The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is unimaginable. It has put global governments in a quandary, businesses in a fix, and revealed the cracks in social and economic systems that prioritise corporate profit and defence expenditure over health, education and social welfare.
Besides the lives lost, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 will leave an indelible mark in history for the global lockdowns it has triggered. For sure, micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) will be the worst hit by the lockdown in India. This is disquieting as 6.3 crore non-agricultural MSMEs in India employ 11 crore people, who will now shoulder the major brunt of the lockdown and, many predict, will not be able to reach pre-lockdown revenues for months or even years.
In a scenario where men dominate the labour force, where women earn only 80 percent of male wages for the same work, and where women spend 577 percent more time on unpaid domestic work than men, the few women who own or run enterprises are outliers and pathbreakers. Women own 20 percent of micro enterprises, 5 percent small enterprises, and less than 3 percent medium enterprises in India. Economic slowdowns and pandemic-induced shutdowns will hit them the hardest too.
We speak to five women across sectors to understand the lockdown’s impact on their business. For sure there is loss, but could there be a course-correction and opportunity too in this crisis?
Salon owner, Delhi
Vandana Bhagat launched her beauty studio, Vannity Salon, in Delhi’s Vasant Vihar neighbourhod 11 years ago. It was the first salon in its market complex, but since then, several more have sprung up. “And yet, our customers have stuck with us,” says the 52-year-old mother of two. But while Vandana was able to hold her own amidst competition from even international salon chains, she could never have foreseen the coronavirus lockdown that has completely shuttered her business.
Vannity Salon closed its doors on March 19, a few days before Prime Minister Modi announced a three-week nationwide lockdown starting March 24, later extended to May 3. “We don’t know when we will open again,” sighs Vandana stoically. “This is a business based on human touch and physical proximity. It will definitely be on the radar of the authorities. Even if I invest more on personal protection gear and disposable tools for my staff, it is not a guarantee of protection from coronavirus. Besides, customers may stop visiting salons now.”
With zero revenue, Vandana is struggling to pay staff salaries. It pains her as some of them have been with her for over a decade. “There is only more bad news every day. We can only pray,” she says. Once the lockdown ends, she may reduce operations to half and take up another business in the future.
RADHIKA MITTAL & MADHVI PITTIE
Recycled collectibles, Mumbai
Jaipur-born sisters Radhika Khaitan Mittal, 34, and Madhvi Khaitan Pittie, 32, launched WorkshopQ in 2010 as a home décor and gift products retailer that uses entirely recycled and upcycled raw materials in the production process. Except for marriage or maternity breaks, their social enterprise has done well for itself. Until a month ago, the Mumbai-based sisters had three major projects to work on, including an art installation at Mumbai International Airport that was to be created out of recycled waste, and an order from Ford to make gifts out of scrap material from their automobile plants.
All projects are on hold now. “Our contact at Mumbai Airport estimates the situation may last till December,” shares Radhika. The entrepreneur duo plan to pay staffers till May and then, if lockdown continues, they may have to stop. “The Prime Minister says we must keep paying salaries. But how? We are not getting relief from anywhere.”
The lockdown can go two ways for WorkshopQ, she predicts: “Either people will realise how important sustainability is, and we’ll get more interest from those looking to recycle waste products. Or it will cause so much loss that no one will be able to afford a CSR budget anymore. We will have to adapt themselves to the new world.”
Travel agency, Delhi
Shweta Ghai, 37, joined her husband’s travel agency Trip India Travel in 2010, and since then has been instrumental in the company’s growth and move into the digital space. The firm offers companies a fully online booking system and a credit model for bulk bookings. Ever since the lockdown, business is down to zero, and they are struggling to pay salaries and office rent.
“We’re lucky that we have 60 percent corporate clients and that most of our system is online,” says Shweta. Though Indian families won’t be going on vacations for a while, their business clients will resume domestic travel as soon as lockdown is lifted. Even so, she believes she will have to re-strategise their revenue model. “We’ll have to get more business clients on board,” she says.
Shweta is pessimistic about personal travel picking up any time soon. “We plan to tie up with hotels that are a short drive away from big cities for the few clients who may still want to travel for leisure,” she says, adding that the holiday sector has been wiped out for at least six to eight months.
“Bigger hotels will survive by turning their properties into quarantine centres. Smaller players – whose peak-time revenues from the summer holiday months are now wiped out – may not make it to the other side of the lockdown. It’s a bad scenario for the industry.”
Yoga studio, Mumbai
Pooja Cariappa, 42, was fit enough to run half-marathons until she moved from Noida to Mumbai 10 years ago. “My health went for a toss,” narrates Pooja. When all else failed to heal her, she took to yoga, and got hooked.
Over the next five years, she gave up her corporate career and studied the ancient health science, from a diploma in yoga therapy and naturopathy, to a Master’s in Yogashatra, to a teacher’s training course. Finally, she began teaching yoga in her Navi Mumbai apartment. “We removed all furniture from the drawing room and use it as a yoga studio for about 11 or 12 people at a time,” says Pooja, who has two daughters.
She was doing two to four hours of yoga classes every day when coronavirus struck.
“I shut the classes on March 13, and, frankly, I was lost. We live in a rented flat. My husband and I are self-employed. Both our incomes became a trickle,” she says. Pooja decided to take her classes online on Zoom with her husband’s help. She offered a week of free sessions, sometimes to over 100 people, and then from April 1, began charging a monthly fee. About 50 students signed up from all across the world purely through word of mouth.
“I believe in the magic of yoga,” she says of the new opportunity in the crisis. “I now plan to continue this model even after the lockdown.”
Tech startup, Bengaluru
The founder of matchmaking platform andwemet.com, Shalini Singh believes in meaningful romances, and that marriage is only one of its final destinations. “People are fatigued with matrimonial platforms. We cater to global Indians looking for long-term committed relationships,” she explains of her portal, which was launched last year after four years of development.
So far, the bootstrapped platform had been offered to seeking singles for free. After a year of testing and implementing feedback from users, the website was ready to launch a subscription model this year, says Shalini, who also runs a public-relations agency for technology firms alongside. “We have had no revenue so far, only operating costs, as this was part of the first-year business plan,” she explains.
The pandemic and lockdown has not affected her strategy. “Our team works remotely, in any case, and salaries continue to be my main expense. On the contrary, there is more interest in matchmaking now with singles having more time on their hands at home. Our visitors are going up 400 percent week on week,” laughs the 40-something Bengaluru-based entrepreneur, whose partner lives in the US.
The platform will carry on with its planned paid model from May, she says. “Whatever happened has been favourable for us.”