It’s hard to imagine childhood without toys. Our first friends, who won our smiles, got soaked in our tears and even faced the brunt of our tantrums. I still remember my toys. Mini the giraffe and Moo-cow were the first few friends I ever made. I would speak with them, have tea parties with them and wake up next to them every morning.
And Nisha Ramasamy knew that toys are instrumental to a child’s development. The 29-year-old mum was working as a teacher at a Montessori School in Chennai and quit soon after when her child was born in late 2016.
Though the young mother resumed work in the same school a few months later in June 2017, she had to quit again three months later due to a family emergency.
“My husband and I started noticing that our daughter’s skin was reacting to random things. She was developing these skin allergies and we were really trying to understand what could be the cause,” recalls the concerned mother.
After speaking to doctors, she realised that her daughter had Atopic dermatitis, the most common type of eczema in which the skin may flare up due to multiple reasons making it red and itchy. “Later, we realised that our daughter’s allergies were flaring up because of the plastic toys she was playing with,” states Nisha.
Not wanting to take away her daughter’s fun time with toys, Nisha immediately started looking for alternatives that were available in the market. Sadly, there was very little to choose from.
“The toys that were available in the market were colorful and noisy. Most importantly, a majority of them were made from plastic and did not serve the kids in any way. The teethers too were made of plastic and the wooden ones were imported and super expensive,” she says.
As a Montessori teacher, Nisha knew that toys needed to be age specific and should help in the development of the child.
This realisation led Nisha and her husband, Vasanth Kumar Tamilselvan, to found Ariro in April, 2018. The startup makes toys handmade by village artisans based out of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka.
Since they started, Ariro has sold over 5000 toys and has developed over 60 varieties of their product. Moreover, through their network of village artisans, they have impacted over 200+ livelihoods.
To buy Ariro’s toys made from wood, click on this link.
Parents Turn Entrepreneurs
Nisha is a Computer Science Engineer who completed her graduation from Rajalakshmi Engineering College, Chennai in 2013. The same year, she tied the knot with Vasant , right after she finished her graduation.
“I knew that I always wanted to work with children because of which I pursued a Montessori Teacher’s Training programme in Chennai. I worked e in a Montessori school between 2014 to 2016 and quit for a bit when my child was born,” informs Nisha.
Vasant, on the other hand, had pursued a BCom degree from D.G Vaishnav College in Chennai in 2007. He then pursued a Master’s in Social Work from the Madras School of Social Work.
Vasant went on to work with the Tamil Nadu Road Development Company as a Business Development Manager for four years and quit his job in 2013 to set up Innovasia Media Solutions, an outdoor advertising firm.
The moment the doting parents understood that their daughter’s skin was reacting to plastic, they became concerned that there may be other children with similar problems.
Once the parent’s realised that they could offer help in terms of natural toys, they started researching extensively, travelling across the globe.
“We went to places like France and Indonesia, analysing the kind of toys found in each of these places. Beijing also conducts a huge toy expo where a lot of players from this sector set up their stalls. Visiting here also helped us gauge how developed the toy manufacturing sector was in terms of wooden toys,” she explains.
But the duo realised that there was a huge gap in what the Indian toy market had to offer. Upon their return, the couple started to look at villages in India with local artisans making wooden toys.
They also started manufacturing samples of teethers made from neem wood.
“A local carpenter had set up my daughter’s room. We requested him to make a few samples for us and we gave some of these to a few friends with young children. The parents really liked it!”
After months of research, the couple could identify villages in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu where artisan communities were living who could make toys. Once they identified about five villages, they founded the company in April 2018 and also launched their website the same month.
Safe toys, Happy kids
Till six months after the launch, the startup manufactured toys in small quantities. Nisha would design the toys along with two full-time designers who work with Ariro. However, the couple informs that working with artisans on the ground was not a piece of cake.
“A lot of these artisans are not well versed with technology. So, people from our team of 15 members would have to visit these villages to explain to the artisans what the toy should look like. Sometimes when the design is too complicated, I travel to these villages myself,” says Nisha.
The process of conceptualising, creating samples and finally having a finished product ready for sale, is a lengthy one. Once the designs are ready, a person from the team takes printouts of these and the artisan produces a sample.
This sample is brought back to their office in Chennai and further improved upon by the team. Ariro’s team also consults with Montessori teachers who provide their valuable inputs. When the changes are finalised, a person from the team travels to the village artisans who finally make the finished products.
Currently, Ariro makes wooden sky mobiles, teethers, rattlers, slides, standing toys and puzzles. These toys are checked for quality and since they are handmade, they try their best to standardise each of these toys as efficiently as possible.
Attention to detail has helped Ariro impress a bunch of parents. Pranesh Nagrajan, 37, a mutual fund distributor based out of Chennai is a father to two young children.
In 2018, when his daughter was about four years old, he realised that the plastic toys that were available in the market are made using harmful chemicals and wanted to replace these with safer toys.
He was looking for alternatives when he came across Ariro’s website and was immediately taken with their products.
“I saw that the teethers and toys were made using wood. So, even if my child bit on it, it wouldn’t harm her in any way. Also, I liked the fact that these toys were made keeping in mind that it should facilitate motor skills development and to improve hand-eye coordination. I ended up buying the teethers, rattlers and sliders,” says Pranesh.
Pranesh has also gifted these to his niece who is about three-years-old.
Triumphing over Challenges
Although Ariro may have been able to garner appreciation from parents, there are several challenges they deal with on an everyday basis to deliver the best.
Nisha says that the biggest challenge for them has been regarding educating people the kinds of toys they make.
“Parents want toys in trendy colors and it is difficult to explain to them that the toys are Montessori toys which actually meet the growing needs of a toddler,” says Nisha.
To overcome this hurdle, the duo post a lot of videos on Facebook, Instagram and their website. Nisha says that when they set up stalls in expos, they find it a great opportunity to speak to parents and face to face interaction helps a lot. Also, finding the right manufacturers who will make these toys by hand is difficult.
“Commercial manufacturers will do it easily and faster. But since we look for local artisans, the process of discovering them can be painstaking,” says Nisha.
But, with patience and careful research Nisha and Vasant have been able to deal with this challenge. Nisha also has a few pointers for entrepreneurs who are starting out their own ventures and may face similar challenges.
“Before you start, go deep into your research and continue doing it throughout. Talk to as many people as you can. We speak to people in the same sector and try to help them out. So, when you are facing issues, help comes your way too. Most importantly, I would say when you have an idea, go for it!” says Nisha.
Now that they have already impressed parents, what is on the cards for Ariro?
Nisha says that they plan on launching a bunch of things under their brand.
“We are launching developmental furniture for children like the Pikler triangle and stepping stools next month. Currently, we are also working on developing an indoor gym like structure for children that can be kept indoors,” says Nisha.
In the future, she says that she would like to reach out to more artisans and at the moment, they are establishing contacts with village artisans in Kerala.
“I think in this day and age, parents want to buy the trendiest toys but plastic toys do not give a sense of belongingness to the natural world. Wooden toys are safe, sustainable and last a long time because of which, it can be passed across generations. We hope that Ariro is every newborn’s first toy,” she says signing off.
*An entrepreneur you admire.
Ans: Narayana Murthy
*New tech that can transform the future of small businesses
Ans: Increased connectivity
*One value that can help small businesses thrive
*Your favourite book
Ans: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
*In my free time I ____…
Ans: Read and watch Netflix
* Before this interview I was ____…
Ans: Working from office
*Something they don’t teach in college but is important to run a business is
Ans: To ask the right questions
*One question I always ask people while hiring is ____…
Ans: If they are really interested in their role
*Best advice you ever got is to ____…
Ans: Wait it out for a bit and think critically.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)