Sethrichem Sangtem, 37, is a farmer in Nagaland’s Tuensang region. While he owns about 14 acres of farmland where he grows apples, kiwis, and cardamom, he also manages a community of 1000 small farmers, whose farmland collectively adds up to about 700 acres.
Having worked as a social worker in the development sector, he wanted to help the farming community in the region move away from shifting agriculture techniques like ‘slash and burn’ to permanent agriculture methods, which would be more beneficial for them.
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“However, I knew that this shift would not be easy, and to sustain it; I would have to come up with an alternative plan that could supplement their income. Also, after they started growing fresh produce, they needed a way to spread the word,” he says.
Sethrichem then realised that the solution to his problem was tourism! “We developed farm stays and community stays where interested travellers could come and experience what we do here,” he mentions. However, he did not know how to get in touch with these travellers.
This is where NotOnMap (NOM) came in.
A socially driven sustainable travel startup, NOM helps in generating alternative livelihood for people in remote areas of the country. This not only benefits these local communities but also allows them to engage with people who want to live and travel sustainably.
Sethrichem was introduced to NOM by Professor Anil Kumar Gupta, a leading scholar in the field of grassroots innovations. “Through NOM, I have been able to connect over 100 travellers. Additionally, we have also hosted about 30 volunteers who help us with our daily operations,” he mentions.
The Beginning of the travel startup
NOM was founded in 2016 by Kumar Anubhav, Sandeep Kumar and Manuj Sharma but conceptualised much before in 2012.
“Sandeep and I are avid travellers and have trekked to several villages. While we loved how these areas had preserved their culture and heritage, the people were living in traditional houses that were on the verge of disintegration. Additionally, they were heavily dependent on agriculture, and those who did not engage in it, had to migrate. We wanted to curb this kind of migration, and help the people look at tourism as an alternative source of livelihood, by capitalising on the resources that were already at their disposal—like their homes!” says the 40-year-old Anubhav.
In 2016, Anubhav quit his job to start NOM. While Sandeep has continued to work as an Associate Partner at McKinsey’s India office, he supports the company as an investor. Manuj, 44, the third member of the team, is a well known social activist in Himachal Pradesh who has spearheaded several campaigns in the Saal Valley in the Chamba region.
He is deeply connected to the farmers, workers, villagers, local civic bodies and others in the villages.
“The trust that the villagers have instilled in him helped make the initial round of discussions with the local communities easier. Without him on board, we wouldn’t even have been able to start our first project,” says Anubhav.
NOM identifies new destinations to promote community-based responsible tourism.
“We bridge the gap between travellers and these village communities. This way not only does the traveller get a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but even the village communities earn money and feel empowered,” says Anubhav.
They empower these communities by capacity building, skills training and by forming SHGs. They also focus on giving academic instruction to children living in these villages. The volunteers who go to these destinations also contribute to such wholesome development. However, one of the essential tasks that NOM executes is creating “Model Community Villages” in these destinations.
One of the best examples of this initiative is the ‘Mystic Village’ project in Bhaloli, a village in Himachal Pradesh.
About three years ago, Anubhav and the other co-founders, pooled their resources along with the villagers and rebuilt the homes which were on the verge of disintegration, and eventually renamed the village comprising of about 14 households and about 60 people as the ‘Mystic Village.’ Today, a traveller can stay or volunteer here and experience the lives that the villagers lead.
Shankar Kumar Sharma is a resident and host at the Mystic Village. He has been hosting guests for over 1.5 years now. Before that, he was working as an employee in the hotel industry in Punjab.
“A few years ago, I would have to stay away from home for months. But now, I work from my village living with my family. We also learn so much from the travellers who come and stay here. They teach us new ways of farming, teach the children, tell us ways to conserve water among several other things,” he says happily.
Impactful travel and challenges
With this initiative, it’s not just the village communities whose lives have been enriched. Travellers have also learnt and contributed to the village communities they have interacted with.
Take Chetan and Aavruti Patel, for example. After their wedding, Chetan was scrolling through Facebook when he came across some pictures of Mystic Village.
The couple was looking to travel and do something good alongside, so they booked stay and also came up with an interesting way to contribute to the community. “We collected about 500 books with the help of students from IIM Ahmedabad, that was used to set up a library in the village. When we left, the entire village bid us goodbye. It was such a beautiful experience, and I will remember it my whole life,” he recalls.
However, finding travellers like Chetan and Aavruti, who have the passion to work for the community is sometimes tricky, says Anubhav. There are other challenges, as well. For example, since they work with distinct communities, it is difficult for them to standardise their operations.
Despite all the challenges, NOM has homestays in about 12 states! The price ranges from Rs 399 to Rs 3000.
NOM has also been identified by Booking.com as one of the top 3 ‘Innovative Socially Concerned Travel startups’ in the world! One of NOM’s homestays has featured in a list comprising of India’s Top 14 Airbnb stays.
In addition to that, they have also empowered and provided visibility to hosts who believe in sustainable travel.
Gayatri Ramakumar Jat, 43, has a property in Bhuj that can house about 10 to 12 people. She was on-boarded as a host by NOM only one and a half months ago, and she already loves the experience.
“What I offer to people is a stay in a traditional home and even serve traditional food. I truly believe in the concept of responsible, sustainable travel. I love the fact that I meet like-minded travellers who have the same values and who truly enjoy this cultural experience,” she said.
Now, NOM has impacted at least over 500 lives directly and indirectly since they began operations. There are 20 community interventions they have worked on which comprise of at least 20 beneficiaries. They have prevented the migration of at least 70 people from these communities and have had hosted over 10,000 guests.
So, what’s in store for NOM now?
“Our overall goal is to ensure that the maximum revenue goes to the local people and a part of it goes towards the development of the village. We aim to have at least one community-oriented NOM set up in every rural village across India in the next five years. These villages will be the ones which have tried to preserve our culture in one form or the other. We also plan to be the one-stop solution for travellers of all budget who are deeply interested in the cultural exploration of rural India,” says Anubhav, signing off.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)