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INDIA: Hill Women Form Cooperative, Turn Entrepreneurs

Nitin Jugran Bahuguna

UTTARKASHI, India, Jan 17 2010 (IPS) - Women in Uttarkashi district of the hill state of Uttarakhand in India, traditionally sidelined from the developmental processes, are forming their own cooperative and producing processed food items, giving big multinational brands a run for their money in local markets.

From garlic, ginger, chili, mixed vegetable and mango pickles to fruit jams and chutneys, all packaged in attractive little plastic jars, women like Damayanti Devi of Kaleshwar village are the new face of business in Uttarakhand.

“I had no self-worth. I just looked after the domestic chores and had no say in decision-making matters in the household. Today, I operate the machines at our processing centre, carry out money transactions and have become a popular face at the local bank. Not bad for an illiterate woman from a small, backward village!” says 45-year-old Devi with a laugh. Being illiterate has not deterred her from pursuing a viable livelihood.

At present, about 250 women from 22 self-help groups (SHGs) across this district are actively engaged in the production and sale of garlic, ginger, chili and mixed vegetable pickles. The latter comprises mango and seasonal vegetables. The women also make fruit jam, chutney and fruit candy.

Though women’s SHGs and other thrift groups have been engaged in community-based activities for over two decades now, organising women under a proper business programme has been the biggest challenge so far.

“Creating and sustaining self-help groups without a business plan is a tall order,” remarks Chhaya Kunwar of the Himalayan Action Research Centre (HARC), a non-government organisation based in the state capital Dehradun, which motivated the rural women of this district to utilise locally available resources for income generation.

According to Kunwar most of the women were not scared of taking risks and needed only institutional support.

“We found that women had low status in their communities and a low level of awareness while men had control over cash,” says Kunwar. “So we decided to focus on organising and strengthening the women’s groups through rigorous capacity building trainings in group management, conflict resolution, decision making, financial management, micro-enterprise development and marketing skills.”

The NGO began its endeavours in early 2002 by developing a cadre of women and girl motivators from different villages. These motivators played a crucial role in creating an enabling environment in their respective villages for the empowerment of the womenfolk.

As motivator of her village, Devi was given training in how to use cutting and labeling machines as well as in growing crops.

“I now train women and girls in the village on growing garlic, onion and coriander,” she says. In addition, Devi has made use of the training given her by growing basil and mint on her small farmland.

“I earned 14,000 rupees (306 U.S. dollars) from this season’s crop,” she exclaims. “My efforts have encouraged other farmers in the village to start growing vegetables. Earlier, they had let their lands go to waste because wild animals used to graze and destroy their crops”.

The women, who were given training at different processing units set up at accessible places, were shown the benefits of an activity if managed collectively. “As we went about imparting training, the women began to gain confidence and displayed their ability to take chances, thereby increasing their confidence and earnings,” says Ganesh Uniyal, technical trainer with HARC.

Initially, a single group started making pickle, and each woman managed to get a net profit of 500 rupees (11 dollars) in the first round of production. After this, the women were encouraged to set up agro-eco-based income- generation activities by trading surplus pulses, millets, spices and some processed items they prepared from locally available raw material. This helped to enhance local incomes, but at the same time the women realised that they suffered from a lack of marketing skills.

“Our biggest challenges were to improve and maintain the quality of our products given the tough competition in markets,” observes Jagdamba Parwar of Mungra village.

These issues were discussed at monthly meetings, and the need was felt for a more effective trading regime. “There was a federation for male farmers that dealt with the production and marketing of fruits and vegetable. However, we wanted a separate federation for women’s groups,” says Parwar, 37, who has spearheaded the income-generating activities in her village and is secretary of her SHG.

“Finally, 13 SHGs consisting of 160 women decided to build a capital fund by contributing a share of 500 rupees (11 dollars) each to begin trading activities collectively, and we established our federation under the name ‘HARC Mountain Women Multipurpose Autonomous Cooperative’ in November 2003,” she explains.

The cooperative has helped its members to generate income and get employment in three major ways – through direct involvement in fruit- processing activities; by hiring the services of its members for grading, packing and labeling the products; and by enabling members to sell their surplus produce to the cooperative.

Today, their products are sold in the local market and also in Dehradun, Delhi, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh under the brand names of ‘Rawain’s Nature Pure’ and ‘Switch On’.

“Our products are in great demand in big cities like Delhi where more and more people are demanding organic food items,” beams Devi.

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