AN Internship stint at Samarthanam Trust for The Disabled in Bangalore had a profound impact on Alina Alam. Among many things, she learnt there was the fact that a staggering 7 crore persons with physical, intellectual and psychiatric disabilities in India struggle for equal opportunities and economic independence. It was then that Alina Alam decided to create a platform for persons with disabilities to earn with dignity. The 28-year-old started the MITTI Cafe in 2017, and all the 17 cafes across the country today, are managed by hundreds of people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities.
MITTI Cafes exist within organisations like Infosys, Wipro, Accenture, Wells Fargo, IQVIA, ANZ Bank, NSHM, Cytecare Hospital, etc. The cafes have served over 6 million meals and beverages in the last few years. More importantly, they have successfully spread awareness about the inclusion of persons with disabilities in the workplace.
In this interview with GiveIndia, Alina Alam, MITTI’s founder and CEO, shares the story behind the organisation, what makes it special, her favourite food, and much more.
GiveIndia: Tell us the story behind MITTI Cafe. There were many hurdles in the way, what kept you going?
Alina Alam: I was 23, at university, waiting for placements, when something extraordinary changed my life. One of my professors shared a documentary of Nero in my last semester that gave me a reality check into my very existence. Nero was a Roman emperor. He won one war after the other, and after he won the biggest battle of his life, he threw a party that lasted for days. He invited the who’s who of the empire. One evening, they needed light. Nero decided to burn waste to generate light. So, he burned those he felt were insignificant and equivalent to waste – the prisoners of war.
As a 23-year-old sitting in the classroom, I realised that the problem was not Nero, but Nero’s guests. As to how they could sing, dance, and drink while fellow human beings were being burned to death.
A bigger realisation in that classroom was I didn’t want to be one of Nero’s guests. When there’s so much atrocity and injustice happening around the world, and yet one chooses to be silent, they’ve taken a side. They have taken the side of the oppressor. This realisation was a turning point for me. I knew that I could no longer face myself if I remained one of Nero’s guests. I decided not to sit for placements, much to the dismay of my parents. They wanted me to ‘settle down’ either with a job or a husband. Instead, I started volunteering with organisations working in the disability inclusion space. There, I realised that the problem was not their ability but the disability in our own perception and the limitation we placed in the way we view them, and I knew this needed to change.
I was determined to create a visible, tangible, interactive model that could create awareness about inclusion. A model that could generate role models with the potential to inspire the world. That was the beginning of the concept of MITTI Café.
GI: What makes MITTI Cafe stand out from other cafes in India?
AA: As an organisation, we take pride when our employees outgrow us. Many of our employees have started their own businesses, employed persons with disability, and become our vendors. What sets Mitti Cafe apart are our stories that celebrate the dreams and resilience of our team members.
As an organisation, we take pride when our employees outgrow us. Many of our employees have started their own businesses, employed persons with disabilities, and become our vendors. What sets Mitti Cafe apart are our stories that celebrate the dreams and resilience of our team members. Hemant has cerebral palsy. He saves up money every month that he will build his own house one day.
Kirti came in crawling for the interview, as her family could not afford a wheelchair. Today she sits in her wheelchair (which she insisted on purchasing with her salary) and manages ten other teammates with disabilities. She is the manager of our first cafe.
Bhairappa was rejected at 80 plus jobs post. But we got lucky. When candidates with disability come in, for the world to see their abilities, it comes at a later stage. It is first about them seeing the mirror to their abilities much beyond their disabilities. Bhairappa, who has Dwarfism and motor disability, contrary to what the world told him, is now our team lead and trainer. He had found the love of his life at Mitti and is now married to Roopa, who also has Dwarfism.
Mitti Cafe has played Cupid in many instances, and we have various loving couples with different disabilities at Mitti.
GI: What is MITTI Moms initiative all about?
AA: ‘MITTI Moms – From Home-maker to ENTREPRENEUR’ gives mothers of adults with physical, intellectual and psychiatric disabilities coming from low-income backgrounds a platform to learn, grow and sell their homemade products via. MITTI outlets are becoming entrepreneurs themselves. Currently, MITTI has a network of 43 moms of adults with a disability who sell through MITTI. They prepare laddoos, chocolates, chaklis, spices, biscuits, pickle, jams and savoury items. MITTI provides training for the mothers regarding food and safety compliances and managing finances.
GI: Any reasons or stories behind choosing the name MITTI for the cafe?
AA: The meaning of ‘MITTI’ in India is mud. The reason we named our Cafe MITTI is that despite us being so diverse in terms of religion, race, ideologies, geography, and gender- we all come from mud and to mud, we return. Despite our diversity, we are similar in our existence and our end. It signifies unity in diversity that we truly believe in.
GI: You have been forced to eat only four things for the rest of your life. Which four items would you choose? And why?
AA: All my favourites are from the MITTI menu, made with so much love by our team. 1) The cold-pressed ‘Go Green’ juice made by Sandeep. He has 100% visual impairment but also is a great Bharatnatyam dancer. 2) ‘Buddha Bowl’ prepared by Lakshmi, who is an amazing single mother of two children. She has hearing and speech impairments. She dreams that one day her children will take her on a world tour. 3) Brownies made by our Thalaiva Toushit, who has Down Syndrome. He loves dancing and is a Prabhudeva fan. 4) ’Kanda Poha’ by Ratnamma. She has paraplegia and is wheelchair-abled. Ratna had never gone to school and did not know how to read or write when she came in. She was determined to learn, taught herself both, and she is our cashier today. Along with this, her culinary skills to include making the best of North Karnataka and Maharashtrian dishes.
GI: What are three things you would take with you on a 16-hour flight?
AA: 1) A Pen and a diary to doodle and scribble on. 2) A handbag I turn into a pillow when I open the tray table to sleep on the flight. 3) Instead of a thing, any one of these amazing people; My parents, any of my crazy siblings, my husband, my best friend, or MITTI’s COO. Each of them has unique characteristics to ensure we have conversations that would make the journey seem short.
Interviewed by Sruthy Natarajan
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