A biotechnology park for women

Print edition : August 29, 1998

WOMEN make up half the world's population, perform two-thirds of all work, but receive a tenth of the income and own less then one-hundredth of the world's assets. As part of its effort to address this gender bias, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai laid the foundation recently for the country's first biotechnology park for women.

The idea of such a facility was proposed by Dr. M.S. Swaminathan at a meeting of women scientists and technologists of the Asia-Pacific region, organised by the United Nations Development Programme-United Nations Develop-ment Fund for Women at the MSSRF in December 1996. It found unanimous acceptance. The meeting emphasised the need to ensure that women's role as innovators and agents of economic and social change is recognised.

The biotechnology park is intended to provide all the infrastructural facilities needed to help qualified women set up units. The MSSRF has established a Technical Resource Centre with four objectives: to identify technology and train women; help disseminate information; help establish marketing linkages; and help arrange finance. The idea is to provide all the necessary services, from the preparation of the project report to marketing a product.

Women entrepreneurs have to have a financial stake in their project; the MSSRF has stipulated that the majority of the employees in the units be women. While first-generation entrepreneurs get priority, the selection also depends on the project profile, the cost and so on. Dr. Sudha Nair, Senior Scientist, MSSRF, who is coordinating the biotechnology park project, calls the idea "a prototype" that needs to be adapted throughout the country.

Impressed with the concept as proposed by Dr. Swaminathan, Dr. Manju Sharma, Secretary in the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Union Ministry of Agriculture, who attended the Asia-Pacific meeting in December 1996, requested the MSSRF to prepare a concept paper. In April 1997, the resource group, consisting of the Technology Identification Group (headed by Joseph Thomas of the SPIC Science Foundation) and the business panel, met for the first time.

Sixty-seven of the 200 women who showed interest were shortlisted. By June 1997, project profiles were prepared and technologies identified. The Tamil Nadu Government donated 8 hectares of land at Kelambakkam near Chennai and identified the Tamil Nadu Industries Development Corporation (TIDCO) as the nodal agency.

In July, a core group consisting of financial institutions such as the Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation (TIDCO), the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India Ltd (ICICI) and the Industrial Development Bank of India (IDBI), and institutions such as the Tamil Nadu Women's Development Corporation, the DBT, SPIC, Anna University, the Central Leather Research Institute and the MSSRF was formed. In October, an entrepreneurial development programme was conducted for 33 of the 67 women who were shortlisted. Industrial and Technical Consultancy of Tamil Nadu (ITCOT) was to work out the budgetary details.

The biotechnology park, which is being built at an estimated cost of Rs.10 crores, can house 75 units initially; 75 more will come up later. But, according to Dr. Sudha Nair, the MSSRF plans to start with just 10 units. The projects to be taken up initially will be in the areas of agrobiotech and include tissue culture, floriculture, organic manure, ornamental fishing, vermicomposting and medicinal plants for Ayurvedic formulations; medical biotech, including diagnostic kits, production of collagen-based products for medical, pharmaceutical and cosmetic application, vitamin and mineral premixes to eliminate silent hunger due to micro-nutrient deficiency, and special diets for hospitals; food biotech, including processed and semi-processed foods, extracts of spices and oleoresins, animal and poultry feed and health products; and quality control, including laboratories to test the quality of ingredients in food and cosmetics, and of soil and water. The project costs will vary from Rs.75,000 to Rs.1.25 crores.

The park will become operational by early next year; some women have already set up their units, which they plan to shift to the park once it is ready. For instance, one entrepreneur has started production of iron- and iodine-fortified salt, which is useful in combating "silent hunger" owing to nutritional deficiencies. The Karnataka Government has decided to buy her product. She also proposes to make sweetmeats suitable for diabetics, and oral vaccines.

Another entrepreneur, a computer engineer, started off making protein-coated seeds that are germ-resistant and plans to move onto spices extraction. She has identified the technology and the premises to start the venture, and is looking to avail herself of quality control laboratory facilities at the park.

The entrepreneurs are free to move out of the park whenever they want to, but while they are there the MSSRF expects them to provide jobs to the poor and the downtrodden, to plough back a part of their profits for the expansion of the park, and to be part of the training corps after they have established themselves.

According to Dr. Swaminathan, the park, when fully developed, will have industrial incubation centres, an ultramodern multimedia information complex and quality verification and reference laboratories. Both the Tamil Nadu Government, which donated the land, and the Centre, which has given Rs.4 crores for the project, are keen to make the park a success to showcase it as a model of technological and economic empowerment of women. Union Minister for Human Resource Development and Science and Technology Murli Manohar Joshi said that the project was "a significant step in the technological empowerment of women".

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