I was perched on a plastic chair, in a small office, waiting for someone at a local community centre to return my call. That’s how I met 27-year-old Roshan Mahto. He was sitting at a corner desk typing when a couple of scruffy lads burst in, bantering loudly. But it wasn’t the sudden change in the room that drew my attention, it was the cheeky comments and the excitement around them that had me wishing I was in on whatever this was. They were all clearly very familiar with each other and happy, if not happier, to continue chatting with a complete stranger in the room. In an instant, I give up on my meeting and become fascinated by the comradeship of this small group. When the two lads leave, Roshan comes over and tries to help me get in contact with the guy I was due to meet but after a couple of calls, it gets boring and we start to chat. I find out he runs Rekindling, a local business recycling wood and working with ex-offenders on the Community Payback scheme. I quickly change course, take out my camera and spend the morning learning more about his social enterprise. He starts by taking me out to see the timber yard.
Roshan spent some time on Community Payback himself and while on the scheme he decided to do something about a then chaotic outside space, housing leftover and reusable wood. “I started wanting to sort out the yard because I’m the type of person that can’t stand around and do nothing when there’s stuff like that, I can’t stand it. I just have to sort it out. So I started tearing it apart and then I saw what they were doing in there so I was inspired by the idea of recycling wood for social good.” The management noticed his hard work and decided to employ him but they were short on funds. As a compromise, they asked him to start-up a small wood rekindling business; to take charge of it and generate an income.
Initially, Roshan had his sights on making Rekindling a business with no frills but in the same period, he was asked to supervise the Community Payback group attending the centre as well. That was the moment his idea took shape: he merged the two projects. “Take people from Community Payback (excluding any sex offenders) and train them up in carpentry or management.” His aim is to give the Community Payback guys a real opportunity to work hard and make a salary; he wants to provide the same opportunity he was granted. “People on community services, are told not to commit a crime, get [given] a fine but they know these people don’t have a job to pay it back, I don’t know how they expect them to pay when they have no alternative but to commit [another] crime.”
I later find out that one of the cheeky guys from the chat earlier has been taken off Payback and is being trained as a supervisor under the Rekindling business. He is the walking, talking physical demo of Roshan’s business plan. He’ll be given the choice to continue training and work as a project leader under Rekindling or Roshan can train him and advise on how to start his own business. “It’s what I want to do, I want to give them jobs and help lower the rates of re-offending but at the same time, what I’m really passionate about and want to do is show them how to run a business and show them that they can do the same sort of thing [that I’m doing].” When he gets a Community Payback applicant, he first makes an assessment of their potential. “The ones that are real hard workers and want employment but can’t find it because of their record, I’ll take them, train them up and if I think they have management skills, I’ll train them up as supervisors. If I think they haven’t got [the skills], I train them up as general workers and down the line, we can do admin, marketing and whatever they want to do and train them up so that they can get a job and start a whole new career. It’s up to them how far they go.” Last year, Roshan received funding from Centrica for ‘The Big Energy’ idea. The help was a good start, making all of this real. His dream of rebuilding local lives is not just for good chat, it’s happening.
So what does the job look like day-to-day? The team pick up wood from local businesses and tree surgeons destined for landfills (a job that is usually paid for, Roshan and his team do it for free), recycle it and turn it into firewood. To make revenue, they go out and sell it to the boating community on the weekends and they also make nifty wooden objects like birdcages. Roshan has hopes to continue this cycle and then onto larger contracts for BP, restaurants, festivals and markets. He has big hopes to roll-out Rekindling across London, the rest of the UK, prisons and if that isn’t enough, he also wants to become a City & Guilds Assessor and offer qualifications but (don’t sweat it) he is being pragmatic about that part: “I know we can’t rehabilitate everyone who comes through the door because a lot of them do not want to be but for those [individuals], I want to be able to assess them all and give them certificates so down the line if they decided they’ve had enough of [re-offending], then they’ll have something.”
Roshan’s radical chain is simple: recycling local wood to lower the rate of waste going to landfills, offering rehabilitation to lower the rate of offending and then offering paid jobs. He also offers the same opportunity to those struggling to find a job or on benefits (not just those on the Community Payback scheme), thus lowering the rate of unemployment in the borough. Listening to Roshan, I can’t believe I haven’t seen more enterprises like this in the area. It all sounds like an obvious solution for the need. A community interest business, using the skills of the community to actually feed the community (by providing real jobs). It reads like a tick box for the best funding application, doesn’t it? Well, I went into the yard, jumped over tools and watched as tough, big lads worked and chatted loudly over the sound of saws – it’s the real deal folks.