Started in 2017 by a young woman named Alina Alam, Mitti Café in Bangalore is run and managed by a group of people with disabilities ranging from autism, Down’s Syndrome to visual and hearing impairments.
To be born with any disability in a society that is not inclusive. It treats disabilities as an anomaly and people with one unfit for leading a ‘normal life’. However, over time, many people have attempted and succeeded in creating more inclusive spaces for people with disabilities. One such person is Alina Alam from Bengaluru, the founder of Mitti Cafe, which is run and manned primarily by adults with physical and psychiatric disabilities.
Alina came up with the idea of Mitti Cafe five years ago, during the final semester of university. It continued to brew in her mind as she continued to explore engagements with organizations that brought social impact. She identified a perennial struggle of the people with disabilities to find means of conducive and dignified livelihood. Being very low at the employer hiring priority pyramid only added to their woes. It made them more vulnerable to more exploitation. Worse, to which they often had no option but to comply.
After years of volunteering and thorough consideration, she started Mitti Cafe. A cafe that provides good quality food for the people and gives employment to the people with disabilities. The intent was crystal clear. To shift the perception around people with disabilities and provide them with a platform to earn their living. She believes that food connects people and could be an effective medium to spread her message. “People bond over food. It’s one of the most common activities to break the ice.” Adds Alina. “I always wondered if this action can be channelled to break the ice between the customers and this community”, she explains.
Alina remembers running door-to-door campaigns to tell people about her cafe. However, the turning point arrived in the form of Keerthi who had an undiagnosed motor disorder. She happened to be the first employee of the cafe. After undergoing intensive training, she went on to become the manager of the first outlet of Mitti Cafe. Alina faced a host of challenges on her way. She had to wade through financial constraints and win the trust of incubators. It was a period marked by empty pockets, failed pitches, and multiple rejections. However, things changed for the better when the Deshpande Foundation offered her a godown in Hubli to set up a centralized kitchen.
Over four years, many more like Keerthi joined it. The cafe made its presence felt across Karnataka in various colleges, hospitals, business parks, and corporate campuses. Currently, they have 15 cafes across two cities in Bangalore where around 800 trained adults with disabilities are earning their living with dignity. Mitti Cafe is built in a way in which the employees in wheelchairs can move around well. The walls have sign language guides that can help customers to order food in sign language, and menu cards have Braille to aid the visually impaired staff. These adaptations have ensured an inclusive-conducive workplace for its staff.
Despite facing hiccups and hassles due to COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown, Mitti Cafe has not paused in its endeavours. Over last year, several of their teams of adults with disabilities served over 5 million meals and beverages to frontline workers, doctors, etc. They have even set up food stalls in hospitals to aid the doctors. This has helped in providing rehabilitation to countless people with disabilities, who otherwise would have resorted to begging as a means of livelihood. Aside from meal distribution, the employees also started making gift packs as a vertical. Two branches have also been opened in Koramangala and Jayanagar through crowdfunding.
For Alina, the biggest challenge was to make people with disabilities believe in themselves. But with time, the cafe managed to dispel a lot of the myths and misconceptions surrounding people with disabilities. Customers were able to interact with people with disabilities in a normalized atmosphere. The positive response was nothing short of magic. “Over the past five years, I have learned that underdogs perform the best. Deprivation and hopelessness help a person become more successful if they are allowed to succeed and treated with dignity,” says Alina.