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This is the first in a series of profiles on the student finalists in SAI’s Seed For Change Competition. On May 6, finalists will pitch their ideas to a judging panel for the chance to with a $40,000 grant to implement their idea in India.

May 6, 3:15PM: Seed For Change Finalists Presentations

Soujanya GanigEd. M Candidate, Harvard Graduate School of Education; SAI Student Coordinator recently spoke with Aaron David Mendonca of The Craftsmen, a small forest enterprise facilitator that creates new value chains, provides year-round employment, and trains communities in sustainable harvesting practices.

Aaron David Mendonca presents at the Seed For Change initial pitch event in March.

Aaron David Mendonca presents at the Seed For Change initial pitch event in March.

SAI: Can you tell us how you first developed the idea of The Craftsmen?

Aaron David Mendonca: For a while now I have been thinking about how as architects we are taught to design centers of concentration – buildings and cities – but not the vast backgrounds that support them. We tend to focus our design efforts on places towards which materials and energy flow and concentrate but not the places from where such resources are subtracted. So, with wood construction in mind, I began an accounting exercise to test the mathematics of purchasing the materials to build a building versus investing in the land from where those materials might originate. Thus I began to gauge the state of Forest Practice in India and the policy that aims at conservation. And, In the process discovered how mechanisms of cooperation lead to regulation and restriction. I became aware of the ways in which top-town forest management efforts had become counter effective through the undue pressures they exert on forest dwellers. It was clear then that forest stewardship might be approached through livelihood creation so that forest communities could be economically empowered to steward their dynamic, far from equilibrium ecosystems.

The Craftsmen essentially converts collector economies into craftsmen economies towards year round economic activity that engages modern sensibility with age old sensitivity.

SAI: How has your time at Harvard helped you develop this idea?

The research and entrepreneurship resources at Harvard have helped tremendously. I am enrolled in the MDes Program, Energy & Environments at the GSD. This program has been very conducive to an open systems, cross scalar thinking. The faculty advising me on this project have also been great in terms of sharing insight, contacts and resources. This semester I opted for classes at my home school, HBS, HGSE & the iLab that specifically helped structure the development of this project through iteration and feedback from different schools of thought.

SAI: Tell us a little about your team members.

Lena Mechik & I have been working together on this project since January this year. I was introduced to her via a classmate at Social Innovation and Education Entrepreneurship course. Lena is a Phd student of Economics & Global Change at University of Hamburg. Her thesis studies forest conservation in combination with poverty alleviation. She has 8 years of experience in this sector through field research in Thailand, India & Brazil, where she organised a Brazil nut small forest enterprise.

I, Aaron David Mendonca, am an architect from India. Currently a director of a family-run consortium that sources teams of specialised consultants and craftsmen to deliver customise solutions. Back in Mumbai I trained migrants to be skilled craftsmen and site supervisors. I worked with carpenters, masons, plumbers and fabricators to build community structures that engaged the community and workers at every stage of the design and construction process.

SAI: What have been some successes and challenges with this project so far?

I consider meeting Lena to be the first success. We are two people, located in different parts of the world, coming from very different backgrounds yet working on a shared purpose. Despite the variety of leaps in the evolution of this project we have always been on the same page and this has allowed us to make significant progress in a very short time span.

A challenge has been gathering reliable research and data. India’s forests and her people’s interactions with them have been changing rapidly with respect to demographics, species, technologies, urbanization and climate regimes. No documentation can accurately reflect and encompass the nature and magnitude of these changes or their causal relationships. It has therefore been challenging to capture these diverse transient relationships and abstract them into an easily communicable ‘business plan’.

A momentous success was the establishment of a relationship with the organisation ‘ATREE’.  ATREE has nearly 20 years of experience managing complex projects and has twice, in the last three years, been ranked as #1 among Asian environmental think-tanks. Their Fellows and Research Associates represent an unparalleled diversity of skills and disciplines. ATREE and The Craftsmen have decided to work towards a synergetic and complementary partnership. They have helped us identify the potential sites for the first 5 Craftsmen villages and are sharing their wealth of research on the same. We will be working with their Darjeeling and Bangalore branches over the summer to improve the livelihoods of forest communities and concomitantly, forest structures.

SAI: How would winning the Seed For Change Competition help further your project?

Participating in Seed for Change has already helped advance our project. We were introduced to Professor Kamal Bawa, founder-president of ATREE, by Tarun Khanna, SAI’s Director, who noticed the complementary nature of our project and ATREE’s livelihoods proposal.

Upon winning the Seed for Change Competition, the $40k prize will go a long way by being the seed fund for the set up our MVP – the first craftsmen village. The surplus will go towards garnering further investment and the establishment of an online platform for facilitation and sales.