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The Green Bazaar

by Padma Rajagopal

July 2001

In November 1997, my husband, Mathew, and I were visiting our friend Yvette, an extraordinary lady and a very talented craftswoman at her home in Srirangapatna. Yvette, still dynamically active in her late seventies, has been a great inspiration to me in my attempt to live an "alternative lifestyle", and although she isn't a farmer, she's a committed organic gardener. Now, we talked to her about the difficulty we were having in marketing our farm and craft produce locally at a fair price.

Yvette said that it was very difficult to make a living as any kind of small-scale producer in India unless one had direct access to the buyers. Long ago, she and a friend had planned to run a small shop for their craft work in Bangalore, but the difficulties of looking after it while yet maintaining Srirangapatna as a home base, and the huge cost of buying "goodwill" from the previous tenant, put paid to their attempts. The only option, she felt, was to market our wares in an alternative way in Mysore city, although it is known to be a dull market, with little cash on display.

Attempts at marketing organically grown produce in Mysore had already been made by other organic farmers known to Yvette, mostly by word of mouth, filling individual orders that were phoned in and home-delivered, but this had been a difficult, expensive and eventually quite ineffective method of selling. In order to build and sustain interest, a direct market, like a village shanty, with its spontaneity and minimal overheads, seemed to offer the ideal alternative.

Yvette also talked about a "swap-shop", where people could bring and exchange used books, clothes, furniture even. It was an exciting idea, offering a chance to bring together the eco-friendly public of the city at regular intervals. Maybe apart from the routine buying and selling that would go on, we might even find other projects that we could collaborate on, like environment-friendly packaging, organic waste management, etc. Yvette offered to let us use the spacious verandah of her secluded old house, facing the Cauvery river, for the markets, free of cost. I volunteered to get the ball rolling.

Over the next 10 days, I copied out and posted about 40 hand-written postcards to various individuals and groups in or near Mysore city whom I thought would be interested in such a market, inviting their participation in an organic farmer's market , to be held at Scott's Bungalow at Srirangapatna. Nobody replied, but some of the people we knew whom Mathew met in the city said they would come. We had to be content with that.

At the first market, of the 40 odd invitees we envisaged, only a handful turned up. The Cariappas, a couple who had a large organic farm near H.D.Kote, arrived in their jeep with their children, brown rice and jaggery, and several spices, Yvette set out some old books from her extensive collection, and Mathew and I brought hand-crafted terracotta, some vegetables, and a large bucket containing live composting earthworms. Some buyers arrived too - two carloads of friends, who bought our vegetables and the Cariappas' produce, and stayed around afterwards to chat with us. We also did some bartering, gave away all the earthworms and some of the terracotta, and came home hugely satisfied with books and foodstuffs in exchange. We had decided among ourselves anyway that it was certainly worth repeating the exercise.

The next market drew a huge crowd - my postcards had gone out again, a friend had written an article about our plans in a local newspaper about it, and Mrs. Cariappa's mother had been active on the telephone. Carloads (and one busload of people from the Air Force colony) arrived at Scott's Bungalow, even before the producers did. Our farm produce was quickly sold out, and people continued to linger, families going for boat-rides on the river in the country-made coracles plied by local fishermen, families picnicking on the steps down by the river.

Yet, it was obvious that the long distance from Mysore to Scott's Bungalow would keep many genuine buyers away, and these huge crowds of strangers could become a serious problem for Yvette - her home and its surroundings were a bit too beautiful, too suitable for loitering. The next market would therefore be held at our rather less picturesque farmhouse at Yelwal, and thereafter travel into the city, wherever we were offered sufficient space, on the last Sunday morning of each month.

Mathew serves customers at the Green Bazaar

For over a year this market, now christened "The Green Bazaar" continued like this, travelling each month to a different venue where we were offered free space. Publicity continued by word of mouth and hand-written postcards, and slowly more producers began to participate. Participation was free of cost, for organic farmers and eco-friendly craftspeople.

I painted a large and colourful board that we brought to each market, stating the goals and principles of the market. We all brought our own mats and boxes and spread out our displays on the floor - tables were rarely provided. For almost six months, we were provided space at "Makkala Koota" hall, where a well-known naturopath, Dr. Jagdeesh, had his group of patients who arrived en masse to buy our wares. We began to hold the market more frequently, on 2nd and 4th Sundays of each month.

An organic consumer group was also taking shape separately, calling itself "Nasera", and some of their suppliers also began to attend the Green Bazaars. Nasera also began to organize weekly markets of their own, in the garage of one of their members, sourcing organic food at fixed prices for their members, who paid a one-time subscription of Rs.1000/- for the service. More recently, they have set up a shop that's open all through the week.

In 1999, the Green Bazaar moved once more, to The Green Hotel, near the Mysore University campus. The Hotel provides tables and chairs, and a roofed space where participants are sometimes exposed to rain or sun from the open sides, but enjoy the ambience of well maintained gardens, free of charge. For over a year now we have also formed an association of the regular participants and drawn up guidelines for members.

Participants pay an annual membership fee of Rupees 500 and share costs of newspaper advertisements, which have replaced the original method of publicising the market through post-cards and telephone calls. It works very well for the bigger producers, though not so well for very small producers, some of whom have stopped participating since the market stopped being free.

Prices at the Green Bazaar are set by producers themselves at what they consider is a fair return for their work. This too varies, and reactions are mixed...the Green Bazaar has earned a reputation for being rather expensive, not all of it justified, yet it keeps the less affluent buyers away. Again, quite different from our original ideas, and certainly there are no second hand goods for "swap-shop" anywhere in sight. Yet the market has established its own character which we have to respect. It represents a pragmatic response to market realities.

There are quite a variety of goods on sale - fresh fruits and vegetables, rice, dals, jaggery, baked foods, sweets and savories, tofu, pickles, jams, squashes, clothes, pottery, medicinal herbs, hand-made paper cards and stationery, natural beauty products, essential oils, and books. Nobody sells branded products. Most of us provide newspaper bags for our wares, avoid using plastic bags to package our produce, and ask customers to bring us used glass jars to be cleaned and reused. The regular participants sometimes have good sales, sometimes not, but we have certainly all made several good contacts and friends from there.

Growth hasn't been easy, and strong differences of opinion among participants have cropped up sometimes, not all of them easily settled. Some still simmer on a back burner somewhere, awaiting resolution at a later date. For Mathew, Yvette and myself, who initially conceptualised it, the Green Bazaar is only a partial success, since it does not really meet the needs of the small producers for whom we had originally hoped it would be a forum. However, it does have its own momentum, so we must be content with it, in spite of its limitations.

Yvette stopped participating long ago, when the market moved from her house, and I rarely attend nowadays, with an infant son to look after at home, but Mathew still goes to the market regularly. We have learned many things from it - the importance of exposure and consistency, skills of salesmanship and presentation, the interdependence of the rural producer and the urban consumer, and the opportunities and drawbacks presented by such a group, trying to function democratically. And surely there's a lot more learning ahead.

Padma Rajagopal is an industrial designer, qualified from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, with over 15 years of experience as a consultant for village industries. She has worked as a designer, skills trainer and appropriate technologist, on projects organized by NGOs and Govt. agencies working with rural communities and craftsmen in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and now functions as programme coordinator for SEED (Skills and Environmental Education) Trust, based at her small farm near Mysore city. Padma and her husband, Mathew Pani Paodumai, a Naga tribal with an academic background in business management, live and work on the farm, with their two year old son, Keshav.

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