You have probably read a hundred heartwarming stories about people and their contributions during the lockdown. Here is yet another story that originates from a café in India. Yes, I am talking about the frontline heroes at Mitti Café. These heroes served water and cooked 1.3 million meals for daily wage workers and homeless people. And why is that unique? Because despite them being differently-abled and facing physical and economic problems, they did not hesitate to take care of those in need.
The Name, the Concept
Why Mitti? Mitti in Hindi means mud. The thought behind it is – though we may be different in race, religion, sex, and status, at the end to mud we all return.
The name and concept is the brainchild of Alina Alam. The young Indian girl was determined to provide equal employment opportunities to differently-abled people.
Though the thought was noble, the journey was not. During the initial years, Alina knocked on the doors of philanthropists, venture capitalists, industrialists, and incubators for her noble idea to set up Mitti café, but everyone turned her down. Nobody believed as much as her that people with disabilities could work and integrate into society.
The Boost, the Believer
Alina was not ready to give up. Finally, in 2017 Deshpande Foundation extended aid to the budding 23-year entrepreneur by offering her a tin shed to open her first Mitti Café. It all started with one dilapidated disabled employee.
Accordingly to Alina, few community members helped to set up the cafe. Others donated a second-hand fridge, oven, and furnishings. But the main hurdle was – staffing. Finding a differently-abled person to work in the café was not an easy task. Surprisingly, a lady who had just heard about the initiative called to inform Alina that her daughter has a disability, which doctors could not diagnose. The girl would crawl because her family could not afford a wheelchair. That girl was Keerti, the first employee. Today Keerti, from her wheelchair, manages ten other people with disabilities at their first cafe.
A belief got a boost, and Mitti café arrived!
Mitti Café and the NGO provide economic independence and dignity to persons with disabilities. The NGO provides experiential training, employment, and entrepreneurship opportunities to adults with physical and intellectual disabilities to integrate them into society by removing environmental and social barriers around them.
Since its inception, Mitti Café has grown. Over four years, Mitti Café trained 800 people with disabilities to work in their cafes. Today the NGO manages eight permanent cafes in three Indian cities, employing over 116 disabled staff members. In addition, there are 16 Mitti cafés at institutions like Wipro, Infosys, Accenture, Wells Fargo, ANZ Bank, IQVIA, and Cytecare Hospital.
The Mitti café has served over five million meals in just four years.
The Mitti Cafe Model
Mitti cafe serves south Indian, north Indian, and Chinese cuisine and hot and cold beverages. It has menus in braille and posters with sign language to greet and converse with the employees who have hearing/speech impairment. Individuals with visual, hearing impairments, Down Syndrome, and autism can work at Mitti Café. A recruit is selected based on his/her skill and not educational qualification. He/she then undergoes a paid internship for three months before becoming a permanent employee.
Mitti model even encourages family members of the disabled to cook.
Mitti Café Honors and Awards
Alina Alam’s work at Mitti Cafe has earned her honors and awards. She has won over a dozen prestigious awards, including the Karnataka Women Achiever Award, the NCPEDP Mindtree Hellen Keller Award, the Times of India-She Unlimited Award, and the Tiecon Young Female Entrepreneur of the Year. She is also featured in Forbes 30 under 30 and is a Commonwealth Youth Awardee.
Like all other restaurants, Mitti café too had to shut down because of the lockdown. But Alina Alam was quick to think on her feet. With the help of the Milaap Foundation, she raised INR 90 lakhs in 15 days to start Mitti cafes in public spaces. With the financial aid and her able team, she set up two Mitti Cafés in Koramangala and Jayanagar, Bengaluru. The Mitti heroes extended every help they could to serve the less fortunate.
The Road Ahead
Alina has always insisted on consistently serving high-quality food at every Mitti café. With all the standard operating procedures in place, she now aims to have over 100 Mitti Cafes in the next five years with 500+ differently-abled persons. Accordingly to Alina, “Our aim is to create model cafés which evoke awareness of the culture of inclusion and equal opportunities in employment to be emulated by others in the food space.”
Mitti Café has once again shown us how differently-abled persons can contribute to society. Each employee has a different story to tell. Now is the time for us to accept and believe in them!