Gandhigramam that works to empower adivasis has mobile shops across the State

A classic Matador tempo, painted a deep green, opens out on one side. Inside are tightly packed stacks of little and big bottles, containers, tins, and sachets full of “forest produce”. These old-fashioned vans, which have ungrudgingly retreated from Indian roads, have found a new purpose with Gandhigramam’s mobile shops.

They have been around a while all over Kerala, says M. Devdas, the founder of the Wayanad-based organisation that has been working to market the produce collected by adivasis of the region. Ten to 15 of these mobile units have been stationed in various cities throughout the State. Kochi alone has four — at Panampilly Nagar, Kaloor, High Court Junction, and Menaka. Each one is an entire wellness store on wheels — with wild honey and turmeric, cycas, natural coffee, brahmi powder, chukku, karingali, karupatti coffee, palm sugar, gooseberries and bamboo rice to name just a few. The rest of the popular products include lemongrass oil, thaali powder, agarbathis, frankinscence and a variety of hand-made herbal soaps.

Looking for health

“I have been here for the last three-and-a-half years. I would not say I do roaring business. But people are curious. Once we explain the health benefits of say, gooseberries soaked in wild honey, people are interested and are willing to experiment. Customers are earned this way,” says Baiju, who manages the Panampilly Nagar unit. The van is open from 9.30 a.m. till 7 p.m.

The fastest-moving product, he says, is green tea. “Of late, there is an increased demand for green tea.” Wild honey and bamboo rice are equally popular, too. Bamboo rice, which is collected from the seeds of flowered bamboo, is known for its nutritive qualities. Comparatively richer in proteins, it is believed to be a good substitute for rice and can be used to make payasam, upma and even puttu.

Almost all the products on sale are made by the tribal (mostly Kurichya and Paniya) communities of Wayanad. Started about three decades ago, as a society to help the adivasis market their produce, Gandhigramam is now a federation with over 1,500 member-workers.

In these times when going natural is a fad and even big brands have started launching “natural” branches, demand for non-synthetic food is increasing.

K. Ravi Sahil is a regular at the mobile unit. “The wild honey has no added flavours and is known for its health benefits.” He recently bought two tins of gooseberry and garlic soaked in honey. “It is believed to lower blood pressure and diabetics can have it too,” he says. Sreedevi Venugopal, former tahsildar and a follower of the ‘natural’ way of life, gets lemongrass oil from Gandhigramam, which she uses as a mosquito repellent.

In addition to the mobile units, it also has 18 shops in the State. “The idea is to encourage people to go back to Nature. We work on the principle that food is medicine, the kitchen pharmacy and the person who cooks, doctor,” Devdas says. Busy schedules and life-style induced stress can be handled if people found a way to reconnect with Nature, he believes. Gandhigramam has started two Nature food outlets in Kozhikode and Tirur, too. Plans are on to open similar units in other cities, too.

“It is not a profit-making initiative, but 20 per cent of what we make goes to the adivasis who work with us. Earlier, they had few means to package and market their products. Some of the communities would even engage in direct-selling. But that would not bring in an organised income for them,” Devdas adds.

FOOD AS MEDICINE

Honey: Instant energy booster, helps build immunity, too

Brahmi: Is a flowering medicinal plant, which is also known as a brain tonic. It is used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and to enhance memory

Chukku (dry ginger) : Is an instant remedy for indigestion, congestion, cough, cold and fever

Karingali: A medicinal herb, which is added to water and boiled. It improves digestion and is known to be good for the skin and teeth

Gooseberry: Is good for diabetics and reduces cholesterol and risk of heart diseases. It also improves the quality of skin and hair

Bamboo rice: With its high protein content, it is considered nutritious. It also helps in flushing out toxins from the body

Natural coffee : Coffee, which is processed without washing off the pulp of the seed pod. Rich in antioxidants that melts fat away

Green tea : Rich source of antioxidants, natural source of fluoride for teeth and is known to help in weight loss