For many, college is a place that offers an opportunity to begin a new phase in life. For others like 29-year-old entrepreneur Alina Alam, it is a place where seeds of change are sown. The founder and CEO of Mitti Cafe, an NGO with a chain of cafes that provides experiential training and employment to adults with physical and intellectual disabilities, Alam is making an impact on the differently-abled community in India.
Today, Mitti Cafe outlets across the country are managed by hundreds of adults with special needs who have cooked and served over 10 million meals since its inception in 2017. The seeds of this venture date back to Alam’s college days in 2016 when she watched Nero’s Guests, a documentary by noted journalist P Sainath based on the farmer suicides in Vidharba.
“The documentary made me realise that keeping quiet, looking at the atrocities unfold before you, makes you side with an oppressor. And being brought up by my grandmother who is differently abled, all I saw as a child while growing up is her abilities,” says Alam. “I decided that I will not sit in college placements and instead I started volunteering with organisations in the inclusion space to reinforce my belief. I also realized that the problem is not the vast number of disabled individuals across the globe, but our very own perception that is disabled to see the magical abilities of the community,” says Alam, who found food as a common denominator to connect with people and create a livelihood for the differently abled, the founding idea for Mitti Cafe.
While the Bengaluru-based NGO has already made an impact among the differently abled, it recently added another feather to its cap by opening a 24-hour outlet at the Kempegowda International Airport. According to Alam, it is the only airport in the world to have a cafe managed by the differently-abled.
Alam started her first non-profit organisation at the age of 18 in Mumbai. It was called Student Social Reform Initiative, and later, while pursuing her masters in Bengaluru, she started another NGO called Pahal. The aim of both these NGOs was to involve youth in different outreach activities related to their interests that could bring about some measurable social changes. Mitti Cafe is Alam’s third venture, centred around livelihood and development.
Alam started Mitti Cafe with zero startup capital, with very little knowledge about entrepreneurship and faced several rejections while raising funds. The first outlet began in a dilapidated tiny shed in Hubballi, with one wheelchair-bound employee, Kirti. “No institution or NGO gave us space in Bengaluru to start the cafe. However, Deshpande Foundation based in Hubballi agreed to give us space to start the cafe, in a godown,” Alam recalls. “I got the student community involved and went door to door to help me set up the cafe. Our first employee was Kirti who came in crawling for the interview because her family could not afford a wheelchair. But today, she has bought her own wheelchair with her salary and is the manager of our first café,” Alam adds.
Mitti Cafe soon expanded its wings and today has a footprint in 26 locations across Bengaluru, Kolkata and Delhi with its outlets being managed by over 250 adults with physical, mental and psychiatric disabilities who have served 10 million meals. Some of the outlets are in corporate offices and educational institutions. The cafe’s most popular item is the Kulhad Chai, followed by wraps, pasta, chola bhatura and Maggi, among others.
During the pandemic, Mitti Cafe employee Hemant, who has been diagnosed with autism, came up with the initiative to serve meals to those in need. This eventually resulted in a flagship programme called the Compassion Meal Programme, where a team of adults with disabilities cooked, packed and served over 4 million people across India during the Covid-19 crisis.
The employees of Mitti Café also rose to the occasion during the recent Bengaluru floods in September where they cooked, packed and distributed food kits to poor families and migrant labourers impacted by the floods in Sarjapur, Bellandur and surrounding areas. In the after-effects of Cyclone Amphan in West Bengal in 2020, Mitti Cafe helped feed and serve hundreds of flood-stricken villagers in the Sundarbans region, as part of their flood relief initiative.
Employment opportunities at Mitti Café have helped several employees script their own success stories. Like Bhairappa, a 31-year-old employee diagnosed with dwarfism, who was rejected at 80-plus jobs before he joined the cafe. Now, he is the team lead, leading an entire unit of the cafe at the Infosys campus. He also found the love of his life, Roopa, here and the couple got married a year and a half ago. The cafe has other couples who have found love too, such as Ratna and Basavaraj, who are diagnosed with paraplegia, Sushma and Sumukha, who are diagnosed with autism, and Gouri and Suman, who are visually impaired.
Alam recruits most of her employees by rehabilitating people found begging or homeless on the road. Some are recruited through referrals and others by collaborating with a network of NGOs and institutions in the inclusion space. The cafe has also an experiential training program for their employees where they have so far trained 2,700 people with disabilities. Some trainers are persons with disabilities who provide training in customer service, inventory management, barista training, and other aspects of employability.
Alam has also rolled out ‘Mitti Good Gifts’ – a space for supporting the livelihood of people with disabilities who design, create and sell gift creative hampers. “I believe Mitti Cafe is just a concept. However, the larger picture is to get communities across the globe to participate in the movement of inclusion that leads to economic independence and dignity for all,” says Alam.Bengaluru