My first article this year published in TerraGreen magazine after my return to India. I am glad to have written about the amazing rural women leaders who are the forefront of fight against the pandemic.

Rural Women leaders at the forefront of fight against the Pandemic

Rural grassroot women across the districts of Latur, Solapur, Osmanabad in Maharashtra, were exemplary in their fight against Covid pandemic Consequent to the announcement of lockdown in Aril 2020, these women designated as Sakhis joined hands with state health authorities and local administration as Sakhi Task Force team for the program initiated in July 2020 by their organisation Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP). The covid prevention work spread rapidly impacting rural areas of Bihar, Odisha, Gujarat, and Kerala, with 2500 of these dynamic grassroots women joining in and leading the fight.

The program for rapid recovery from the health crisis which was supported by UNICEF in collaboration with Block administrators and Gram Panchayats had its impact hailed as praiseworthy and a role model action for the entire nation to draw lessons from.

Under their supervision 1 lakh masks and 15,000 sanitary napkins were distributed in rural communities, 3 lakh soaps were distributed to frontline workers; food, ration, and hygiene kits to 18,320 needy families and PDS made to reach 30,000. They assisted 2,30,517 families through education and practices and as a community contributed Rs. 35.64 lakhs and mobilized groceries, vegetables & dairy products.

As the last mile support in optimizing Primary health care services, the Sakhis took up the task of spreading awareness for social distancing, handwash demonstration, surveillance of travellers and their screening at village entry points with temperature check-ups and oxygen measurement, logistics coordination in transfers to covid care centres for quarantine, contact tracing and checking for comorbidities.

Communicating the problems to the district administration while making decisions about building shelters, jobs, and food security for migrant workers, the STF helped at least 4000 returning migrant workers find jobs with MNREGA and 2,250 families grew their own vegetable gardens.

The taskforce team worked briskly during the second wave to spread awareness for quick testing and providing PPE kits to health care workers along with sanitizers and masks to the public. They are also helping people with registering for vaccinations on COWIN sites on their mobile phones. 

Empowered women farmers of the disaster- prone regions

The quickness with which the rural women took up positions as leaders and decision makers during the crisis is not surprising given that they are grassroot women leaders in climate resilient farming and agro-entrepreneurs of their communities.

Swayam Shikshan Prayog

Not in the distant past, however, the grassroot leaders were considered marginal women of the society. The journey of their transformation from meek and muted household labourers in their family owned- lands to landowners and decision makers was due thanks to the years of grooming and training by the Swayam Shiksan Prayog under the leadership of its founder Ms. Prema Gopalan in collaboration with the local administration and the Department of Agriculture.

Women led Climate Resilient farming (WCRF)

The regions of Marathwada are mostly rain fed and men grow mostly cash crop like sugarcane and soyabean. During drought years having no crop output from their lands they suffer loss in savings, and in chemicals and other expensive inputs. SSP’s WCRF model of farming was a life changing intervention for the farmers of such drought prone regions.

WCRF model on one acre land works on the precept that women are the best people to know and understand their families’ nutritional requirements, who go the extra mile in bringing the necessary elements to grow their crops whether in terms of input seeds, bio fertilizers or pesticides.

In four stages of four seasons, the women are onboarded, adopted, trained and hand- held till they join the village farmer federation to market their produce. In the first season, depending on village maturity level, community resources like demonstration farms and farm ponds are created and farmers trained till they begin farming in half acre land. By the third and fourth seasons they are ready to expand their farming to one acre land and become part of the village collective by sharing of resources and labour, eventually becoming a social capital to be scaled up by Government intervention.

As a first step in implementing the program, a community facilitator is recruited with a stringent screening test. She is trained and groomed through classroom and demonstration of all farming stages till she becomes an important resource for the Government and a mentor for the village community farmers. Three groups with twenty farmers in each and one farmer as the group leader, are tied to one community facilitator.

Community resilience funding

Through a community owned fund sourced by low interest bank loan, adopted marginal and small farmers are helped to buy animal fodder, hydroponics, seeds and most importantly get access to government schemes and subsidies to buy sprinklers, drip irrigation sets, and create village pond.

Technology for Enhanced value chain

Women also lead in technology partnerships for enhanced value chain. Block level Committees are set up to develop value chains for the farmer groups federated to improve the quality of vegetables and dairy milk, keeping them fresh and providing logistics to deliver to the markets otherwise not easy to access. With technology and innovation linked partners, farmers are ensured a good price for their products viz. veggies stored in craters of vegetable coolers are kept cool and fresh with minimum wastage. The committee maintains farmer wise records and money is disbursed off immediately after the sale. Machines installed through the rural enterprise SURE for milk collection in milk centres run by trained women dairy farmers have ensured drastic improvement in milk quality and price. Further intervention like quality of cattle feed and availability of veterinary doctor has doubled the farmers’ earnings.

Benefits of WCRF

By leveraging the innate wisdom of women and linking the adopter farmers to government schemes the model has achieved food security, water security, livelihood security, and women empowerment. Farmers own water related assets while growing less water intensive crops with increase in crop productivity and less input costs. Convincing their husbands for transferring of the land rights is crucial to the women’s success and impressed husbands follow them in doing chemical free farming. Growing as many as 17 types of diverse crops results in good health and nutrition for their families with improved immunity for cough and cold problems, while the produce ensures savings on market bought food and enhanced agri-businesses.

Making the farming model effective and impacting has proved win- win for both SSP and its key eco-system partners who otherwise find it hard to reach out to the women farmers. The key partners are Government Agriculture department for water conservation and harvesting, ATMA for bio inputs for chemical less farming, the training partner Krishi Vigyan Kendra, and partners for market linkages, knowledge, and strategies.

SSP’s programs which has its outreach across five states provide the much-needed anchor to the government’s investments and schemes towards attracting more women into mainstream agriculture and climate resilient farming.

Bihar’s Rural women Entrepreneurs in clean energy

In a state where 25% of women had maximum 10 years of schooling and 40% are illiterate, SSP has made strides to bring the women from margins to mainstream by leveraging on its expertise of building ecosystems of women led rural enterprise. SSP has empowered and transformed lives of marginalized rural women across Nalanda and Gaya districts of Bihar as economic engagers and entrepreneurs for clean energy products.

Women’s ability to network and to know the best consumer product for their family and create awareness through their networks positions them as the best people to do microbusiness. Women excel as last mile agents in marketing of consumer products since in-between their household chores they do not mind sparing 4-5 hours to travel to nearby villages to earn money.

In recent years, the rural energy landscape has changed, and electricity is made available through most part. Hence the need is to introduce other village consumer products for health, hygiene, and climate adaptive solutions so that Sakhi business continues and flourishes.

Sakhi selection and network

A successful Sakhi businesswoman can generate net income of Rs. 4000/. Factors vary from their ability to invest initial capital money, owning of a smartphone and training on app for ordering, ability to diversify their Sakhi basket with socially responsible products and ability to network with potential consumers of those products. Generally, Sakhis are scouted among the women networks at Block level, ASHA, SHG networks, Aanganwadi centers, and local administrative units. Women with some level of literacy and having support from their families to travel to adjacent villages and owning their Kirana shops with a customer base built on a previous business are preferred as they are likely to succeed with marketing, and sales of the Sakhi products.

The Sakhis who can network, sell, and get more women Sakhis under them become Super Sakhis. 3 Super Sakhis are managed by one Block coordinator. The Super Sakhis extend hand holding to Sakhis to buy the products by credit, initially market, distribute and sell till they get confident of marketing their products.

Covid lockdown a Boon

Many lessons were learnt during covid lockdown. The Sakhis engaged in covid relief work received social recognition when they worked hand in hand with frontline workers. Use of digital technology as an effective means to save time and effort to travel was recognized and the digital app Gaavkhoj was launched. Meetings and trainings were held online through smartphone. Using the app, the Sakhis could continue their business while identifying the needs of village folk. Those Sakhis who own smartphones could order products, with further handholding could market, distribute and sell on the online platform. Using Gaavkhoj, some 10,000 unique products as diverse as solar lamp to tarpolain, were distributed to 6,188 consumers and an income of Rs.2,00000 generated during the Covid crisis.

Impact

As an impact of the microbusiness, Sakhis now have an additional income and digital inclusion to expand their business. For the business partners and collaborators of SSP, creating awareness and making the product reach out to rural consumers in far- flung places are the major impacts. A door-to-door marketing by the Sakhis with a range of products in their baskets means everyone in the family is happy to get something of utility at their doorstep without having to travel, with the product’s service, maintenance, and warranty.

Demand mapping across sectors like health, nutrition, WASH, agriculture, education, and getting the right private sector partners to collaborate with the possibility of taking up government loan schemes to set up a shop for them can further scale up the SSP program and bring more women under the Sakhi business.

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