Women on the move

Print edition : June 08, 2002

An emerging 'micro' movement involving mostly poor and vulnerable women is changing Kerala's entrepreneurial reputation.

GOOD business ideas are not hard to come by. Especially, it seems, if one is desperate and poor, and is a woman.

Take the tying of tassels, for instance. Pull bits of threads off the edge of a piece of cloth and tie them into intricate patterns. A tassel is made. It keeps loose threads in check and provides elegance and style. In fact it adds value to an ordinary piece of cloth.

But in Kerala it took a group of 10 desperately poor fisherwomen in coastal Kozhikode to pick up this idea and radically alter their lives. In 13 months, despite the deep-rooted poverty and orthodoxy of their Muslim-majority, fishing neighbourhood, this small group, in the 24-55 age group and belonging to different faiths, have made it a roaring business success.

At a neighbourhood group meeting on the beach sands at Veli in Thiruvanathapuram.-C. RATHEESH KUMAR

The 'Sowhardam Shawl-making Unit', set up at a project cost of Rs.1.40 lakhs, which was met largely with a commercial bank loan and a thrift loan from their neighbourhood group, today buys thousands of metres of cloth and supplies them as tasselled shawls to big textile shops in Kozhikode city and beyond. The unit employs 300 part-time women workers (who work from their homes) as and when business peaks, and pays them as wages the same amount, Rs.3.50 a piece, as the owners themselves. On an average one person works on about 20 shawls a day. After making a loan repayment of Rs.1,500 a month and depositing Rs.500 in a savings account, the 10 women take home a profit of at least Rs.2,000 a month - more during festival seasons - in addition to their own daily wages. Their biggest order so far has been for 10,000 shawls, made from 20,000 metres of cloth. It fetched them Rs.35,000 as wages alone.

Like the nine others in the business, group leader K.T. Remla is therefore the symbol of a life transformed. A few months ago, her family of four was in dire straits, unable to make ends meet with the meagre income that her husband brought from the sea. Today the family is never hungry and lives in a concrete-roof, electrified house. Their elder son, a physically handicapped youth, now runs a petty shop, while the other is a Plus Two student. Her husband has stopped going to the sea and, instead, works with a rice merchant. She herself, like her partners, no longer has to pawn gold ornaments. Her critics in the neighbourhood who branded her as "bad", and pasted nasty posters on walls ridiculing her work as president of the Area Development Society, a corporation ward-level apex body of several neighbourhood groups, have turned admirers. "It has bought a sea change in our lives," she said.

Now business comes to their door and, with that, competition from others who are ready to do the same work for smaller profits. Sowhardam, therefore, is set to diversify into contract-stitching of "ready-made" uniforms for schoolchildren. Work starts at 10 a.m. at Remla's new home, and ends at 6 p.m., before her husband returns from work. In between, they have become a cohesive, happy team of resourceful neighbourhood women with a sharp business sense and a lucrative trade in hand. They have successfully broken the barriers of extreme poverty and social restrictions, and are out to make a difference in their own lives and those of their neighbours.

No men are involved.

POOR women, so far ignored by banks and considered eligible only for anti-poverty doles or charity, are establishing business enterprises in the cities and towns of Kerala, either on their own or in groups of ten.

That they have been able to do so, is the result of a "happening" grassroots-level democratic process that directly addresses their subsistence needs and tries to find solutions for their problems in association with the local bodies. Between 15 and 40 women of a neighbourhood, one from each family, hold weekly meetings to discuss their problems, collect modest amounts as thrift, distribute small loans for personal emergencies or to start income-generating ventures, and bargain jointly for their rights and developmental needs.

Members of such neighbourhood groups (NHGs), who want to enhance their incomes further, are actively encouraged to come up with business ideas, which they can then pursue with other women, either from their own NHG or from similar ones operating elsewhere.

As of March 31, as many as 75,651 NHGs covering 1,459,392 families, had been formed in 700 of the State's 991 panchayats, five tribal areas and all the 58 urban local bodies, including the five corporations and 53 municipalities. All NHGs are not going great guns, but the majority of them meet every week, some others at other regular intervals, and function as 'real' grassroots-level groups linked to the respective panchayat, municipality or corporation.

An indication that these NHGs do function fairly well is the fact that out of the 1,459,392 families in the NHGs, 1,137,161 have started thrift and the accumulated amount so far has crossed Rs.78.4 crores. Once an NHG completes six months of regular functioning, members can avail themselves of thrift loans, at a monthly interest of 2 per cent, and bank loans at standard rates, without collateral. The collection of thrift and the disbursement of small loans have to take place necessarily at the NHG meetings, in the presence of other members. Out of the Rs.78.4 crores, Rs.59.20 crores has been advanced to NHG members as micro-loans.

At the Sowhardam shawl-making unit in coastal Kozhikode, making tassels.-K.G. SANTHOSH

Yet, if the regular meetings of the NHGs and the increasing number of their micro-enterprises have gone largely unnoticed, it can only be because of that invisible divide between the creamy sections of society and the poor and their activities. Even mainstream politicians seem unmindful of the level of participation in the NHGs at the grassroots level.

As on March 31, 943 group enterprises benefiting nearly 10,000 people and 12,219 individual projects supporting as many women and their family members had been established in the 58 urban local bodies. More are on the anvil, including projects in emerging sectors such as information technology, biotechnology, food processing, dairy products, solar cookers, IT education and integrated coconut-processing. As the 10-member micro-enterprises grow in popularity, the availability of credit to them becomes less difficult. The shortcomings and weaknesses of individuals are overcome by the collective responsibility and security offered by the group. Starting one such unit helps women from 10 families. Group ventures have been carefully positioned so as to be 'innovative' and 'need-based'.

Now there are women's groups in Kerala to repair water meters (under the name 'Metro Mermaids'), provide post-natal care, act as couriers and home nurses, make paper bags, hollow bricks, tarpaulin and furniture, construct buildings (women do that in Vadakara), process solid waste, run flour mills and mobile stores, and cultivate paddy. Hotels, catering units, drive-in restaurants and day-care centres are run by them and they do direct marketing and vegetable vending. Some individuals (whose take-home pay averages Rs.15,000 a month) and groups have taken a keen interest in direct marketing: this explains, for instance, why an economy brand of tea marketed half-heartedly by the State Civil Supplies Corporation has seen a sudden spurt in sales. Women's groups also run "mobile" beauty parlours, which do quick-fix jobs at fixed rates, such as Rs.5 for "doing one eyebrow".

Awareness of and access to credit, which had so far eluded the poor, are today becoming a liberating factor for these entrepreneurs. Group responsibility absolves these women of the need to provide collateral for bank loans. In place of property or ornaments, what is offered is "moral collateral". In addition, they can make use of funds from anti-poverty programmes provided as subsidy and delivered through the banks by the local bodies. All they need put in for any enterprise they choose to set up is a tiny "beneficiary contribution", their effort, and skills, which they are taught for free.

THE catalyst behind these ventures is a hand-picked, motivated and surprisingly effective government machinery under the State Poverty Eradication Mission, called 'Kudumbashree' (meaning prosperity for the family) and entrusted with the goal of eradicating poverty in the State by 2008. The programme is implemented with the support of the Central government and institutions such as the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). Women who venture into business are given assistance to find professional partners and credit, trained in the vocation that they choose, and in business, marketing and accounting practices, and then left to themselves to handle their enterprise on their own.

Kudumbashree "lets them hold its hand and escorts them for as long as they want it to", the Mission's Executive Director, T.K. Jose, told Frontline. Kudumbashree programmes, which closely involve the people's and official representatives of the respective corporations, municipalities or panchayats and are implemented through the local bodies, continue to assist the enterprises by helping them find business avenues, making course corrections, and evolving business techniques. Most important, they help the women wade out of poverty and prosper through their own work and resourcefulness.

There is perhaps no better illustration for the effectiveness of this strategy than Technoworld, the IT-based unit in Thiruvananthapuram, established in September 1999 at a project cost of Rs.2.90 lakhs. Assistant District Mission Coordinator (ADMC) M.V. Gopakumar told Frontline that it was one of the first group enterprises set up under Kudumbashree, and hence got good patronage, especially from government departments, because of the Mission's interventions at critical junctures. The 10 women, who were brave enough to start the venture despite the odds, are today the role-models for the Kudumbashree "family".

The unit undertakes data entry, desktop publishing (DTP), web designing and programming - mostly for big-time clients, including government departments. The biggest project so far (worth Rs.15 lakhs) has been the production of ration cards for several districts of the State. In the first year the unit registered a turnover of Rs.30.5 lakhs and in the second, Rs.43.7 lakhs.

The professionalism of the women running it is impressive. Says Rajam, the unit's secretary: "We are yet to start sharing profits despite our circumstances at home, because we felt we must first establish the business well, concentrate on clearing our debts and in creating assets. The three-year loan was repaid quite early - at the rate of Rs.6,800 a month. We have created assets worth Rs.20 lakhs, including 25 computers. We now work in three shifts and provide part-time employment to 35 others, including a few men who do the night shifts. Instead of sharing profits, we take wages for the work done, which is the same for part-time workers. In one shift of five hours, a person can thus make up to Rs.1,500. Every month, each one of us will be able to take home at least Rs.6,000. In addition, we allow ourselves a bonus every year. Last year it was Rs.3,000. It varies for part-timers, depending on the hours they spend for us."

Clones are born every other day, in all districts, yielding the same results. Some have started selling assembled personal computers (PCs). Technoworld has proved that IT is a venture that is genuinely benign to resourceful women entrepreneurs. The skills required are comparatively of a higher order, as are the investments made, the risks involved and the profits made. But several undertakings have been established in the 'low-risk, low-investment' sectors too. Women who own them have fewer skills but still consider the smaller returns from them "life-changing".

In over 30 such micro-enterprises spread over Kozhikode, Malappuram, Ernakulam and Thiruvananthapuram districts that this correspondent visited in the last week of April, investments ranged in the majority of cases from Rs.50,000 to Rs.2.5 lakhs and were higher in the case of a few of them, including some successful IT firms. Each group enterprise has been providing at least Rs.600 to Rs.6,000 (probably more) to every member each month as wages or as profit, even though the majority of the units are in an embryonic stage. All such units are owned, managed and operated by the members themselves.

Throughout Kerala, the partners in these group enterprises who were till the other day generally excluded from banking services, are also proving to be better at loan repayment than other valued customers. Kudumbashree officials claim that the repayment rate is more than 90 per cent. Commercial banks have in fact started describing the beneficiaries in eulogising terms. The chairman of the State-level Bankers' Committee, who is also the General Manager of Canara Bank, V.A.P. Mallan, described the programme as "exemplary". Mallan said: "Kudumbashree takes very good interest in the women they refer to us for loans. The mission ensures that these women are trained well in the enterprise they are out to set up, and carefully monitors each unit's performance after the loan is disbursed. That has made a significant impact in the way banks relate to Kudumbashree beneficiaries."

Such praise is, to a large extent, the result of a Repayment Information System (RIS) developed by Kudumbashree. The RIS allows monitoring at the grassroots level by the mission's State office, of repayments that fall due and immediate intervention by NHGs. Thus under Kudumbashree, 'peer pressure' is made to work not only to obtain credit without collateral for the beneficiaries of micro-enterprises but also to ensure prompt repayment.

However, vestiges of the traditional mindset remain at the ground level. There are bank managers who continue to speak about "less yield and more costs and risks" involved in providing such small loans to a large number of people. And they are still too far away from allowing these women the luxury of working capital or a sustained banking relationship.

Tenacity is a premium quality that is evident in most group members. A cordial group synergy, high levels of motivation and determination, good skills and resourcefulness, bright hopes about the future and a keen business sense were evident in members of all successful group enterprises that this correspondent visited. Where these qualities were lacking, and where technical training and awareness about competition and markets seemed inadequate, the entrepreneurs seemed unsure about their roles.

But then one has to concede that it is into the volatile and harsh world of business that these women, until the other day largely non-entities even in their own homes, are entering into. "In the initial days, many are perplexed about the delay in getting loans and registration certificates and the difficulty in securing working capital and business premises, exhibit a lack of understanding about target markets and competition, and sometimes are generally disoriented in the new roles that they suddenly find themselves in. This, to a lot of women, can be discouraging," E.P. Kunjabdulla, the ADMC for Malappuram district, said.

The ADMC added said that in many places in the Muslim-dominated Malappuram district and some other areas in north Kerala, the impact of the programme should be seen in the context of the (religious) conservatism and the poverty that prevailed in certain pockets. "I have several uncomfortable experiences of trying to explain the need to join NHGs to rural Muslim women, who would only sit behind a wall, if at all we were allowed to conduct a meeting in their neighbourhoods. But we invariably get the message across. My favourite weapon is to quote the Koran to explain why women can indeed become entrepreneurs," he said.

"But such experiences coexist with the widespread influence of progressive movements that have made drastic changes in our society," said the ADMC for Kozhikode, K.M. Nejma, who is a college teacher now on deputation to Kudumbashree.

According to Project Officer K. Krishna Kumar, some entrepreneurs need only guidance, while others require a lot of assistance - to find working capital, ensure quality in production, marketing and accounting, diversification and sometimes even in making out whether they are making profit or running at a loss. The mission arranges regular training sessions for new entrepreneurs with the help of the Ahmedabad-based Entrepreneurship Development Institute of India.

T.K. Jose claims that the Kudum-bashree programme is one of its kind in the country in terms of quality, variety and the firmness in the monitoring and evaluation of units. "The aim of the programme is not merely to increase the income of poor women but to improve their level of confidence, awareness, access to information, ability to make use of government services and programmes, and interpersonal skills, especially the capability to express themselves," he said.

There is criticism that the Poverty Eradication Mission helps only the skilled and the capable among the poor. But Jose says that the poverty eradication programmes in the past had ignored the fact that unless the beneficiaries are trained in the technical, operational and managerial aspects of the activity they are expected to start, the purpose of giving credit fails. So Kudumbashree selects its beneficiaries and then gives them training and credit to run sustainable ventures. It is not a programme that merely distributes doles.

However, he says, the present programme will be unable to reach destitutes and the most marginal population - the bottom 5-6 per cent of Below Poverty Line (BPL) families - because "all poor people are not enterprising and cannot take up self-employment ventures." Such people, according to him, need more support from society and the government.

The Kerala government had decided to extend the programme to the entire State from April 1, so as to include the 291 panchayats that had been left out initially. This would enable more rural areas to come under Kudumbashree. But this poses many challenges. Monetary and human resources are going to be spread thin, as the mission tries to extend its activities even as it tries to sustain and nurture the existing ones. The target is to bring a whopping 20 lakh BPL families to above the poverty line by 2008. According to Jose, a diversity of human problems call for individual attention by the mission. Resource mobilisation offers its own problems. A variety of players, including political parties, NGOs and various government departments and agencies, have to be brought to a common platform to share a common vision.

At every NHG or enterprise or at the office of Kudumbashree, the question is how to sustain the budding movement and save it from the vicissitudes of local and State politics and bureaucratic transfers. As of now, there is no mechanism to ensure that the NHGs, their thrift and credit operations, and the needs of budding micro-enterprises will continue to be looked after as efficiently as now. The fate of the gram sabhas, which have been in a state of stagnation for more than two years under the decentralised panchayati raj system, is a discouraging example. But what could be a countering influence is the appeal of the thrift and credit programmes that is ingrained in NHG activities.

Kudumbashree officials insist that what has been achieved can in no way be described as remarkable. The numbers of families covered and the neighbourhood groups and micro-enterprises formed are too small when seen against the number of families that are yet to be reached. Poverty eradication is not an easy task. But the hundreds of women who have secured a sustainable, profitable livelihood through the Kudumbashree programme will hesitate to agree.

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