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“It is because we want to learn new things”

Photo Essay

By Roohi Patel

Photographs by Roohi Patel

In Aarsilingi village in Gajapati district of Odisha, three self-help groups of tribal women are launching a new soap brand, Angai.

“Everything being said, why do you want to keep running this business?”, we asked the women from the Self Help Group during our orientation meeting. She replied, “It is because we want to learn new things.” If only I could translate the context in which she said it. I could sense that running a business on such a scale gave them confidence and that was why they wanted to do it.

Why did I want to work with these women? Was it because I thought that they were in a helpless situation and I must help them. No. It was something else. Whoever was with me that day saw the excitement on my face as soon as I entered the room! Back home, I ran a handmade jewellery business with a partner. I learnt a lot of things at every step. This is where I connected with the women.

Moreover, for all the time that we spoke, never once did they mention that they would like to discontinue their activities because of fewer sales in the market. It was clear that they wanted to go forward and make it better. This is exactly where the connection happened and I decided that these will be my Didis for the upcoming year. And that’s how it all began.

The Angai Women wearing their best smiles outside their ‘Sabun Room’ as they call it. Photograph by Roohi Patel.

Hello! I am Roohi Patel, an SBI Youth For India Fellow at Gram Vikas. I am interested in Livelihoods and I currently work with three Self Help Groups (SHGs) in a tribal village Aarsilingi in Gajapati district of Odisha. As fellows, we spend a period of 13 months in rural India and work on development projects, which are sustainable and feasible. I support these SHGs to create market linkages for their Soap Producing Company, Angai. I like to use the word support because the women know it all but need an extra hand in speeding up the process.

Aarsilingi is one of the model villages where tremendous work has been done by Gram Vikas. Projects ranging from support in carrying out cashew cultivation to the introduction of toilets and bathrooms to livelihoods projects. More than the infrastructural change, Gram Vikas’ contribution to this village has brought about a behavioural change among the people. Why I think a lot of it brought success is because the community has come together in support of all the initiatives taken by Gram Vikas. And, currently, I am witnessing the same thing as I go ahead with my project.

Ready to go to the market

It is unusual that three SHGs i.e. 33 women together run the business. Registered as a Soap Producer Company, each of them has an equal share in the decision-making process of the business. From making the soap to packaging it, each woman contributes in at least one task, therefore, is an important stakeholder of the company.

So far, this journey of the past five months has been a bittersweet one! There have been times where I have found happiness in the smallest of the things. When I came to Koinpur ( my accommodation location), I took time to understand the culture, geography, trade and commerce. After getting the gist of it, I tried to convince the Didis from the SHGs to sell their produce at the local ‘haatos’ which are organised on a weekly basis. I thought it would be a great opportunity for the company to create a market presence. I proposed this idea to them in a meeting and came back disappointed as no one agreed. Some felt shy and some had farming work to finish.

Next morning, to my surprise, I found two women from Aarsilingi waiting with a box of soaps ready to go to the market. That day, we sold 38 out of 50 soaps. This was something that had never happened before. For me, this was step one out of the many more to come. I went back to my room with a wide smile on my face.

What made me happier was that in just a day, they had realised their power to make money and that they did not need to depend on anyone. This was all the motivation they needed to continue. The group made the meetings a regular affair to decide who will go next to the market.

More confident than before 

Past five months been enriching. When we are placed as fellows in remote locations, we tend to have preconceived notions on accounts of our urban upbringing and education. Consequently, we think of ourselves as privileged and everyone else as deprived. My time here has been everything but this for me. There have been positive outcomes because I tried to ‘work’ with my Didis instead of ‘helping’. I have learnt to accept that they have been here all their lives and that they certainly know it better than me.

Moreover, working with them has made me realise that they aren’t just working to earn extra money for themselves. Rather, they feel a sense of empowerment while doing so. No doubts, there are moments when the ladies still feel shy to go to markets. But there are also moments where they have proven to be more confident than they were before.

As I go ahead on this journey, I wish to learn more from them. I wish to become a part of their community. I wish that we succeed in doing what we plan for in the upcoming year. Nothing would make me happier than to see them independently running their business.

 

The women of Angai. Photograph by Roohi Patel.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

My heartfelt thanks to the women of Angai.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Roohi Patel is an SBI Youth for India Fellow with Gram Vikas and an aspiring social entrepreneur.

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