Transforming Poor Rural Women into Successful Business Managers

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PUSHPA MAURYA, 35 YEARS OLD, MANAGER OF THE MILK CHILLING CENTRE OF THE PRODUCER COMPANY, SWAAYAM KSHEER, AND WOMEN SUPPLIERS FROM NEIGHBOURING VILLAGES. PICTURE BY GRAHAM CROUCH/UNDP India

Ten years ago Pushpa Devi Maurya joined a self-help group to make ends meet in the village of Chak Padri in the state of Uttar Pradesh, northern India. Today this 35-year-old mother of two manages the bulk milk chilling centre set up by the milk producers’ company near her village. The centre collects milk from 56 villages and supplies on average 2000 litres of milk a day to the state’s milk grid.

This project was possible because women’s voices are starting to be heard. The lives of 50,000 women in 500 hundred villages in three of the poorest districts of Uttar Pradesh have been transformed through a UN Development Programme (UNDP)-IKEA Foundation pilot initiative titled Swaayam, which started two years ago. The partnership seeks to empower women socially, economically and politically. Thanks to these successes, the pilot is now being expanded to reach 2.2 million women.

Highlights

  • The collaboration between UNDP India and the IKEA Foundation was launched in 2009 to help empower women socially, economically and politically.
  • Trainings on financial literacy and business management have created a strong cadre of over 12,000 financially literate women and 4,000 entrepreneurs.
  • The pilot is being expanded to reach 2.2 million women.

Under the UNDP-IKEA Foundation’s Swaayam initiative, Pushpa learnt business skills through financial literacy training in 2009. Earlier as small dairy producers, Pushpa and other women like her were able to eke out meager profits with middle men taking the larger share. Realizing the power of the collective and greater awareness about the potential of their business, Pushpa and 9,000 other women dairy producers came together to take their new found knowledge to the next level. They formed a producer company, Swaayam Ksheer (ksheer means milk in Hindi), in November 2011. Each member holds an equity stake in the company, which soon hopes to take this membership to 12,000.

On average the profits of the members have at least doubled in the past year by eliminating middlemen and taking charge of all the processes involved in supplying milk to the state’s milk grid. As Pushpa pointed out, “Women can do a lot. But when women don’t have money they become helpless and there’s very little they can do. That’s why we decided to get together and set up this company so we can make some money and progress. “

Two chilling centres have been set up and running and six more are in the pipeline to service the needs of its soon to be 12,000 members. At a cost INR 2,000,000 (nearly US$38,000) per centre, this fledgling company has ambitious goals.

Over the last four months, the company has generated business worth INR 3,400,000 (more than $64,000) and over the next year it will generate benefits to its producers to the tune of INR 14,000,000 ($264,000).

A ten member board elected from among the members of the company made a presentation to the visiting UNDP-IKEA Foundation delegation recently under a tent in a remote rural setting. They outlined the financial forecast for the company. The professionalism of this presentation would have been impressive in any corporate boardroom in Delhi or Mumbai. Besides financial and management training this was made possible through a process of social mobilization, building their respect, confidence and resilience at all levels.

Taking a cue from Swaayam Ksheer, craftswomen from these villages have come together to form Swaayan Kala, (kala means art in Hindi) with a membership of 5,000 women. This was inaugurated in early May and hopes to supply its products to national retailers and export markets. Thousands of other entrepreneurs are following in their footsteps.

Caitlin Wiesen, UNDP Country Director said, “By building the capacities of women like Pushpa and supporting them to set up viable businesses, UNDP and the IKEA Foundation hope to lay the ground for lasting institutions and transformational change.”

“In India many women have served at the national level in the highest offices, and there are nearly one million elected women representatives in local self government. Over the years women in government at the local level have gained a new sense of power. These gains have to be protected and used effectively to make a meaningful difference in the lives of all women and provide space for leadership among women to emerge at different levels”, said Helen Clark during her interaction with women leaders.

India has a rich history of women in positions of power in the economic and political spheres at all levels. Paradoxically a majority of women continue to face several barriers like food insecurity, anemia, lack of assets, and access to secondary and higher levels of education. Most women work in the informal sector which accounts for over 92% of the workforce. They face insecure work conditions, lack social protection and access to financial services. Women in India continue to face exclusion in the social, economic and political domains.

Speaking about her aspirations Kurunji Ulaka, a tribal women from Odisha, said, “Women are capable of bringing about lasting change to improve their lives and that of their community. We constitute half the population and therefore, need to have equal importance and status.”

Usha Devi, one of 35,000 women trained in financial management, enterprise development as part of a UNDP-IKEA Foundation initiative in Uttar Pradesh spoke of the need for women to go beyond micro-credit and self help groups to set up businesses that eliminate the middle man and forge direct market linkages. Today as the manger of the dairy producers association she is leading 12,000 women entrepreneurs. “This is the result of women’s collective thinking and power”, she proudly pointed out.

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