“There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.”
– Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General.
Looking at the number of women entrepreneurs in India, it is hard to believe that women constitute nearly half of the country’s population. In the hinterlands of the country, women are grossly under-represented in small business, though they continue to supply a majority of labour in areas like agriculture and cottage industries.
Over the past decades, though, a new trend is beginning to emerge. In the Tera Sapam Leirak village in Imphal West district, Manipur, a group of 12 women are heralding change. These women, formed a Self Help Group (SHG) with the help of SEVA (Self Employment Voluntary Association), an NGO in Manipur that is dedicated to empowering local communities.
These 12 women weavers have come together to address a fundamental problem in the handloom industry: middlemen. Very little of the money that affluent, middle-class consumers pay for handmade sarees, chunnis or mekhlas (a traditional Manipuri wrap or skirt) actually reaches the weavers. Even today, many weavers — an overwhelming number of whom are women — continue to make a pittance, paid to them by middlemen who source their products in bulk.
The problem here is one of last-mile connectivity, and these 12 women in a remote village in Manipur arrived at an elegant solution: they would sell to their consumers directly.
It is one thing to weave cloth, another ball game entirely to market and sell it. Through SEVA’s workshops and training sessions, the weavers were introduced to the basics of finance, marketing, and product development. These women, empowered by knowledge, started their enterprise, but faced a big problem: credit.
The problem of financial inclusion for small enterprises in rural areas is well documented, but for 12 women weavers with no collateral, credit history and no prior experience of running a business, the prospect was truly bleak. That is when our social investors came into the picture.
Four micro venture loans provided by Rang De’s social investors allowed the women of the 12 Star SHG to procure raw materials and start the production process in earnest. Today, the group has secured a number of bulk orders through tie-ups with local schools and colleges. They women have made arrangements for a common workspace and even opened an outlet to display the handloom products, the precious fruits of their labour, completely eliminating the middle men in the process.
“As a group, we share our happiness and sorrows all together. During our group meetings, we try to learn new skills from each other and even try to address the problems of every group member”, one of the women said.
This is perhaps the most engaging aspect of the model adopted by the 12-Star SHG. It not only fuels productivity using improved methods but also inculcates self-reliance as a way of business.
The SHG operates on the principle of a cooperative; profits are divided equally between the members, the group also saves a fixed amount of their earnings, maintaining a contingency fund for unforeseen circumstances.
“We encourage all the group members to actively save and at the same time, follow the rules that are set.” says Susila Devi, the current treasurer of the group “This will not only make each team member grow stronger but will also help in the development of the group”
The path has been long and hard, but with a cultural environment that is arrayed against women taking up positions of power in public spaces, the success of the 12-STAR SHG group is heartening. We hope the group enjoys continued success and that the tribe of financially empowered, independent women continues to grow.
To make enquiries about the products of the 12 Star SHG, please contact 8794580037.
Rang De is a not-for-profit funded by Tata Trusts, working to fight poverty by providing small loans to underserved communities in India. Join the 12,000+ strong Rang De family and make your first social investment here.