At a time farmers are either committing suicide or reeling under the weight of huge debts the farmers of Jasdan, a tehsil in Rajkot district are a happy lot. This season has been special as the turnover of Farmer Producer Company(FPC) has doubled from 7 crore (2016-17) to 16 crore (2017-18). This FPC is a part of Reliance Foundation’s (RF) effort to strengthen the value chain of the farm produce, enhance its marketability, help the marginal farmer and livestock owners realize better prices and thus achieve income security for themselves. The FPC formed with just 700 members has almost 1500 happy members today.
Jasdan set in the heart of Saurashtra is a semi-arid hilly area. Of the 56 villages, the RF team has worked in 12 villages as drought was a common phenomenon in this area and water scarcity a huge problem. And today not only are the farmers of this cluster doing better, the womenfolk of these villages are so well empowered that they are an inspiration to many. Women until now, in this part of the district lived in purdah, were confined to their homes and never ventured out of the village. The change is evident. They are now a confident lot, move out just not of their village but even out of the state and can stand on their feet. Having been trained by team RF in the importance of health, gender issues and leadership skills today, the Village Associations have a minimum of 30% involvement of women. But the cherry on the cake is the fact that a lot of these women who are illiterate are now successfully running their own businesses and supplementing their family income.
As I made my way into these dusty hamlets, I noticed that there was some noticeable transformation. There were not just the aged and women who could be seen on the streets but there was a strong presence of the youth. Migration to cities for a better quality of life was no longer an issue as villagers were learning to overcome their challenges themselves.
Women were working shoulder to shoulder as providers. And not just as farm hands but as business entrepreneurs. After the basic hand-holding by RF, a lot many were now on their own and very confidently running their little businesses. Many of them were school dropouts but now could not only do their own accounts but also were business savvy and street smart. And it has not been easy. ‘Women entrepreneurship’ is not some newfound phenomenon. For educated women, to be doing business is not so difficult and it even gets more smooth when you have a spouse to back you financially or you your rich father to back you. But for these women who can’t read or write nor count beyond 10, having no bank balance – doing any sort of business is a challenge.
So when women like Ramila, Geeta, Manju, Sapna and 60-year old Lila took charge of their lives and their families they re-wrote the history of their village.
“I lived on the streets for years after my marriage as my husband was a potter and he didn’t make enough money for two square meals leave alone making a hut for me, “ says the 60-year-old Lilaben Chagan Lakhtaria from village Lalavadhar.
Today Lilaben has her own home in the village and even keeps aside a little of her earnings for a rainy day. She also proudly informs that she has even bought two cows. Her story is the stuff our women are made of. Tough as steel and such a hard worker that its no surprise she has made it on her own steam. “I got married to a potter at the age of 20. My husband didn’t earn anything and I too started to make pots with him. I have led a miserable life until of late. We have 2 daughters and 1 son. My husband died 5 years ago. I am totally uneducated and have never gone to school. I didn’t even know how to count the change I had to give if a customer gave me Rs 10 for a tava!”
Some years ago Lilaben met an environmentalist who taught her the nutritional value of a particular cactus plant that grew wild in her village. There was a business angle to this and the lady told her that if she could extract the juice from the fruit of this plant she could sell it for a good price as it had a very high nutritional value and helps improve haemoglobin levels. It is also promoted for treating diabetes, high cholesterol and obesity. But the challenge was the thorns on this plant. If they entered your flesh, the healing would take months.
Lilaben, therefore, bought a small machine that could be attached to the plant and it automatically dropped to the ground without one having to touch it. The skin is then removed. Lilaben understood that this extract from the plant could be sold for a profit in the market and despite having to invest so much physically she decided to go for it.
“I thought this would help in making my life better. I, therefore, sought the help of RF who were already active in our village. They taught me how to do business and through their linkages helped me find buyers.”
She slowly began to learn the science of bottling this extract and after labelling, it sold this at environmental fairs or food fairs for about Rs 120 per bottle. “Now that I have made a name for myself people even order this directly for me. Yes, and I do make good money as compared to my earlier income. I can make about 50 bottles a day but since this is a seasonal plant I can’t be occupied through the year. But on days when I am free, I go and help at the farm. What I need to do now is create awareness for this product as not many people are aware of its qualities. I have understood that my biggest problem is sales. Often I bottle it and find that I have surplus stock. As this has a short shelf life it needs to be refrigerated as there are no preservatives. This also is an issue.”
Since the past few years, Lilaben has been participating in an annual fair that is organized by an NGO in Ahmedabad. She doesn’t have to pay for the stall and Lilaben says that she doesn’t just sell this extract there but also butter, buttermilk and cow milk. Out of her savings, she has purchased two cows and it’s the milk from these cows that help her with this additional income.”
“Earlier I could count beyond 10 but now I have learned too much more. I have sold up to Rs 70000 worth at these fairs and never been cheated as I am now savvier. I can now even sign my name! For a woman who had not seen life outside her village today, I am one of the few women who travel out to big cities to trade my wares and I have even visited Shirdi in Maharashtra which was a big dream come true.”
If Lilaben at 60 has turned a successful businesswoman, Geeta Vallabhbhai Jhapadia aged 35 is not far behind. For the uneducated Geeta, it was all about wanting to learn to sign her name and do her own business. Today she proudly stands in her shop called the ‘Nisha Cutlery Store’ named after her daughter. But what gets your attention is the banner on the shop which has Geeta herself dressed in a resplendent sari and wearing all the products that she stocks. She laughs as she says, “Why should I get someone else to model what I am selling? I know my products better than anybody else!” There is no awkwardness or shyness but a sense of achievement and terrific confidence.
“I did not want to work as a labourer but wanted to do my own business,” she says. “I can proudly say that today I am a businesswoman who makes enough to support herself, her two daughters and even her husband who has a paan shop that barely runs. Yes, I earn more than my husband because I have had the courage to venture into a territory that was new for me. Though I had no knowledge of running a business, I learned the basics from the RF team who encouraged us and urged us to be self-sufficient. Motivated, I took a loan of Rs 1 lakh to set up this business. Of course, until now I could not fill a form or understand how to apply for a loan but the training helped me. I wanted to learn to sign as I saw that a lot of women could sign on forms and other important documents.”
Geeta bought a shop on rent where she started a small sari shop and sold saris that she got from the bigger towns in and around her village. She also sells other beauty products like bindis, lipsticks, talcum powder and hair accessories. She has also bought a sewing machine and after learning to sew sari blouses, salwar suits and sari petticoats she now takes up stitching orders as well.”
“Earlier I would go and work in other people’s farms and barely make enough to feed my family. My husband was an alcoholic and would go and sit on the paan ka galla only in the evening. Is that enough? I decided to take life in my own hands. Some women had set up flour mills or making handicrafts. Why could I not do something too? I applied for a loan for which I pay 5000 as instalment and 1000 as interest today. I am now earning from my stitching as well as from my little shop. I have now bought two buffaloes and sell the milk to the local dairy. My kids go to school as I want them to be educated unlike me or their father. I will soon buy a Scooty like this other lady from our village which will help me do better business. This is my dream!”
If Geeta runs a ‘cutlery’ shop 35-year-old Manju Pravin Sarvaiya has now been trained to understand the nutritional value of vegetables and now has her own nutritional garden in her backyard. In a country where malnourished kids are not rare, Manju was sensitized about the importance of balanced diets in maintaining health. “Team RF organized regular health check-ups and camps to make us aware of different aspects of our health, “ informs Manju. “They helped me set up a nutrition garden to ensure nutrition security for my family. Not only is it cost-effective, scientific but very practical. I now grow seasonal vegetables in my backyard with their help. They provide us with the seeds as well. This part of my land was lying barren and I have now made productive use of it. Of course, many other women who have their nutrition gardens have turned them into a profitable venture also by selling the surplus in the market.”
Papayas, onions, brinjals, spring onions, bottle gourd, spinach, green chillies and much more is seen in abundance in her little garden. “I was taught the value of these vegetables and how important they are for growing children. Now with so many check dams, we are blessed with water even in the summer months and hence can grow vegetables through the year. After meeting our own requirements I give the surplus to relatives and neighbours who cant afford to buy vegetables. I can see that my kids are now healthier.”
Manju has also been taught the use of fertilizers and medicines to protect her vegetables. “ I am so happy with this parallel occupation as not only have my kids benefitted, I am also empowered with this knowledge that will take me further. My kids regularly undergo health check-ups and I know they have good haemoglobin levels and are not malnourished.”
As I made my way to the next village to meet yet another one such inspiring woman, I noticed a sense of complete satisfaction and happiness on her face. 28-year-old Sapnaben went to school till she passed class 8. She can talk with so much confidence that one is amazed. Hailing from the village Hadmatiya, Sapna is a health worker. A firebrand, Sapna is looked up at by most women of her village. “We are a group of women from our village who run a village association (VA) to promote collective ownership, decision making and common welfare. All VA members contribute voluntarily towards a common financial pool to finance activities for the holistic growth of our village. We mutually decide who the beneficiaries of this scheme after identifying marginal farmers,” Sapna informs.
“I am a trained health worker and my job is to visit at least 5 houses daily. I help them with any health-related issues and even advise them as to what can be done. I oversee delivery cases as well. It was my dream to see that the women from my village progress and when I got this opportunity to be trained by RF I seized it. I had seen them improving quality of life in the neighbouring villages and wanted my village to benefit. Since I can read and write it was easier for me to understand what was taught.”
Until Sapna got this job as a health worker she was leading a meaningless life. Not only was she economically in bad shape, her life had no rudder, she said. “Earlier I never knew how to do any bank work. After my training, not just me but many other women can independently do most bank transactions. Earlier women only looked after their children. Now all of us have a change in our mindsets. Earlier we were told girls are unequal and now a girl is born we ensure that the parents not just distribute sweets but even host a lunch in their neighbourhood. “
It is Sapna’s job to also educate parents on the advantages of sending their daughters to school. Some of them have now even started going to college, Sapna informs with a sense of pride. “Men in our village are not very proactive and lack ambition. We motivate them to push their limits. We now know how to save our money for a rainy day.”
Sapna along with many other women of her village has agitated against Jasdan authorities and fought for their rights to toilets in every home. “Earlier permissions for toilets were denied. I filed an RTI as I am equipped to understand what this means. We would spend our own money to commute daily to reach these offices and after 2 months got them moving. After toilets were constructed I even got them checked to see if the required standards were met with as a few of them had only constructed three walls and that was it. But now they could not mess with us as I knew the law.”
Ramilaben Mansukhbhai Jhapadia (40) from Kasloliya village is a school drop out but today can design and make artificial jewellery. “In fact after seeing how successful I was in this business my husband too joined me!” Ramilaben says. “Every two years we faced drought in our village. Farmers were the worst hit and as my in-laws were all farmers we used to be severely hit. It was then that I decided to opt for another profession. I was informed that there was a big imitation jewellery market in Rajkot and they needed artisans. I soon started to take training from a local artisan and soon picked it up.”
Ramila then got in touch with retailers in Rajkot who would give her raw material for free. She would then understand the need of the market and what was in demand and design accordingly. Then a dye was created and the coloured stones would be fixed soon giving rise to pretty necklaces and earrings. “Soon we realized that if all my family members could collectively do this we can earn better. My sister-in-law, husband and I now work as a team. 13 of my village women were trained in making imitation jewellery, 13 in stitching and 13 in embroidery. Some even got subsidized sewing machines and are now doing well.”
Ramila who worked in the fields for as little as Rs 200 a day today makes about Rs 10000 per month in making jewellery. Between her husband and her, they make about 20000 and can now afford to send their 4 kids to school. “There is a marked improvement in our lifestyle.”
Ramila aspires to train formally in jewellery design, learn to survey market trends and then market her design herself. “This is any day better than working on the farms!”
So when 21-year-old Geeta Vijay Jhapidiya passed her tenth standard she was one of the few to have done so from her village. But her parents got her married and though she wished to study further she was unable to do so. But not one to be sitting idle, Geeta decided to be trained as a beautician and a health worker. “I can test blood, take BP, check kids for any malnutrition issues. I am so happy as I make money as a beautician, a health worker and have also learned to stitch so I take stitching work too,” says the ambitious Geeta. “I have a two-year-old son and it’s my dream to get out of this village and buy a house in Jasdan. I want to live like town folk, dress like them and work like them. Women never got out of their homes but now we see that changing. I am dropping all my inhibitions and want to get rid of my ghoonghat too.”
Geeta is a member of the thrift group in her village where all the members put in Rs 100 per month which is used for medical emergencies, Marriage or educational expenses, etc. “I am quite good at Math and therefore can calculate and even make charts depicting our growth.”
As they say when the going gets tough the tough get going. And the women of this cluster are indeed a tough lot. For them nothing is impossible. Being proud owners of their businesses these women are indeed inspirational.