It was only when Pavitter Singh’s son made the transition from using pencils to pens at school that an unnoticed problem came to light. The eight-year-old child, a left-hander, was unable to write as fast as his classmates. At times, he could not even see what he was writing.

At first, “we couldn’t understand why this was happening,” said Singh. But the more Singh looked into his son’s problems, the more he realised that the cause lay elsewhere – his left-handed son was living in a right-handed world. His notebooks, pen and his seat were designed as a natural fit for a right-hander.

When the Pune-based Singh began to look for left-handed products, he was left disappointed. “A left-handed pen cost Rs 1,500 and a sharpener was Rs 600 on Amazon,” he said. All the products he found online were imported, and locally, there was no company selling what his son needed.

In 2016, a year and a half later, Singh set up The Left Hand Shop. It is India’s first company that caters exclusively to the needs of left-handers. The company sells school stationery and cricketing equipment from local and international brands as well as under its own brand, MyLeft.

A sharpener for left-handers, being used by Gurinder Singh. Photo courtesy: Pavitter Singh, The Left Hand Shop.

One of MyLeft’s popular products is is a pouch priced at Rs 99 that includes left-handed school stationery. A left-handed clipboard is a part of the range that also includes neutral products like clay and playing cards. Singh says he is now working on products that can be used by both left- and right-handed people. “We focus on products with a symmetrical design,” he said. The Pune-based company retails online and marketing is done organically via social media.

According to Singh, the biggest challenge in servicing such a market is the lack of awareness among consumers. This is a view echoed by Rohan Jadhav, marketing manager of Maped in India. “The commercial launch of these products is very difficult and requires large-scale marketing for which we don’t yet have the budget.” Maped, headquartered in France, is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of school and office stationery. In the past, it had tied up with Singh to sell its range of left-handed products, such as sharpeners, rulers, pens and scissors, but since July it is in an exclusive agreement with Flipkart.

“Often left-handers cannot see what they are writing without tilting their notebook,” said Jadhav. “So we have created a pen with a titled nib. Left-handed rulers have the markings on the opposite side so the children can use them easily.”

Photo courtesy: Pavitter Singh, The Left Hand Shop.

Earlier this year, Pune resident and mother to a 7-year-old left-hander, Alolika Purandare read about Hindustan Pencils online. She wrote to the company, asking where could she buy their left-handed products. Days later, she received a packet that contained a scale, sharpener and neutral pencils. The kit costs Rs 20.

“Left-handers have to struggle to adjust to right-handed products and they should be given all the help possible,” said Purandare. In order to create awareness about these kits, Purandare created a WhatsApp group of 160 parents of left-handed children across Maharashtra and some from outside the state. As these kits were available only on a special order, Purandare ordered 180 kits in July, which the parents can now pick up from her home.

Another Pune resident, Geetika Shimpi, is developing a business model around the demand. Shimpi, a left-hander herself, created a questionnaire on the challenges faced by people like her. She posted it online on Facebook groups such as The Left-Handers Club and Left-Handers. Within two days, she had 250 responses, based on which she developed her idea.

Her idea has a three-pronged approach: create awareness about left-handed products, develop a festival or a day on which the left-handed community can meet and talk, and have an online store that will not only sell left-handed products but will also customise everyday products for left-handers at nominal prices.

Photo courtesy: Rohan Jadhav, Maped, India.

A 1977 study by researchers Curtis Hardyck and Lewis F Petrinovich found that approximately 10% of the world’s population is left-handed. Still, most cultures tend to have a bias against left-handedness – they view it as the hand of the devil or inauspicious.

“Over time, the stigma of left-handedness faded, mainly because of social liberalisation after 1968 and manual jobs became less frequent,” said Raphael Guber, a postdoctoral researcher in economics at the Max-Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy, Germany. But even now with increasing computerisation of classrooms and workplaces coupled with decreasing stigmatisation around left-handedness, the market opportunity still remains vastly unexplored.

The first specialist left-handed store, Anything Left Handed, opened in London’s West End in 1968. In 2006, the company closed its brick-and-mortar store and shifted business online. Today, the US-based Lefty’s remains the oldest brick-and-mortar chain catering exclusively to left-handed consumers.

The Lefty's store at Pier 39, San Francisco. Photo credit: Pierre André/Wikimedia Commons [CC Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic]

“It is a very difficult business as it’s hard to get the products made,” said Margaret Majua, the owner at Lefty’s. “The rate of sale on things other than scissors and notebooks does not justify the minimum order quantities. From a business perspective, manufacturers cannot afford to store slow-moving products and so even if they add left-handed products to their line, they always discontinue them. If you get things manufactured yourself, you will soon be sitting on a warehouse of stuff.” Lefty’s does business through stores, its own website, and Amazon.

Bridget McCarthy, co-owner of Lefty’s and a left-hander, says it is not unusual to hear stories of left-handers having felt inadequate. “I can’t tell you the number of times I have been mocked for my backward check marks or how some well-meaning righties have come to understand that my left-handedness is equivalent to a disability,” she said.

The disadvantage faced by left-handers hurts their economic potential as well. Left-handers are believed to earn 6% less than their counterparts, according to a paper by Joshua Goodman, an economist at Harvard Kennedy School. “My data suggest that these [learning] gaps arise very early in life and may therefore result from differences in neural wiring,” Goodman said in an email interview. “But it would be interesting to see if part of the learning gap is driven by parents, teachers and peer modelling right-handed writing and therefore making it harder for lefties to learn writing by imitation. This might interfere with acquisition of basic literacy and numeracy skills early on. If so, there might be a market for objects that somehow facilitate learning of early skills by lefties.”

Majua owns a dozen retail stores and Lefty’s is her least profitable venture. But it is the one she likes the most. “People thank you so sincerely for selling them things that actually improve their lives.”