The innate strength of individual women has been woven into over a 45million collectives spread across the nation. The Self-Help Groups (SHGs) have been a silent revolution empowering women socially & economically. Research has shown, that for every rupee earned by the woman of the household, 90 per cent is spent on the education, health, nutrition and general wellbeing of the family as against 30-40 per cent by a man, affecting the related Sustainable Development Goals positively. The aspirations have soared from the subsistence of achaar-paapad days to a sustainable state of the art enterprises, as no goal is too big for them to achieve. The coming together of teamwork, risk sharing in an enterprise setting provides an economic pathway for health and nutrition outcomes.
Around 25 per cent of all small shops in the rural areas are Kirana stores that undertake the arduous task of going to the nearby city every week. Most of these stores are owned or co-owned by women. It is unviable for the large corporates to serve this inefficient supply chain due to low volumes. So, the solution comes from where it is most (and least) expected.
Around 40 Kirana store collectives have come up in sub-districts of Bihar that work on the principle collective bargaining and are aptly named Gramin Bazaar; a wholesale unit that interacts with the market on behalf of a collective of Kirana stores to provide better margins.
Since these stores are placed at a sub-district, the woman entrepreneur saves on travel time, cost and gets to buy at a cheaper cost, translating into an average saving of Rs. 2000 per month.
During the lockdown, the resilience and ingenuity of supplying essential items such as rice, aata, daal at pre-COVID prices came to the fore. The women collectives of Gramin Bazaar had developed enough market tie-ups to buy in bulk, and store for longer periods, which enabled them to beat market volatility.
What had also happened over the course of time is that the penetration of spurious products reduced and focus on high-quality products increased, as health and nutrition outcomes took centerstage. Like all entrepreneurs, they had their run-ins with local authorities during stricter times.
Thana area mein bahut sawaal jawaab hota hai, kahan jaana hai, kyun jaana hai (A lot of questions are asked near the local police post, where are you going, why are you going, said Gitanjali Devi, a kirana entrepreneur from Asthawa.
Instead of falling back, the women sought licenses as they were supplying essential items, enabled doorstep deliveries, added sanitizers to the product portfolio while maintaining social distancing norms all through. This not only helped them gain loyalty of their customers, honed their entrepreneurial skills but also saw them gaining higher respect in their family and villages.
While ration under the Public Distribution System (PDS) was reaching the households, the real battle against COVID-19 was being fought elsewhere, in the hospitals. As the health workers worked round the clock and in precarious conditions, there was a silent army that was providing them with the fuel, ensuring there was one less thing to worry about.
‘Didi Ki Rasoi’ are women-owned and operated social enterprises providing quality food in civil hospitals of Bihar. A rigorous selection process of women entrepreneurs that included a relatively higher quantum of equity investment was matched by a one-time support grant from the government of Bihar, initially to test the model. This was an attempt to break the local contracting nexus so that patients could get high-quality food, with prescribed nutrition content in a safe hygienic environment.
The women entrepreneurs started supplying food to inpatients at control rates and to outpatients at market rates, but the expected vibrancy was missing. What happened from thereon was unscripted. The COVID-19 pandemic hit, and these women showed what cricketers would call, class.
With patients coming into quarantine centres any time of the day, there was a juggernaut of cooking schedules that was managed by the didis, all the time dodging the health risk to themselves. Of course, they were provided with PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) kits, followed protocols but they had to battle the social stigma associated with the pandemic in its early days along with an obvious exposure that could have passed on to their families as well. But this did not deter them. Add to it, the longer working hours, inefficient supply chains for raw materials, no freebies, but it did not matter to them as they embodied karma.
Bhaiyya, aap yahin gadda dalwa dijiye, hum canteen mein so jayenge, lekin mareezon ko jab khana chahiye tab denge (Get us a bed here in the canteen itself, we will sleep here but serve patients when they need it), remarked Sanju Devi and Priyanka Devi from Didi Ki Rasoi, Buxar as they left for home after serving quarantined patients through the day.
The experiment had just come to fruition and how. With ten Didi Ki Rasois serving close to 700 in-patients and multiple quarantine centers every day, this model has been recognized by the Chief Minister and a Didi Ki Rasoi would soon be seen in all hospitals of Bihar, serving care, food and the ability to fight.
In the shadow of COVID-19, it is these women-owned enterprises that found their space under the sun and provided a lesson or two in embedding empathy into the very fabric of the enterprise.
(The author works in the field of rural livelihoods, social innovations, and non-farm micro enterprise development in India and works as a consultant with The World Bank and UNDP. Gramin Bazaar and Didi Ki Rasoi are initiatives under the World Bank funded Bihar Transformative Development Project implemented by JEEViKA.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
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