Other States

Defying vagaries of nature to create entrepreneurs

Prema Gopalan  

A modest building in a bylane off Pune’s bustling Baner road is the unlikely nerve centre of empowering women at the grassroots by transforming them into social entrepreneurs.

For the last two decades, Prema Gopalan, the founder of the Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP) and her team of 70 dedicated persons from the social sector, has been rendering yeoman service to help women from India’s (and especially Maharashtra’s) rural hinterland break gender stereotypes and play a decisive role in adopting sustainable farming models.

In recognition of her entrepreneurial vision, she was feted on October 14 with the ‘Social Entrepreneur of the Year’ award by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship — the sister organisation of the World Economic Forum and the Jubilant Bhartia Foundation. The award confirmed the durability and innovativeness of the SSP model and its role in revivifying rural economies in areas most vulnerable to climate change.

Climate-resilient model

The SSP model comprises four ventures: a federated network of 5,000 SHGs, a resilience fund for women-led businesses, a rural school of entrepreneurship and leadership for women, and a market aggregator that provides warehousing, branding, marketing and distribution services to last-mile business women.

Spread across 16 rain-shadow districts in six Indian states, the SSP has, since 2009, helped over 1.45 lakh women and solved problems of their communities by launching them in rural micro-enterprises in sectors ranging from clean energy and basic health services to nutrition and agriculture.

The SSP’s focus group is women in the climate-threatened community of small and medium farmers. Their model seeks to economically empower poor rural women as leaders and entrepreneurs, by providing them access to skills, finance and markets and increasing their economic resilience through sustainable agriculture and health-enhancing opportunities.

“Our approach is to train women to recognise themselves as entrepreneurs and establish a cadre of mentors. It was after Maharashtra had bad rainfall years successively in 2012 and 2013 that small and marginal farmers began seeking alternatives,” says Ms. Gopalan. It was the women who influenced their male kin to adopt climate-resilient models to resolve the food security crisis. With drought stalking the land for two years and the water table steadily depleting, smaller cultivators in Marathwada faced bleak prospects in 2014. Many contemplated migrating to cities. Most of them had invested in water-guzzling cash crops like soya and cotton.

“The women were very clear in their outlook. They said it was their duty to ensure that the men do not migrate to the cities and they were firm about not selling livestock and remaining rooted to their land,” said Ms. Gopalan.

Over the past three years, she says that these women, following training imparted by Ms. Gopalan’s organisation, have transformed 30,000 acres of dry land across Maharashtra and other States into bio-farms. “Women shape the design and implementation of this model. It is they who convince the males to switch from cash to food crops, thus bringing down risks associated with the vagaries of nature and increasing savings in agriculture and consumption of food directly from their farms,” she said.

The SSP initially trains a group of bright women designated as ‘Samwad Sahayaks’ (communication facilitators). These in turn are tasked with informing and empowering the others on how to channel government resources for rebuilding efforts.

Obstacles to success

“The elephant in the room was, and still is, that the land title is not in the woman’s name. The women are treated as mere labour on the farms,” Ms. Gopalan said.

Prior to training, the women who had little or no formal education, seldom had access to capital and were therefore chary of venturing into businesses. Initially, Ms. Gopalan noted, the hard part was to convince the males and the patriarchs of the benefits. Gradually, after the drought years, as the men began to see the benefits of adopting an alternative approach, the women were allotted half to one acre of land for their ‘experiments’.

Empowering women: Prema Gopalan (left) with women farmers discussing the nutritional benefits of agri products in Osmanabad.

Empowering women: Prema Gopalan (left) with women farmers discussing the nutritional benefits of agri products in Osmanabad.  

“In training women to become social entrepreneurs, we observe that their concerns transcend immediate family needs and that they think in terms of communities. They do not think twice about giving back to society,” Ms. Gopalan said.

The shift in agricultural focus from cash to food crops has resulted in annual savings of more than ₹35,000 in these households. Family incomes have increased by nearly 50% and over the last two years, more than 30,000 women have been launched as entrepreneurs, generating a cumulative income of ₹189 crore. “Owing to the shift in food crops, the families have begun to cut down on expenses generated by medical bills, eating better quality, chemical-free food and are less prone to illnesses,” Ms. Gopalan said.

With growing evidence of the model’s success, more families in the State’s rural hinterland are recognising women as decision makers in the farm and the household. In a number of cases, this has led to men conferring cultivation or farm rights to the women. More than 45,000 women are now recognized as ‘farmers’.

The gradual acceptance of women as entrepreneurs in rural communities has resulted in them gaining access to hithero male-dominated areas like the Gram Sabhas, Panchayats, and block-level meetings. More than 500 women trained by us have fought and won Panchayat elections,” Ms, Gopalan said.

In 2017, the SSP won the prestigious ‘Equator Prize’ awarded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The Maharashtra government has selected the SSP for implementing the Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana initiative, which will support over 25,000 women farmers adopt improved agriculture practices in 600 villages across the State. The mentors are chosen from the SSP’s cadres of experienced women agriculture leaders.

“In a unique way, this model has created a larger awareness among the communities on linkages between climate change and natural resource management,” Ms. Gopalan said, observing that women farmers were now leading efforts on environment and natural resource protection through promotion of watershed structures and bio inputs. Spurred on by their success, the SSP aims to reach out to more than a million persons from ‘climate affected communities’ over the next few years, while trying to transform as many as 50,000 women into self-reliant entrepreneurs and farmers.

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 8:13:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/defying-vagaries-of-nature-to-create-entrepreneurs/article25439777.ece

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