Manufacturing ‘food of the gods’, as Mereville poetically calls its incense, has led to a healthy Auroville unit. But further growth can only happen if a change in perspective occurs in Auroville. Manufacturing ‘food of the gods', as Mereville poetically calls its incense, has led to a healthy Auroville unit. But further growth can only happen if a change in perspective occurs in Auroville.
“Not so easy” says Franco guardedly when asked about the beginnings of Mereville. “I had finally settled in Auroville in 1991, and I had to find a means to sustain myself. In Italy , I owned a company that traded in ethnic-style garments from Nepal , Bhutan and South America . So it was natural for me to continue in the garments industry and I worked for some time in Aurosarjan. Gradually the idea to start an incense unit was born. I had studied pharmacology and had a background in herbs as an agronomist. I studied Ayurveda and aromatherapy. As there was no suitable location in Auroville, the Entry Group agreed that I could operate a unit from Pondicherry , and in 1994 Mereville (meaning ‘Mother's City') started manufacturing and selling incense. But it did not take off. Like many other entrepreneurs in Auroville, I had put my personal money into the unit. And then came the moment when I looked at my last bundle of rupee notes and said to myself, ‘This is it. Either this works, or it is the end.' From that time onwards, Mereville started to perform. It was a little miracle.”
But Auroville was slow in accepting it. “Problems surfaced when I wanted to move into Auroville,” recollects Franco. “There was a lot of resistance. I tried to go through the official channels, which included the then Auroville Board of Commerce, but there was mistrust, misinformation and misunderstanding. Though it was never really expressed, the basic problem was the uneasiness that another incense manufacturer would set-up business in Auroville. Finally the former Secretary of the Auroville Foundation, Mr. Bala Baskar, found a solution and in 1998 Mereville became part of the Auroville Foundation and sometime later moved into the Aurobhakti building in the Industrial Zone.”
Is it now all water under the bridge? Franco smiles. “Almost,” he says cheerfully. “But some questions still need to be addressed. One is that we are still not allowed to sell our products in the Auroville boutiques. I believe that all Auroville units should have the right to offer their products there for sale, that the fundamental role of the Auroville boutiques should be to represent all Auroville commercial units without discrimination. But so far, this is not the case. The other issue is the creation of an Auroville logo for the products in order to demonstrate a specific identity and quality which should be consequently promoted in major national and international trade fairs. This would be a fantastic boost for our economy. Each Auroville commercial unit should not only have the automatic right to use that name and logo, but each unit should actively use it while maintaining the highest possible product quality. I hope that the Funds and Assets Management Committee will take up these issues and formulate an appropriate policy.” Would this also affect the competition from local people who copy Auroville's products? Franco isn't worried. “Product copying happens in any open society. Instead of getting upset about it, we should take it as an incentive to improve the quality of our products and engage in product diversification. Seen from a wider context, the development of small handicraft units in the villages is a positive development towards mutual integration which contributes to reduce the economic, cultural and social gap between us.”
With a turnover in the last financial year of 87 lakhs and net profits of 33%, Mereville is one of the successful Auroville units, fully self-made. For Mereville was never supported by the community. Says Franco, “The general community has never expressed either interest or opposition. They are only concerned that a unit contribute to Auroville, which in itself is correct. The units are supposed to work for the welfare of the community. In the past we had not been able to make regular donations to Auroville, but since we started growing, quite regular contributions have been given and even a large donation two years ago for the building of the music studio in Kalabhumi. This year much of our capital will be invested in the new factory building, so probably we won't be able to make any extra donations.
“But the community has not yet taken the step to actively promote and support commercial development. An example is our application to build our own factory building in the Industrial Zone. For more than a year now Mereville has been trying to get the approval. That is ridiculous.
“When you run a business you need to move quickly, and you can't be kept waiting. In our case, there were always questions and more questions, from the Green Group, the Industrial Zone Group, the Development Group, whatever. It seems that nobody really cares to promote business, and that only obstacles are being heaped. But the conditions for building in the Industrial Zone should be clear from the outset. We should have been allocated a place and the problems concerning that place should have been solved beforehand. And there should be a limit on the length of the application process, say not more than 2-3 months.”
Asked about his views on the future, Franco replies that the development of Mereville cannot be seen in isolation from the development of Auroville. “I expect that Mereville will grow gradually, unless a change in perspective occurs in Auroville and Auroville itself moves to another level. For we need a different way of thinking, more professionalism, perhaps even new people who can overcome the old ways that are now prevalent. Active, even pro-active support for the units is an imperative. For instance, if a unit has finance management problems or manufactures a bad quality product, find ways to help the unit improve, don't make another set of regulations aiming at additional administrative control. The previous Auroville Board of Commerce collapsed because of a too narrow vision of its role, which did not contribute to creating trust. A revived Auroville Board of Commerce should be a cooperative decentralized body, that works from a professional perspective and actively promotes the cooperation between units. Lastly I hope that there will be an increase of transparency in order to avoid misunderstandings and mistrust, from units as well as from working groups. Auroville cannot expect to grow if this change of perspective does not manifest.”