Paralympian, trekker and entrepreneur, visually-impaired Bhavesh Chandubhai Bhatia founded Sunrise Candles, which is run by over 2,280 blind individuals and enjoys a turnover over Rs. 25 crores. He was recently awarded by the Nipman Foundation. He spoke to Premjit Mohapatra about his journey.
It took me a while to get Bhavesh Bhatia, the visually-impaired founder and CEO of Sunrise Candles, on the phone and when I did, there was a lot of disruption, but he quipped, “When hearts meet, technical disruptions don’t matter”, setting the tone for the interview. Sunrise Candles employs over 2,280 visually impaired people and is run totally by them. Bhavesh has dedicated his life to reordering the way the world views blind people, and vice versa. He built Sunrise Candles from scratch in Mahabaleshwar, Maharashtra and the company currently enjoys a Rs. 25 crore turnover.
Recently, Bhavesh was conferred ‘The Nipman Foundation Equal Opportunity Awards’ for 2016. An initiative of the Nipman Foundation, the award recognizes companies and institutions that promote employment of people with disabilities. On the awards, Bhavesh remarked, “I have always believed that the disabled don’t need sympathy, but opportunity. I have strived to give them an opportunity to be self-reliant and become productive members of society. I have provided a platform to train and showcase their talent. Awards serve as recognition of our endeavours and motivate us to continue building on what we started.”
The incredible journey of the first generation blind entrepreneur wasn’t without its fair share of struggles and sacrifices. Bhavesh, who holds a PG in Economics, was born with retina muscular degeneration, a hereditary condition which meant he went from having little vision in childhood to being totally blind by the age of 23. Recalls Bhavesh, “I was working as a telephone operator in a three-star hotel when I lost my eyesight. If that wasn’t devastating enough, came the dreadful news of my mother being diagnosed with cancer. We were poor and lived in a 15×15 room. My father’s salary as an accountant in a private company wasn’t enough and the loans continued to mount. We were further dealt a cruel blow when we couldn’t save my mother.” The tragedy had him crestfallen.
Bhavesh continues, “My mother was the rock of my life. She put me in a regular school so that I could get good education. I would get into fights in school, but she would console me telling me to embrace the bullies. She would help me with my lessons despite her lack of education. She had immense faith in me and instilled self-confidence in every decision I took. When I was 17 and decided to go on a cycling expedition with a differently-abled friend, my mother, although apprehensive, gave an invaluable piece of advice that became my calling card.
My mother said, “So what if you cannot see the world? Do something so that the world sees you.”
Bhavesh and his friend entered the Limca Book of Records when they completed a journey of 5,620 kms from Nagpur to Kathmandu and back in 45 days. My friend had the use of one leg and could see, so we built a cycle with two pedals; one for him to see and ride, and the other for me to support his pedalling. It was an adventurous trip with its unique challenges. It gave me the strength to understand that the world is not too complex for a blind person to deal with,” remarked Bhavesh.
Armed with his mother’s wisdom and a fierce passion to do something in life, Bhavesh moved to Mumbai and joined the National Association for Blind (NAB) in 1999. “Although I wanted to learn candle-making, I joined a massage course at first. Soon, I learnt the craft well enough to be recognized as the best blind masseuse in Maharashtra. But my heart was in creating and moulding things as I used to make clay toys and figurines in my childhood. For me, my hands are my eyes and I wanted to use them to make something that gave light, something I can’t see and don’t have in my life. Finally, I chanced upon an instructor who taught me candle-making part-time. With the money I saved from working as a masseuse, I bought 5kg of wax and a plain candle mould. I would make candles overnight on a 2×2 table in my small home and sell them from a rented cart in a local market in Mahabaleshwar. The foundation of Sunrise Candles was laid on that table,” recalls Bhavesh, an indomitable spirit who might have lost his sight, but definitely not his vision.
It was while selling candles from a cart that lady luck smiled on him and he met his wife Neeta. Neeta was floored by his sincerity and proposed marriage. Bhavesh on his part says, “Her smile and laughter are contagious and before long I knew I was in love with her. There was stiff resistance from her parents and although I too tried to dissuade her, she remained resolute and we tied the knot a year after in 1996. She is the light of my life and my greatest strength.” They have a son Kunal.
The hardships continued as did the rejections for loans. Says Bhavesh, “The message that I got was if one is blind, one is presumed deficient and weak. I was tired of patronizing comments, till I got a lucky break and was sanctioned a loan of Rs 15,000 by Satara Bank, where the NAB had a scheme for the blind.” After that, there was no looking back.
Sunrise Candles, which started with 20 kg of wax and a single dye, today uses over 200 tonnes of nine types of waxes in a month. It works 365 days producing 10,000 candles a day and in about 10,000 designs of plain, scented and aromatherapy.
With four dedicated departments for Dyeing, Finishing, Packaging and Marketing, it has around 80 manufacturing units. The company procures its wax from UK, counts some of India’s biggest corporates as its clients and exports to 65 countries around the world. Sunrise Candles today is synonymous with producing eco-friendly and smoke-free candles, devoid of any artificial dyes and fragrances. The company sources wax from honeybee combs and uses natural floral fragrances like Rajnigandha and Mogra.
Bhavesh looks after the creative aspects of the company and his wife Neeta handles administrative affairs. “We are not an NGO, but have endeavoured to be an industry that produces high quality products,” says Bhavesh, explaining his reasons for not accepting donations. The visually-impaired team earns a salary of Rs. 10,000 to 45,000. “It gives me immense satisfaction that I have been able to give my friends an opportunity to lead life with self-respect and dignity,” remarks Bhavesh, who addresses his employees as friends, with whom he is working to create a giant candle measuring 120 feet and weighing 70 tonnes.
Bhavesh Bhatia, the Renaissance Man
Bhavesh is an intrepid sportsperson apart from being a successful entrepreneur as is evidenced by his rich haul of 114 medals in Paralympics sports events. “I was always passionate about sports but had to discontinue it due to my economic compulsions,” he says. With things looking up, Bhavesh has gone back to sports, with a vengeance. He specializes in Shot Put, Javelin and Discuss and has his sights set on the elusive Paralympic medal. He has installed a gym at his workplace in Mahabaleshwar and follows a rigorous training of 500 push-ups and an 8 km-run daily. The gym is also open to visually challenged residents of Mahabaleshwar. An avid mountaineer and trekker, his next challenge is ascending the 6,476 metres (21,247 ft) Meera Peak of Nepal with Mount Everest next in line. Bhavesh, whose other talents include poetry, has a compilation of 2,900 poems to be published next year and is also an excellent cook. “Since I was a single child, I used to help my mother do her household chores so she could spend more time with me. I can cook Indian, South Indian Punjabi, Chinese cuisines, etc,” shares Bhavesh, who cooks once a week for the 87 visually-impaired residents of his factory who are housed in neat dormitories. Bhavesh also travels, shares motivational talks and has plans to set up an old age home and an eye hospital.
“When a person is confronted with low expectations, it’s all too easy for them to accept those limitations. However, when a person is expected and encouraged to succeed, he/she’s inspired to work hard. Together, we are changing what it means to be blind,” declares Bhavesh. He signs off with his favourite lines, “Manzilo ko kabhi ye na batao ki tumhari takleef kahan hai…lekin takleef ko zarur ye batao ki manzil kahan hai,” (Do not tell your destination your troubles, but do tell your troubles what your destination is).