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Belarus’s KaliLaska repurposes tons of unneeded things into something vitally important for dozens of individuals across the country, but it isn’t easy running a social business.by Aleksandra Savinich 24 January 2019
In October 2018, the KaliLaska store marked one year of operation, although the charitable project has been going on for five. You bring in good quality but unneeded items, and those items are given to those who need them. Only 5 percent of items are put on sale, and the monies earned go toward the project's expenses.
On the second floor of the Korpus Culture Center, located at 9 Masherov Praspiekt, project coordinator Natalia Goryachaya is waiting for us before the store opens, for an interview about beautiful clothing and the complications of life, while stroking Prutik the cat. Natalia found him in a very bad state, but nursed him back to health, and now he lives in the store itself.
“We are strong in business strategy. The KaliLaska project is now developing just as we planned. More people are finding out about us; we're getting more items into our warehouse; and more and more people are receiving [our] help,” says Natalia, summing up the last year's work.
“However, of course, we did understand from the start that we were unlikely to be able to collect as many donations, and sell as many items, as we wanted to. It is all contingent on, first of all, the size of our warehouse and the number of people we have working for us. Secondly, it is also severely limited by our target market. However big the warehouse might be, there is bound to be a moment when it becomes too small for all the things we want to give to the project.
“We received financing from readers of Imena, an internet magazine and crowdfunding project – 13,451 Belarusian rubles ($6,302), and won 6,000 rubles on [the reality show] Paskarennie [Accelerator]. We are striving to spend these funds strictly according to budget, on paying the warehouse administrator, rent, and taxes. However, I think that the money will be gone after the New Year, and we will need to think again about how to keep going. The commercial side of the project – the shop – is working smoothly, but the income is not always sufficient to cover the constantly increasing expenses.”
No Relief for Social Businesses
“In Belarus, social business is negligible, and only a few organizations succeed. And in the Belarusian context, I use ‘succeed’ to mean the ability to survive without additional subsidies. But everything depends on having a law about social enterprises – which has not been passed.
The model of social business, popular everywhere [else] in the world, doesn't yet work in Belarus. We've had to struggle, and there's been more than one month when we've had to rack our brains with the lawyers. Now the project functions as two organizations: a commercial and a non-commercial one.
The non-commercial organization accepts donated items from the general public, giving a percentage of them to the store, to be sold, which will also pay our taxes. The main goal of this organization is receiving and transferring items to other charitable organizations, and to people in need.
The store sells items and reinvests in social need. However, from the point of view of the law, we could easily spend our finances instead – they are subject to exactly the same taxes as any commercial business. There is no ‘social’ status to make our life easier.
In addition to all of that, there are payroll taxes and other government payments. We were prepared for this, when we put together our business plan, and, for the time being, we are managing.
In addition to this, we rent two warehouses: 600 euros ($681) monthly for the big warehouse, and about 100 euros for the smaller one. For our purposes, the warehouse space cannot be a standard warehouse space with earthen floors and drafts everywhere. We can only work in an office-type space, with heating, 'finished' to a reasonable degree and with good-quality ventilation. Textiles represent 95 percent of the items we receive. Humidity, dampness, and poor ventilation can have a ruinous effect on our items.”
The KaliLaska Team
“At the moment, the warehouse chief is Aleksandr. We were able to recruit him thanks to the Imeda donations. He is a part-timer, working three or four days a week. His duties include helping with the receipt of donations, dispatching and distributing items to the needy, maintaining order in the warehouse, and recycling. That is to say: he is always where he is needed, and his salary is 400 Belarusian rubles a month.
Volunteers are a separate team. There are the core members, the backbone, on whom you can always rely; there are the casual and temporary volunteers, who are burning with desire to help but who do not last long. The work is extremely hard, spending the whole day on your feet, sorting through hundreds of kilograms of items. Your back starts complaining before the day is half over. In addition, unfortunately, sometimes this work is not for the faint-hearted: people bring in depressingly bad things, quite worn out. Therefore it is important to have a certain tolerance for the vile.
When we won that 6,000 ruble grant, we planned to spend it all on renting the warehouse; after all, that was the most important and most long-term thing for our project. But suddenly we had a new category of expenses: garbage removal.
The more people brought in donations, the more garbage the project generated. How does this happen? People don't always understand what they should bring in, and so they bring in everything – torn, worn, and dirty. It seems that people don't understand the purpose of the project.
We collect good-quality things – not everything you want to throw away. The people we help are people who want to look neat and up-to-date. We want them to look neat and up-to-date, too. We won't hand over items with obvious defects, your granddaughter's outmoded jacket, your moth-eaten coat.
We end up collecting a reasonably sized pile of items that are unsuitable for wear, and even more unsuitable for sale. If you are an individual, then you pay for your garbage collection together with all the other utilities, so you can dispose of whatever you want. However, if you are a legal entity, you must pay separately for this type of overhead. Therefore, we pay over 300 rubles monthly for garbage collection. We have our own container for everyday waste; we send the plastic waste to [plastic recycling project] Zaduma and waste paper to Belgips-ECO. But no one accepts rags, and it is more and more difficult to get rid of them at a low cost.
So we end up spending the monthly salary of a salesperson to get rid of waste that people have brought us.
“I remember all of the people we help, even though there are hundreds of them; I know their clothing and shoe sizes. I get items ready for organizations, based on their needs and requests. It's great to back their reactions, the thanks, being delighted with what they received due to KaliLaska. But at the same time, I understand that our help doesn't change their lives. A person who was needy will remain in need. It's only a temporary relief. If our project disappears, what will happen to these people?
It's very difficult to perceive human problems and not get stressed about them. Sometimes I go round in person to see the people we help, and I see that side of the project for myself. Many are in terrible circumstances. Vika from Barysaw [a town northeast of Minsk] was born healthy, but picked up an infection in the maternity hospital, and her brain was affected. Now she's 18, and she can't be left at home alone; she needs constant care and assistance. She cannot speak, has difficulties with mobility, and is in danger of harming herself.
Andrei from Myory [in northern Belarus] has a severe form of autism. He is 27, and a big, strong young man. In his wooden house, the windows are broken, and the furniture smashed up. During his episodes, Andrei begins destroying everything; his delicate mother is not strong enough to manage him in such moments.
Kristina had an accident at four years old. Under her thick, curly hair, this beautiful girl hides a huge dent in her skull. Her right arm and leg have poor mobility and are stunted compared to the limbs of her left side. She wants to become a model, and always poses side-on, in order not to show her deformity. Parents of children like her cannot work; no one will hire someone who is tied to a child who will never get better.
Therefore, I made the decision, long ago, that I would be conscious of what is happening with the people we help, but I do not get involved. Otherwise, I just can't cope.
Over the last three months we donated items to 12 organizations – this is approximately eight metric tons' worth (8.8 U.S. tons). We also try to help about 10 families a week, although that doesn't always happen – the warehouse is simply too crowded. We need a separate space for actual distribution.
In general, we load the big van with parcels and deliver them. Sometimes, if an organization has its own car, it can collect from our warehouse. Anyone can get help – just leave us a message request on our office phone.
We help different kinds of people – 10 percent are those who have suddenly found themselves in a terrible situation and really need help; 40 percent are people with disabilities or illnesses; and 50 percent are families with a number of children.
There has been a lot of talk about us, but we follow a strict rule of helping everyone who needs help, no matter how a person ended up in that situation.”
“The KaliLaska project lives its own life, and we just help it,” Natasha laughs. “And you never know how much stuff people are going to bring in – 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) or three to four metric tons. Volunteers come to sort through the things and end up having to work in pairs. But we are prepared for anything, because we have been through a lot. The project is constantly getting out of control – it's almost alive! – and it's necessary to be flexible.
When the warehouse was here, on Praspiekt Maserava, we got involved with everything [for a couple of years, the Center for Environmental Solutions provided the space for the project]. On donation days, not only the warehouse and reception room are full of bags, but also the corridors. We took a long time to find our warehouse, but now we're already on the hunt for new space. The project will probably keep moving house, until it somehow gets the chance of obtaining its own convenient space.
There are some donation days when so many people come that there is congestion in the courtyard where the warehouse is located, and the space is filled to the rafters during the first few hours of taking donations. Sometimes there is so much stuff that piles of packages even fill up the corridors. Thankfully, we have a back entrance. After a donation day, it's no longer possible to enter by the main entrance.
The packages take up so much space that there is simply no room for inspection and sorting. And that's even considering that not everyone [who wants to come] manages to get here. Therefore the warehouse now works on the principle that we accept everything that has been brought in and distribute it – and only then set the date of the next donation day. It's impossible to set a schedule in advance.”
“In a month, the KaliLaska store sells 500 kilograms' worth of items, and brings in around 2,000 rubles.
“The store's target market is interesting and varied. I would divide it into three categories. The first is young people and students who want to look stylish, but don't have the money for that. The second lot consists of collectors and those who haunt flea markets, who seek out and collect unique pieces, for example porcelain or records.
And the third – I call them “Bohemians” – are people who are looking for something unique and incredible, for example designer or vintage items. It's great to see our artists wearing our outfits on stage, seeing them as props in photography studios, or on film.
Translation of infographic:
● The project spends more than 300 rubles every month on disposing of waste that comes in with clothes donations.
● 700 euros – the monthly rent of the warehouse
● The store sells 500 kilograms of items a month; in one weekend market, KaliLaska sells 800 kilograms.
● Over the past three months, the project has helped 12 organizations and distributed over eight metric tons of donations.
● In five years, 167 metric tons of donations have been collected and distributed to the needy and to residential institutions.
In the course of a month, the store sells about 400-500 kilograms' worth of items. A good donation day gives us the chance to hold a weekend market, and there we can move 700-800 kilograms of stuff. This makes [extra] money and turns over stock, helping us to break even. Markets aren't free business for us, though. We rent the space – nothing is free! But we always make our money back, so we run additional sales. They have become a regular thing, and the popularity of the ‘KaliLaska Sale’ flea markets is growing.
When the store had only just opened, only one person was salaried, the sales clerk. But it's impossible for one person to work seven days a week, so we soon hired someone to put on another shift. Now there are two of them and in addition to their main work, they also help out in the warehouse. Each gets a monthly salary of 300 rubles. But we have bonuses for the amount of turnover and overtime for working at events. The project survives if its daily earnings are 80 rubles on average.”
Natalia Goryachaya is the one most involved in the project, but [only] holds the status of volunteer. More precisely, she is the coordinator and driving force. In parallel, she has her own project, the Plush coffee shop, which is located literally across the road from KaliLaska.
“I've been ‘doing’ KaliLaska for nearly four years, because I have my own business, and I have something to live on. And also because I find it easier with things than with people. I know everything about clothes and goods – this is my element.
“I love things, and I know what to do with them, how they should be used properly. I have a thirst for things to be in order, and KaliLaska is exactly my sort of project – tons of unneeded things are turned into something very useful and socially important. After work, I feel enormous satisfaction. The world has become more perfect – unneeded things have become needed, the garbage has been taken away, and everything that is being recycled has been taken for recycling.
Why don't I burn out? I am not emotionally involved, even though I can empathize. A high level of empathy is easily smothered by a mountain of tasks, by the necessity to work dispassionately. I know what family dysfunction looks like. I know how sad it is to be ridiculed for one's appearance as a child. Children can be very cruel.”
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