Childhood friends Anuja and Sneha have converted their grandmother’s house into an eco-friendly homestay called The Kokum Tree, located in a Maharashtra village.
For architect Sneha Mahashabde and economics degree holder Anuja Phadke, leaving their jobs to build a homestay was a calculated risk. After all, they had worked in their respective field for ten years and saved enough before taking the plunge.
The homestay belonged to Anuja’s ajji (grandmother), who had cared for and nurtured the place all her life. She had built an orchard-cum forest on the 5-acre premises, which made the homestay an ideal weekend getaway.
But before the guests could check in, reality did.
When they were excitedly packing their bags in Mumbai to make a permanent move, they did not fathom the difficulties that awaited them in Maharashtra’s Lonere village, located in the Raigad district.
For nearly six months, the two childhood friends slogged mentally and physically.
“We did all the physical labour by ourselves. Our financial resources were depleting quickly and we didn’t know when our income would begin. As city people, we felt isolated and disconnected in the beginning. Some male labourers like plumbers, electricians and farm labourers found it difficult to take orders from us. They did not take us seriously,” Sneha recalls in a conversation with The Better India.
In search of a better quality of life
Anuja and Sneha were introduced to trekking and trails as children by the former’s father. The duo’s mutual love for backpacking, cycling, and going on adventures took them to several places in India and abroad.
Besides fresh air and physical activity, the duo wanted a better quality of life, which they say was their motivation behind The Kokum Tree, their homestay. Opened in 2019, it has seen over 2,000 guests so far, with many being regular ones.
Starting the venture, though, was not a spur of the moment decision, says Anuja. “After working for a decade, we felt it was the right time to quit. If we failed, we would return to Mumbai and our jobs. Instead of investing in a new property, we decided to use my ajji’s house, as we have been coming here for several years now. With love and hard work, she had grown a forest and we wanted others to experience the same.”
While they had no experience in hospitality, interacting with clients and colleagues in their previous jobs did help them get started.
As the place was being renovated, the duo worked on the website and social media pages to spread the word. They also travelled to homestays across the Konkan belt to understand the process and make their offerings accordingly.
They had two visions — to establish a space for community interaction, and to make it eco-friendly. They worked for months to fulfil the goals and then started taking bookings.
Initially, they hosted their former colleagues and acquaintances and took detailed feedback from them. Soon, the homestay caught the media’s attention and they were in the papers. “We received several calls after the article for bookings, and many appreciated that two women had quit their jobs to follow their passion,” adds Sneha.
While they were happy to receive the calls, they wanted to be clear about their homestay’s image. “It was not a resort or hotel where guests get multiple services like spa, room service, etc. Every time we made a post on social media, we argued about every word to project the right image,” says Anuja.
From learning to say no to a guest with unreasonable demands to fixing the food menu, curating an enriching experience, and balancing their finances, the duo carried out almost all activities by themselves.
What the experience entails
The villa is an amalgamation of modern amenities and an eco-friendly lifestyle. It has four rooms with attached bathrooms, a kitchen, common living rooms, and a veranda. They have also built a bamboo cottage for guests with furry friends.
The duo grow their own food on their farm, practice waste segregation and composting, and discourage use of plastic on the premises. The guests are encouraged to connect with nature as well.
“We teach children how to identify different trees, encourage them to climb them, play in the mud, and read books. For adults, we organise several activities like yoga, cycling, trails, and pottery. We have kept art supplies in bulk for the guests to channel their inner artist. We do not have televisions in each room, but we do screen movies in the common area,” says Anuja. The guests are also taken for farming activities and shown hiking sites.
Guests can enjoy sunsets from a wooden deck atop a pond. They can engage themselves in activities like papad making, or simply relax under a canopy of cashew trees.
To provide an authentic local experience, the menu has been carefully curated and includes local cuisine and food that is commonly available.
“For breakfast, we have fruits, poha, tea, coffee, sheera, pancakes, etc. A typical Maharashtrian thali is served for lunch, which includes dal, fried items, koshimbir, fish fry, roti, bhakri. Everything is made in butter and ghee that we make in our kitchen. And dinner is usually bread, pizza, falafel, biryani and cakes,” shares Anuja.
“Through these experiences, we want people to have a relaxed stay while meeting like-minded people and making new friends. We organise many communal activities for the same,” adds Sneha.
Mumbai-based Akshay Kamat has stayed at the homestay four times in the last 16 months. According to him, the place is a perfect blend of nature and modern amenities.
“As a couple, we liked to spend time together in nature. The best part about this homestay is the involvement of the hosts. Both of them made us feel at home and created a very lively atmosphere for us with a host of activities. It was heartening to see that they provide employment to locals as well,” he tells The Better India.
The duo soon hopes to install solar panels and go completely off-grid. They are also in the process of developing a retirement property. As their retirement plan, they want to grow their own edible forest, just like ajji has done with Kokum Tree.
You can reach the Kokum Tree here.
Edited by Divya Sethu