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Women from drought-hit Mann Deshi Mahila Festival bring to city their produce, tales of success

The Satara resident had in six or seven years learnt how to market her business, burnish her brand called Renuka Masalas, package her organic products so that they appeal to urban consumers and more.

Written by Kavitha Iyer
Mumbai | January 8, 2017 1:16:28 am
mumbai-759 Vanita (right) at her stall selling organic moong and flour. On the extreme left is her daughter and daughter-in-law. (Below) A woman entrepreneur displays her implements to fashion rolling pins. Express Photo Kavitha Iyer. (File)

FOR SNEHA Devgirikar and women running the 59 other stalls at the Mann Deshi Mahila Festival for rural women entrepreneurs, demonetisation is no longer a hurdle. Ever since she took her first loan of Rs 12,000 from the Mann Deshi Mahila Bank, nearly a decade ago, to launch her business selling homemade papads, Sneha has learnt to upgrade her skill set at every milestone. The Satara resident had in six or seven years learnt how to market her business, burnish her brand called Renuka Masalas, package her organic products so that they appeal to urban consumers and more.

So, when Mann Deshi Foundation decided to move its annual festival, showcasing farm produce and rural women entrepreneurs’ products from Satara to Mumbai for the first time, Sneha and the others simply got acquainted with the mobile wallet technology and downloaded the apps necessary.

In Prabhadevi’s Rabindra Natya Mandir, each one of the 60 stalls selling farm produce — ranging from bajra, jowar and millet to freshly-handcarved wooden rolling pins and homemade pickles — comes with a story not unlike Sneha’s. Every stall is run by a woman who has built assets by developing her potential as an entrepreneur and a leader. All these women are associated with the Mann Deshi Foundation, which is headquartered in Mhaswad, Satara, and had been active in the drought-hit district since 1996.

Vanita Pise, 42, a resident of Mhaswad, never completed her Class X. Chaperoning her daughter and daughter-in-law at her stall where she’s selling organic moong and flour, Vanita talks confidently about the drought, market fluctuations and the dipping demand that affects her multiple businesses. She further explains how a drought year hits farm economy and how she had tried to focus her business ideas on areas that are not water dependent.

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“I had been in touch with the Mann Deshi Foundation since 2003, when I started small savings in a bachat gat. Through my association with the women at the foundation, I started a business making paper cups. I bought a machine and started making cups, working hard to make sure not to let loadshedding hours affect my output,” she said. The idea of a paper cup-making machine came from the foundation as did the training in marketing and sales, but Vanita added to it her own chain of raw material suppliers and the buyers of her finished products, along the way employing women who she paid weekly. “I also managed to give employment to one young girl, who was disabled,” she added.

Vanita is now a director of the board of the Mann Deshi Mahila Bank, and though she never completed her matriculation, she made sure her children get the best education she could afford. Even as she expanded her business to also make premium paper plates, she saw one daughter complete her MCA degree while the younger girl is studying to be a civil engineer.

“That sense of empowerment alongside willingness to work hard and beat the odds is common among all our women,” says Vanita Shinde of the foundation. And so, at the exhibition is Sanjana Salunkhe, who grows sugarcane in a small three-acre patch of land. She cut the cane herself and had it loaded into a tempo to bring to the exhibition where she’s selling freshly-crushed sugarcane juice in disposable tumblers.

Also at the exhibition is Kantabai Salunkhe, one of the first women to have approached the founders in the mid-1990s, complaining that banks denied her a applications for loan because, at her daily savings rate of Rs 2 or Rs 3, she was just not an affordable customer for any nationalised bank.

Chetna Sinha, 58, the founder of Mann Deshi Foundation, is thrilled at the success of their first attempt to bring their annual exhibition to Mumbai. Even though there are only 60 stalls here, compared to the much larger 200-plus stalls and exhibition grounds in Satara city, business is booming at each of these stalls. “There is still work to be done and improved upon,” she says. “For one, access to credit for rural women remains an area that needs sustained research by banking institutions. Mann Deshi offers a model, but there is still so much to understand about a range of possibilities between microfinance and the Mudra loans for micro units.”

There’s one more thing Sinha believes is the need of the hour. “More promotion and more recognition for men and families who really support women entrepreneurs, without that, this movement will find it difficult to move forward.” The Mann Deshi exhibition by rural entrepreneurs concludes on Sunday at Ravindra Natya Mandir, Prabhadevi; 9.30 am to 8 pm)

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