Noted social entrepreneur Prema Gopalan, a tireless crusader for rural women’s leadership, passed away in Pune on Tuesday morning, aged 66.
As founder and executive director of the NGO Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), Ms. Gopalan’s outfit, spread across seven States in India, has helped nearly 300,000 rural women carve new identities as entrepreneurs, farmers and community leaders till date.
Founded in 1998 by Ms. Gopalan and activist-academic Sheela Patel, the SSP 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.
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 for the last mile of women-led businesses.
Through Ms. Gopalan’s efforts, the SSP set up a strong support network for women leaders called ‘ sakhis’ in rural areas, offering incubation and business development services to equip them with critical skills required to exercise their leadership in areas of governance, financial management, climate resilient agriculture, entrepreneurship, and sustainable livelihoods.
Today, through the SSP, at least 65,000 women practice organic farming, ensuring nutritious food on the table for their families, simultaneously regenerating the soil. About 45,000 women entrepreneurs are heading successful businesses, bringing additional incomes to their families. Many have fought local bodies elections and have been elected to civic bodies.
Ms. Gopalan’s intrinsic belief in women’s leadership garnered worldwide interest and acknowledgement.
In a career spanning three decades, she was feted with a number of national and international awards. Most recently, she was the recipient of the 2021 Women Transforming India Award — NITI Aayog’s flagship initiative which honours women entrepreneurs bringing transformational changes in India.
In recognition of her entrepreneurial vision, she was feted in October 2018 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. She was also the recipient of the Parkhe Foundation’s ‘Adarsha Mata Puraskar’ and the Roddenberry Foundation’s +1Global Fund in recognition of impactful work during the COVID-19 pandemic across adversely affected communities.