In her new book ‘God’s Own Kitchen’, bestselling author Rashmi Bansal chronicles the story of Akshaya Patra, an NGO which feeds midday meals to over 1.6 million children in India. This is the exciting story of spiritualists and capitalists coming together to launch a unique start-up, and taking it to scale. Bansal talks to SheThePeople.TV about how monk and manager came together to build a large organisation, and her own writing process.
You mention in the book that writing it opened your eyes to what hunger feels like? Can you elaborate on this?
It doesn’t usually strike someone how one meal can make so much of a difference to somebody. These meals are simple, but when you see how happy they make the children they are feeding, you see how much of an effect they can have. It is quite exciting and very touching. Some principals of the schools told us stories of children of labourers who used come to school on an empty stomach and how they couldn’t focus because they were so hungry.
How can you learn if you don’t have food in your belly? We take food for granted. We have spent money on classrooms and teachers. But what is the point if a child is hungry and cannot follow what is being taught?
Why did you choose Akshaya Patra as a subject? What makes the organisation unique? What allowed it to scale up?
My book, ‘I Have a Dream’, was about social entrepreneurs and I had included a little bit about Akshaya Patra in it. Over the years, I have become more aware of them. In 2013, I visited one of their kitchens. It looked like a multinational factory — it had excellent operations, everything was painstakingly planned, and it was a well managed enterprise. I wondered how an NGO can have this kind of planning and execution.
I read two case studies on the organisation and found the story really inspiring. I wanted to learn exactly how the organisation grew into something so big, into a system which feeds over 16 lakh students.
You can learn a lot about startups through this story. The lessons of startups often come in diverse sources, and one can learn from different organisations. It was interesting to see how this one has established certain guiding principles, and a certain philosophy.
What is the partnership between spiritual gurus and corporate types in running NGOs?
Two diverse sets of people come together to devote their lives to serving people and God. You don’t expect professionals to do this kind of work. They have attained success in the business world, and they also want to give back. The managers use their expertise to put in place systems and procedures, and to make sure funds are used well.
The monks run the daily operations of the organisation. Both sides have commitment, and together have created something unique.
You say the book took you 21 months of research — can you tell us how you went about it, and about your writing process?
So many people were involved in the growth of the organisation. We did more than a 100 interviews in different locations. We visited kitchens in 11 states, met the heads of various kitchens, met students, met professionals, met the original team. Everyone remembers their part of the story, a little part, and they don’t remember it completely.
So we had to keep going back to checking with various people about the exact facts about certain events. We collected a lot of information, a lot of it was repetition. So then we had to construct a narrative out of it, cull out a timeline, key events, and have it make sense to an outsider.
We collected much more information than what I have included in the book. I wanted the book to read like fiction, where there are characters, and a plot. So I did not write it like a non-fiction book, because I didn’t want it to read like a case study
What is the next project you are working on?
I am working on a new book titled, ‘Still I Rise’. The title is inspired by from a famous poem by Maya Angelou. The book is about women who have overcome any obstacle — social, personal, economic. These are women who have overcome the odds. They are strong and aspiring. These are people in the news, from all over the country. The book is close to my heart, and will come out in October.