operating, they’ve accumulated a roster of nine grandmothers and one grandfather. They approached most of the women, but one approached them.

Shiro Moktan learned about Aji’s through Facebook and she wrote to Lorina personally. This fiercely independent aji believes she has broken every ‘rule’ of being old. She lives alone but leads a very active life. If she is not making her signature plant hangers out of cotton rope, she is looking up and sharing creative ideas on Pinterest. This creative 67-year-old makes her plant hangers for Aji’s but wants to do more. Thinking back to her days in Darjeeling when she operated a small bakery, she wants to once again make cakes and muffins for sale.

Another idea that Shiro has includes microwaving flowers and leaves for art instead of pressing them in a book or under a pillow. “This process leaves a pungent odour all over the house,” she says, “but the result has turned out to be amazing.” She has framed these microwaved flowers and put them up as beautiful works of art. In the near future, she plans to sell these art pieces through Aji’s.

Clearly, Aji’s loves the arts and artists, which is why 70-year-old Juju Ratna Tamrakar is one of their favourites. Juju Ratna, a graduate of the Lalitkala Campus of Fine Arts, is a skilled painter and sculptor. He worked as part of a team of designers who designed coins at the taksar adda. He makes miniatures of the Swayambhunath stupa out of clay and lokta paper that he lovingly paints by hand, along with dharmachakra magnets for Aji’s. His wife brings him ceramics all the way from Thimi to their home in Dallu. He then molds them into works of art. Making one object takes him an entire day.

For now, Juju Ratna is the only baaje working with Aji’s. But they’re planning to open new registration requests for grandfathers, says Pursarth.

“If I stay idle, my mind wanders to places I don’t want to go,” says Juju Ratna. For Aji’s founders, this is precisely why such an enterprise is necessary. It is a way to keep the elderly busy and connected with the community. But it is also an exercise in education, showing an increasingly callous society that the elderly have much to offer.

Most of Aji’s makers work from home and since their products are handmade, they take time and effort. For instance, it takes Juju Ratna an entire day to make one sculpture. When the number of orders peaks, the makers often get anxious. But Aji’s is one of those few companies where customers do not mind getting their orders late.

“These products are not high-end and they are not very different from what you could easily get in the market,” Lorina acknowledges, “but it is made with love and from the years of experience our makers have put into their products. And I think that matters most.”

Average life expectancy has increased all over the world, resulting in a rising number of the elderly. “Aged people are that part of the population that receive least love and care from everyone,” Krishna Murari Gautam, popularly known as the satirist Chatyang Master, of Ageing Nepal, an NGO that works for the elderly, reports. Gautam believes there can be no greater source of knowledge than grandparents, but is also irked at how younger generation treats the elderly. “This generation relies on packets of noodles for food but thinks that old people who find food in the shoots of plants are ignorant,” he says.

This has resulted in the isolation of the elderly in many families. Since joining Aji’s, their grandchildren have developed a newfound interest in their grandparents’ entrepreneurial journey, reports Lorina. “One of my grandsons helps me with bookkeeping,” says Champa Devi. “That has brought us much closer. He is my grandson but he is also my friend now.”

Similarly, it was her son-in-law who pushed Ram Maya Maharjan to join Aji’s as one of its newest members. Ram Maya, 66, weaves mats (sukuls), stools (mudas) and table coasters out of straw that comes from her own field. She has been making these for decades now. Even though this is not something she is new to, she reports feeling more empowered now, because with the money come heartwarming compliments, which she seldom received before.

“My family has started looking to me for motivation and this feeling is something I cannot express in words,” says Maharjan.

Aji’s started small but it has grown in a short time. They now sell nine products that are also available in the US through their Etsy store. They plan to include more makers and expand accordingly.

At the end of the day, the makers at Aji’s feel empowered and that, according to them, matters most. The essential thing is to value the work and the knowledge of the elderly, which is also reflected in their #AskAnAji initiative where anyone can ask for help, advice or any kind of information that an elderly person might have. With the answers knowledge gets passed down and something intangible is preserved.


Published: 19-11-2018 07:49

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