The rise of India’s rural women entrepreneurs


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Women at the custard apple collection centre
Women at the custard apple collection center. Photo credit: Rajasthan Grameen Aajeevika Vikas Parishad (RGAVP), Govt. of Rajasthan

Pehle mein apne ghar ka paanch hazaar (rupaye) mein bhi kharcha nahi chala paati thi, abh mein pandrah hazaar rupaye mein ghar ka kharcha chalati hu.

“Earlier I was not able to contribute even Rs. 5,000 ($69) to run my house. Today, I contribute Rs. 15,000 ($208),” beams Lakshmi Amol Shinde from Wardha Lakshmi as she recalls the harsh financial conditions she and her family faced after her husband lost his job.

This unexpected event motivated her to join a self-help group (SHG) and take out a loan to start a small snack (papad) business .

Initially, she sold her food delicacies in her village. Later, she expanded her business and catered to shops in Nagpur, Maharashtra’s winter capital.

Her hard work paid off, and eleven women from her group joined Lakshmi’s flourishing business .

Thanks to business and marketing training, the women’s business has grown and is now processing the famous turmeric from Waigaon, another town in the district.

By moving up the value chain, the women are running a profitable business.

Babli Devi, a tribal woman from Udaipur district of Rajasthan, has a similar life-changing story.

Speaking at ease in her local dialect, she explained how, four years ago, her family and neighbors collected and sold custard apples for a mere Rs 2 ($0.02) per kg.

Today, Babli Devi works in a custard apple pulp extraction unit, and earns close to Rs 10,000 ($139) a month .

Members of her self-help group received training from the Agriculture University in Udaipur on the custard apple value chain. The unit is now registered as a producer company.

They took out a loan of Rs. 5 lakhs ($6,944) to set up a custard apple pulp extraction unit and established 16 collection centers  to purchase custard apple at Rs 10 per (~$0.14) kg from 1,200 families.

Today, the unit employs 150 women . The company sells the pulp to ice-cream companies and catering units and yields a 40-50% profit margin.

Community hall converted into the pulp extraction unit
Community hall converted into the pulp extraction unit. Photo credit: Rajasthan Grameen Aajeevika Vikas Parishad (RGAVP), Govt. of Rajastha

Lakshmi Amol Shinde and Babli Devi exemplify how Indian women have leveraged the strength of their community institutions to reverse their dire situations and secure a better future for themselves and their families.

Both women received support from the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), a program under the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD), which has organized about 56 million women into SHGs, thereby leveraging over $30 billion in loans in the last five years.

In short, NRLM’s focus on social and financial inclusion has provided an impetus to women entrepreneurs to invest in their businesses and contribute toward a financially stable future.

Recognizing the growing need for business advisory support and access to affordable and timely finance, the Government of India, along with the World Bank, is implementing a $500 million investment  through the National Rural Economic Transformation Project (NRETP).

The project recently coordinated with United Nations Development Program and other stakeholders such as  impact investors, social enterprises, fintech firms, e-commerce players, and incubators at a consultation on rural enterprise development.

The event featured stimulating discussions on new avenues for promoting businesses through e-marketplaces, leveraging technology for advisory services, and accessing products and processes of various financial institutions catering to women-owned micro-enterprises.

The NRETP plans to support these efforts through various web-based platforms, interactive mobile applications, face-to-face mentoring  as well as through access to business-specific financial products.

A combination of young professionals with management expertise and local entrepreneurs trained in mentoring will deliver support services such as access to credit, technology, skills and links to markets.

With initiatives such as these in the offing, the growth of transformative women-led enterprises in rural India has  begun .

Prachi Maheshwari
February 21, 2019

Hi Balakrishnan, this was a good read. I'm working on a research project with IDRC where we are looking at different models of women entrepreneurship and challenges they face with respect to access to finance. May I request you for an interview to further understand the WBG project you have mentioned, it's modalities and to learn from your experience of working in the field.

Surendra Pachauri
February 21, 2019

SHG movement is a milestone and landmark step towards achieving Women Empowerment in India.It should be practised ,professed and propagated in every nook and corner of India and implemented with the assistance of governmental agencies with zeal and a sincere intent.
Dr.S.K.Pachauri IAS Retd

Dr Subrahmanyeswari
February 22, 2019

Its appreciable story of two successful rural women. Invisible potentiality of rural women will be visible when their family is in crisis. Engaging more woman extension workers in the relevant fields along with use of ICT may play more role in bringing more socio-economic reforms in the lives of rural women and ultimately the whole family will get benefitted.

February 22, 2019

Hi Bala, happy to see writing on this. I was leading this project along with a young professional Mr. Vishal in Udaipur. Good to see the progress. It is in Kherwada Cluster. I may request you to write another piece on Custom Hiring Centre run by CLF in Udaipur.

Ankit Mudgal
February 24, 2019

All of us read and hear a lot of Atticus stories like this. But the main challenge is to sustain the enterprise after the incubation support. Can we discuss what should be a starting foundation for a such enterprise to sustain successfully even after incubation support.

Prateek Uniyal
February 24, 2019

Amazed to see the success achieved by the tribal women across India. Though closer to my heart will be the leaders from Rajasthan, Pali. Babli Devi is a fighter. When I first went to make the SHG in her village she was the one who came out and helped us to establish trust with people.
Custard Apple as an activity could go so far I had not imagined. My idea was to generate income for a few villages; when I initiated the idea but now it has gone way beyond what I imagined. All credits to the Women Leader.
Crux of the the message I was super happy to see the post and could not stop myself from writing. But we need many more leaders like them. Let us all contribute.

March 06, 2019

Great story. Well done Bala and Arshia. !