These women from the Savara and Jathapu tribes have evolved from being housewives to entrepreneurs who are all set to grow their brand

Tribal women in Andhra Pradesh are discovering the empowering joys of entrepreneurship thanks to a Tata Projects Community Development Trust programme

Sometimes, all an entrepreneur needs is a little encouragement. There are 30 tribal women, in the Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh, close to Visakhapatnam, who will testify to that.

Until a few months ago, these women, belonging to the Savara and Jathapu tribes, were shy housewives, their world rarely extending beyond their kitchens and homes. Today, they have evolved into smart entrepreneurs who are running their own enterprises, learning the value of teamwork and ownership, seeking to grow their brand and improving the lives of their families.

This change is the result of a Tata Projects Community Development Trust (TPCDT) exercise that seeks to empower tribal women under its entrepreneurship development programme (EDP). Launched in 2012, the success of this programme led to its recognition at the third Annual Greentech CSR Awards ceremony in 2014, where it won a certificate of appreciation.

At Srikakulam, the programme is operated by the trust’s supervisory partner NGO, Action in Rural Technology and Services (ARTS); the EDP is part of Tata Projects’ affirmative action initiative.

TPCDT’s mandate is to provide income generation opportunities to socially and economically marginalised communities, including scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. The EDP format helps achieve this objective. Manjuvani Nayani, managing trustee, TPCDT, says,“It’s time to give India’s tribes their due. We hope that our efforts will encourage them to manage and lead small-scale enterprises for profit.”

“It’s time to give India’s tribes their due. We hope that our efforts will encourage them to manage and lead small-scale enterprises for profit.”

Manjuvani Nayani, managing trustee at TPCDT

Giving wings

The aim of the EDP is to encourage entrepreneurship amongst underprivileged communities. The programme works to equip people with the skills and knowledge they need to start and run their own business. “If their competencies are developed systematically, everything else follows,” Ms Nayani adds.

The inaugural 10-day programme was held at Srikakulam on October 16, 2016. It took the 30 women trainees through the basics of marketing and branding, and taught them the entrepreneurial and managerial skills they would need to run small-scale enterprises. Participants also learned how to spot market opportunities, set up a small business, run an industrial unit, and understand changes in the business environment. In addition, the EDP made them aware of government schemes that could benefit them, and showed them how to prepare project reports, conduct market surveys and devise action plans.

Given the background of the participants, it was important to make the training less formidable. This was achieved by peppering sessions with fun and games which helped the women assimilate the information better and more comfortably. Importantly, the training sessions helped the women develop confidence and positive attitudes.

The mindset change was critical. Although the women enjoyed the ‘play’ method of learning at the centre, many of them were still apprehensive about taking the final plunge into business; they had never worked outside their homes before. In fact, many of them pleaded with their trainer Ravi Kant to take charge of the business venture and employ them on a daily wage. The training team assuaged their fears by asking them to share their concerns; through discussions and advice, the team helped them find their own solutions.

Processing of locally grown cashew that yields good revenue

Collective progress

The idea for the EDP programme arose from TPCDT’s familiarity with local needs. Since 2014, Srikakulam district had been a beneficiary of Tata Projects’ social entrepreneurship programme that provides potable water to its villages. During a visit to one of the villages, Ms Nayani and the TPCDT team observed that it was lack of infrastructure and market support that was the biggest obstacle to socio-economic development.

Agriculture was the main livelihood and it was hardly remunerative. While the local farmers grew a variety of crops such as pineapple, cashew and turmeric, they were able to sell only a part of their produce; the rest would spoil and had to be thrown away. “They sold some produce to their fellow villagers. But most of it was being dumped as they had no access to larger markets,” Ms Nayani explains. Worse, the prices at which farmers managed to sell some of their produce amounted to very little as they weren’t aware of prevailing rates in larger wholesale markets.

Women in the village households were compelled to take on small jobs such as tailoring to supplement farm incomes. But even this money was not enough to sustain their families.

Tata Projects launched a plan that sought to benefit the district’s rural community. ARTS, the partner NGO on the project, helped identify 30 women from the area and divided them into groups of 10 each. These 30 women comprised the first batch of its skilling programme. One group was chosen for processing millets and other grains into biscuits, another for processing cashews and the third for processing turmeric.

The 30 women were connected to about a thousand farmer cooperatives. The women source their input materials from the farmers, and process and sell the finished products for a profit. This makes the programme a win-win for everyone as it virtually eliminates spoilage of farm produce. TPCDT has tied up with a buyer in Nashik, Maharashtra, who picks up the entire lot of finished goods.

The women were encouraged to take advantage of the government’s lending schemes available for starting and building their enterprise. Proceeds from the sale of the products are divided equally amongst the women, after outgoings such as loan instalments and expenses are taken into account.

The women have learned to manage the business on their own. Work in each processing group has been structured across two shifts with five women working at a time, allowing them to balance their personal and work responsibilities. Recently, an order for stitching cotton gloves has come in, for which an additional group of 10 women has been set up.

“The Nashik buyer has assured us that if we are able to brand our products and ensure consistency in quality, he will help us export to Dubai,” says Ms Nayani. Though it could take a year for them to establish the business fully, this news has spurred the women into working harder to increase productivity and the quality of their products.

A new brand name NEEV (stands for nurture, educate, empower and value) and logo are ready. TPCDT has planned a field trip for 15 of the women, along with their trainer and a coordinator from ARTS, to visit the buyer’s Nashik processing unit, which makes biscuits and processes cashew items. This exposure to a large scale processing unit could inspire the women to pick up new ideas for growth and expansion. Ms Nayani explains: “We would like them to keep evolving and to improve their quality.” Plans are also afoot to bring Tata Consultancy Services’ adult literacy programme to the women so that they become more confident and self-reliant in conducting business activities.

Dreaming big

The success of TPCDT’s intervention is amazing. Today, these tribal women generate incomes of
10,000 a month on average, and dream of a better future for themselves and their loved ones. Their early entrepreneurial success has earned them greater respect within their families, and their standing within the community has improved. “The scale at which they operate today may be small, but there is nothing small about the size of their aspirations and their willingness to work hard,” avers Ms Nayani. Validating the contribution that the EDP has made, the women are examples of how timely support and inputs can make a difference to rural lives.

This initiative is now being extended into other tribal areas of Srikakulam, Rajahmundry and East Godavari districts to support and encourage more potential entrepreneurs. Batches of women are already lining up in these districts to enroll in the EDP. The TPCDT team is in discussions to procure machinery that will help more women find income generating opportunities through processing and marketing of locally grown products.“We are exploring the possibility of making canned pineapple and jackfruit chips in some of the other districts,” says Ms Nayani.

For the Srikakulam beneficiaries, Tata Projects’ EDP intervention was a lifeline that has lifted them from social and economic obscurity. A woman entrepreneur at the turmeric processing unit sums up the collective feeling of accomplishment and empowerment, when she says “Victory to the tribals”, or, as it reads in the original Telugu language, “Jai Adivasi!”

— Cynthia Rodrigues