By Sanjeet Amatya
This month, The Gazette interviewed Ms. Sthapit from Nepal—an alumna from AIT’s Gender and Development Studies program. She is the co-founder of Aji’s Products, a social enterprise in Kathmandu that empowers senior citizens in society to live healthy and happy lives by providing a platform to showcase their skills and knowledge. In this interview, Ms. Sthapit discusses her life as an entrepreneur, and her vision to create a world where the elderly live harmonious lives as active members of their community. Here’s her story.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I graduated from AIT in 2013 with a Master’s degree in Gender and Development Studies. I have almost a decade of experience working as a development professional for organizations such as Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (OXFAM), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), CARE, and other NGOs and INGOs in Nepal, Uzbekistan, Uganda, and Italy. I have completed a Social Entrepreneurship Program at INSEAD Business School in Singapore. I am also teaching a course in women’s empowerment at a leading women’s university in Nepal.
When did your entrepreneurial flair first reveal itself? What was your inspiration?
I started Aji’s Products not to open an enterprise but as a way to help my grandmother’s passion for knitting. I grew up seeing how much she enjoyed making knitwear for her family, and I could perceive how she forgets her physical tensions while she enjoys her crafts. I thought why not start a proper platform that could actually depict the value and attention of her unique products, make them available to the general public and empower her to earn income while keeping her passion thriving.
I started by posting one pair of socks on Facebook in 2018 which people simply adored. I thought maybe other elders also have these unique skills that reflect our tradition, history, and culture. I started an online platform for everyone to join and people loved the concept, it resonated with many in numerous ways. Now the enterprise has many elderly members, predominantly female, who make a variety of handmade products such as silverware, local fabrics, and sculptures. All of the seniors are 60 years and above working from home. The eldest one currently being 86 years of age.
Can you give us some highlights of your enterprise?
All of our products have rich Nepalese cultural and traditional values like Soyambhu Stupa, Dharma Chakra, Vajra Silver Earring, Face Scrub made from century-old practices, and many more. These products are special because they are made with love by the elderly who are masters of their arts and crafts learned from decades of practice. The products are unique, handmade, limited collection, and not mass-produced. Most of the products are 100% natural and sustainable.
We not only preserve the crafts and skills of our elders but we also preserve their intangible heritage through Aji’s Podcasts. We interview the elders to share their life stories linked with their history, beliefs, and customs. This preserves their legacy.
We also organize intergenerational activities where we bring the young and old generations together through skills transfer workshops to learn from each other. The elders teach their life-long learned skills to the younger generation, thus conserving the dying heritage.
We also have Aji’s Blog on our website where the elders themselves write and share their thoughts and perspectives about life such as poetry, articles, and songs. The blog also provides a platform for the youngsters to write tributes for their elders, and share their jubilant family pictures.
How do you find the elderly people to join your enterprise?
In the beginning, we asked friends and families but once Aji’s Products was covered by a lot of national and international media, people started contacting us through our website and our social media channels. Our makers are not our employees. We freelance their work so we pay them according to the sales we make on their products. They are not obliged to work full time or come to the office. Currently, we have 30-plus on and off seniors as makers. We also work with other elders for workshops, podcasts, and blog stories.
How has life changed for the elderly since they joined your enterprise?
Profoundly. They are overjoyed. My grandmother, who used to be a reserved person, has now become an extrovert. She takes pride in her work since her products are now becoming widely recognized, and she herself has become well-known for what she does.
We highlight the makers of every product on the website. The elders are ecstatic. Aji’s Products have boosted their self-confidence. Their creativity has amplified, and they have become high-spirited. Being active at work has also improved their physical and mental health.
Where do you see your enterprise going from here?
We started officially in January 2018 with most of our elders from the Kathmandu Valley as the makers. We are now planning to expand to more cities in Nepal as well as increase the product and market base nationally and internationally. We have started our online store and we are looking forward to collaborating with other brands as well.
Aji’s Products has become an important platform for the elders and young people to understand empathy, and the importance of learning and connecting. The stories that are written and posted will last forever on our online platform passing from generation to generation.
Since we are a startup, we want to scale up as much as possible. We need funding and resources. We have set up a patron page at patreon.com to raise funds to support the podcast, videos, and blogs.
Did AIT play any part in the success of your entrepreneurial journey?
Yes, it did. AIT has been a crucial part of my life. I received the Her Majesty the Queen’s Scholarship from the Government of Thailand. This made it possible for me to study and complete my Master’s degree at AIT. I still vividly remember receiving the certificate from Her Royal Highness the Princess of Thailand and I am forever thankful for it.
Life at AIT included outstanding faculty, great friends, inspiring courses, and the overall experience helped me a lot in the field of gender development. Through Aji’s Products, I am striving to support a group of elderly people who are in a way marginalized as their issues are not given much importance. The knowledge and experience that I gained from AIT plays a vital role in this venture.
Furthermore, I acquired many valuable connections at AIT. My classmates are still in close contact and have always been supportive. AIT helped me to grow academically, professionally as well as personally. I always miss AIT’s serene environment and cherish every moment spent there.
Why did you choose to study at AIT?
I had applied and received scholarships from other institutions also but I liked the programs offered at AIT. Besides, AIT is a highly reputed academic institution in my country. I was inspired by many well-known and established alumni working in various sectors for the development of my nation. Also, I received the prestigious Her Majesty the Queen’s Scholarship from the Royal Thai Government to support my studies.
Did you receive any opportunities from AIT to grow your career?
My internship with IFAD was all because of AIT. When it was announced, I applied and got selected. From an intern, I became a junior consultant, then a consultant, and kept climbing up the ladder. I finally went to work at IFAD Headquarters in Rome. Hence, that internship was the most important opportunity for my career. I also had a chance to go for a student exchange program at Ochanomizu University in Japan, which was another great experience.
Any comments and suggestions to the new generation who want to study at AIT in Thailand?
I miss Thailand. It is an amazing country to experience an exciting culture, tradition, beautiful beaches, places, and great hospitality. AIT is an absolutely wonderful place to study. I adored and appreciated every moment spent at this institute. I would definitely recommend AIT to everybody. There is a diverse range of courses, exciting programs, and opportunities such as dual degree programs and exchange programs, through which you will get more experience to help you grow in your academic and professional career. This is a place where you will make friends from diverse and multicultural backgrounds, and a place where you will make memories that you will remember your entire life.