The Kudumbashree Story

Women Empowerment

Micro Enterprises

This section concerns with the enterprises that individuals or groups have formed availing support of various kinds from Kudumbashree. These are different from the special enterprises as the entrepreneurs come up with business ideas and set up their units, without a standard design or method.

Micro enterprises have been promoted on a large scale within the Kudumbashree network. By January 2016, there were 13,829 micro enterprises in production, 5316 in services, 422 in trading, and 3922 in sales and marketing.

Spread of Micro Enterprises (As of January 2016)

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The following stories are meant to provide an understanding on the nature and diversity of micro enterprises in the Kudumbashree network.

Thejas, Ambalavayal

Thejas is a micro enterprise producing various products out of banana fibre. It was a group of ten women from Ambalavayal in Wayanad that started the enterprise. This was an example of women, pushed back to the wall by the general crisis of a region’s economy, having felt the manifestations of the crisis through their own experiences, moving forward and finding a new opportunity for themselves.

Wayanad had been in the grip of a punishing farming crisis for several years. This was the district from where farmer suicides were reported in Kerala. These women, who used to do farming on leased land to make a living faced a serious setback when their crops were affected by some new types of diseases for which they had no solution with them.

Ten women from different neighbourhood groups came together and formed a group encouraged by Kudumabshree CDS. The CDS facilitated a training at KrishiVigyan Kendra, Ambalavayal. The centre trained them in processing of banana fibre and in making different products out of it. The training also included a component on paper bag making.

With a small investment of Rs 25,000, the group started working from their homes as they could not afford to hire a space for work. They get banana stem from the fields of Wayanad, which is famous for widespread banana cultivation, extract the fibre, process it, and make products. When the first set of bags sold out easily at Kudumbashree’s monthly fair, the women saw the demand for such products. This was a matter of encouragement to them.

The group appeared to have strengths in diversifying their portfolio. Umbrella production is an example. The secretary of the group Mallik knew umbrella making; she trained other members and the group started making umbrellas too.

Raw material procurement has been a challenge for the unit. Banana stems are available, even though the physical efforts required in handling them is substantial. The problem has been with other raw materials, which were not easily available in a place like Ambalavayal. Finding regular customers to buy banana fibre products on a sustainable basis was also a problem. These products are usually sold to special category of customers who value such products.

Greens Canteen at Perinthalmanna Municipality

When she heard that Perinthalmanna municipality was looking for takers for a canteen at the municipal office premises, Saraswathi, the then ADS chairperson of the ward saw an opportunity in it. She discussed the possibility of forming a women’s group to start a canteen in her Kudumbashree circles. The response was encouraging. However, when it came to forming the group, it turned out to be tough. Women who agreed initially withdrew citing objections to it from their family members.

It took several months of effort, convincing women and their family members, to form the ‘Greens’ group. The group had ten women to start with but two women withdrew later. The group took a bank loan of Rs 1 lakh; each woman put in Rs 1000 each as their own contribution. The municipal council offered them a subsidy of Rs one lakh. The started the canteen.

They faced an initial setback when they suffered losses at the early stage; this was mainly due to their lack of experience in running such an enterprise. Kudumbashree encouraged them and provided them training. After three rounds of training programmes, the women not only gained confidence, they also developed systems ensuring redundancy; even if four women were absent on a given day, the canteen would function without any serious problem.

True to Kudumbashree’s philosophy in micro enterprises, the eight women members of the group worked as employers, managers, and employees at the canteen. They have been managing all the activities from procurement to cleaning of the premises on their own without relying on external resources. This added to their earnings; they were able to overcome the shock caused by the early losses, and stabilised in operations making regular repayment of the bank loan.

Over a short period, the Greens Canteen caught the attention of several women and groups in the Kudumbashree network. The members of Greens, who had lives limited within their households in the past, traveling places attending training programmes and sharing their experiences, leading to several similar ventures coming up in various parts of the State. They were quite vocal while explaining the new awareness, knowledge, and confidence that they had gained through their group and its enterprise.

Alankar Cloth Bag Unit, Amachal

Some of the Kudumbashree enterprises engaged in production of bags using cloth and natural materials responded to the government initiatives to control plastic bags during 2000s in Kerala. While the government steps were based on the increasing awareness on the perils of plastic waste, these women found it as an opportunity to promote their products. Alankar cloth bag unit in Amachal in Thiruvananthapuram district is an example.

Girija, the group leader, already had experience in working with a group engaged in buying and retailing groceries in the village. When she came to know about the Grama Panchayat organising training for women in cloth bag making, she thought of using that opportunity. She took initiative in forming a group of ten women, which was the basic requirement for availing training under the scheme, by drawing in two women each from five neighbourhood groups.

The ten women attended the five-day training programme held at Kozhikkode. That three women in the group already knew tailoring worked towards their advantage. After the training programme, these three women trained others also in tailoring. Thus nine members in the group developed adequate skills in stitching of bags; one member was given the responsibility of office management.

The group started the enterprise with an investment of Rs 2.5 lakh of which 50% was a bank loan and the rest was subsidy. Overcoming the early challenges of a fledgling enterprise, the increased production and sales. Supplying delegates’ shoulder bags to the eleventh International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) made their bags reach several parts of the country and the world and provided them enormous publicity. Use of Alankar’s bag for a seminar organised by Women’s Commission of the State also gave them visibility.

Their mode of operation is peculiar. As nine women are engaged in the processes of bag making, the order for supply is divided among them. The tenth woman plays her facilitation role including ensuring collection of money. When the production and supply of a batch of bags are completed, they discuss the accounts, kept by the member in charge of office management. The margin from the batch, after providing for any expenses of the unit, is shared equally among the ten members.

The members of the group engaged not only for the bag business. The group also worked as team of friends; they organise travels and pilgrimage for themselves when they have time and resources. Such activities added to the cohesion and collective spirit of the group.

Sreekrishna Coconut Oil Unit, Pathiyoor

Virgin coconut oil, made by heating coconut milk, used to be a household product in Kerala. Virgin coconut oil is considered as having numerous medicinal qualities, especially in curing various skin diseases. Even though the process of making virgin coconut oil is simple, this product has over the years disappeared from Kerala’s homes. It became more like a product of the last generation.

Being a product of the last generation does not necessarily mean that it may not have uses for the current generation. Changes in lifestyles and cooking habits could lead to a situation where people do not make a product at home anymore; yet they might be aware of the usefulness of the product. This was the logic that led a group of 20 women in Pathiyoor in Alappuzha district venture into an enterprise for making virgin coconut oil.

The group, called Sreekrishna, buys coconuts on their own. The group does all the preparatory activities such a de-husking coconuts, and cutting them open for grating. Coconut milk is extracted by squeezing grated coconut. It is by heating coconut milk that virgin coconut oil is produced. The group started with the capacity to produce 75 litres of oil per month.

As the process indicates, this business could sustain only through the proper utilisation of several parts of the coconut other than the grated part that is used for producing milk. The remaining dry coconut after extracting milk is also useful. Two coconuts of average size can yield 100g of virgin coconut oil. However, putting to use all the different parts of the coconut including the dry coconut after milk extraction can add significant value. According to Leela, who is the secretary of the group and also the CDS chairperson, the total value of all the products could be almost three times the average price of a coconut.

The group started the sale of coconut oil through ‘Vanitha Fed’. The by-products that the group made while drawing from the traditional cooking practices of Kerala, were aimed at new opportunities emerging out of the present life styles. For instance, the dry coconut that remains after extracting milk was used to make the masala mix for ‘theeyal’, a traditional vegetable preparation used across Kerala. The masala mix is aimed at the new age customers who do not have the time to make the mix at home by frying the coconut and grinding it. The group’s theeyal mix had even reached Gulf countries through local contacts.

Other products that the group produced included dry chutney, another traditional side dish in Kerala, fried coconut for use various uses, and a few types of biscuits. In addition, the group also sold the coconut husk, which is used for extracting coconut fibre, and coconut shell, used for charcoal production as well as in handicrafts directly without any processing.

The group has established backward linkage for coconut supply with another Kudumbashree group that is into local trade of coconuts. The group had hired an unused building for storing coconuts. Once a consignment reaches the unit, it is divided in equal numbers among the 20 women for processing. This ensures comparable inputs from all members. After expenses, the margin is also shared equally among members.

The major challenge the unit faces were (1) in marketing, where they had to find more and more buyers as there was no immediate limit on capacity, and (2) in managing supply of raw material, given the fluctuating prices and the changing fortunes of coconut cultivation in the area.

People Curry Powder Unit, Vettikkavala

People is a group of five women engaged in production and sales of spices. The group is in Vettikkavala Gram Panchayat in Kollam district. The group was formed from Chaithanya Kudumbashree neighbourhood group. The NHG had 15 members of which 10 were engaged in cashew nut peeling in local factories. The five women who were not employed came together under the leadership of the NHG and started the spices business.

The business model was simple. They bought red chillies, coriander, saffron, fenugreek, and cumin from the local market. They cleaned these and got them ground in the local flour mill. They packed the powder in plastic covers bearing the brand name ‘People’. Selling was done by the group members themselves; they sell the products to local retail shops as well as to households. Family members including children also contribute in selling by taking away packets of spice powders for their friends or teachers.

The main challenge faced by units producing and selling spice powders has been the price of the raw materials. Buying the spices from the local market puts these groups at a disadvantage vis-à-vis larger brands, which do bulk procurement from major production and trade centres. For instance, large companies buy chillies in bulk during harvest from Guntur in Andhra Pradesh, and saffron from Maduarai market. Bulk purchase as well as storing large quantities of the raw materials is what adds to their profit.

Thejas Ornaments Unit, Pallippuram

Can there be a market in a society obsessed with gold, for ornaments made out of alternative materials? Years back, a private company is Kollam ventured into the market by launching one-gram gold plated ornaments. The company made headway by selling ornaments that were plated with one gram gold. These ornaments looked like gold ornaments and catered to the same market that bought gold ornaments.

Thejas, a group of ten women of Pallippuram gram panchayat in Ernakulam district had a different idea. According to them, nothing could replace gold ornaments on a wedding day. However, people might be open to wearing ornaments made out of alternative materials on other occasions; such ornaments also had the advantage of matching with the colours of dresses, bags etc.

The gram panchayat arranged for a training programme for these women in ornament making at a private production centre. The one-month rigorous training helped these women in understanding the various aspects of ornament making; they developed adequate skills to start own production.

The group started production with a meagre investment drawing in Rs 1500 each from the members. They started by producing necklaces, rings, and earrings. They bought raw materials from a wholesale shop in Ernakulam town. Typical purchase volume during early days was of Rs 5000 per consignment. Once bought, they divided the raw materials equally among members.

Making each ornament takes different duration or time; for instance, women were able to make a necklace in an hour. The entire production process was by hand; they did not have any machinery. How they managed production was by assembling at the house of one of the members in the afternoon every day and discussed the day’s work. They took cues on design from the ornaments worn by their friends. They typically spent for hours together at one of the houses and made ornaments.

The early batches had earrings priced from Rs 20 per pair and necklaces in the price range of Rs 100 to Rs 300. Sales were mainly through monthly markets organised by Kudumbashree, even though they were ready to take up production against bulk orders placed in advance.

These kind of units faced a number of challenges. Bringing in new designs and developing the group’s skills in making ornaments of those new designs would be the primary challenge. Finding regular buyers and ensuring steady supplies and recovery of money against supplies would be other challenges.

Fibre Mat Production in Thazhava

Toponymy has it that the village of Thazhava in Kollam district got its name from the widespread presence of screw-pines there. Screw pines were called Thazha and Kaitha in local parlance. Mats and beddings made out of screw-pine fibre reached various places in the State from Thazhava. The village has a sizeable population traditionally engaged in the production of mats and beddings as a household industry.

Over the years, the mat production is Thazhava also met with the same fate as many of the other traditional industries. Mat weaving ceased to be a viable option for livelihood; people from new generation stopped picking up weaving techniques. Still production continued and products kept reaching even foreign countries. But the weavers did not benefit much for two reasons. One, production became increasingly expensive with scarcity of screw-pine rising transportation cost. Two, weavers did not have any control over markets or the marketing process.

This was the context in which Mahima Handicrafts Unit was set up in Thazhava. Under the leadership of Suja, nine more women with experience in mat weaving came together. These women used to weave mats at their homes; when the unit was set up they moved to a rented building and started working together. These women have now got skills and knowledge on all aspects of handicraft production using screw-pine fibre. Suja first attended a training programme on scientific methods in the production of mats and other products including colour dying conducted by a central agency at Kodungallur. Subsequently all the members of the group got training from Kudumbashree.

Now into the fourth year of their enterprise, they have gained enough knowledge and confidence to impart training to other groups. Mahima has diversified its product portfolio to include various types of bags, hats, pencil box, slippers, mobile phone stand, table mats, flower vases, ornament boxes, cushion covers, and file folders. They are able to price their products properly and earn reasonably good margins.

The women in the group do all the operations from sourcing the screw-pine leaves to marketing. Processing is a laborious process involving trimming them removing the thorny edges, boiling and drying. Developing the designs and weaving are the creative part of the work. They also carry their products on their own to trade fairs at different places. The products are regularly sold twice a week at a local market place. They also send lots of 50-60 mats by courier against orders to various places. Mahima products are available at various retails outlets in different districts. They also send large size fibre boxes for export.

The challenge that the group faces now is to continue innovations and expanding product portfolio to include more useful products on the one hand and gaining more effective control over marketing on the other. Commission agents handle the products at various points in the value chain, including for exports. The women have been looking for avenues for marketing directly to end customers.

Ornamental Fish in Vaikom

Kottayama district Kudumbashree mission embarked on a novel initiative in TV Puram and Udayanapuram gram panchayats in Vaikom block of Kottayam district. The mission has launched homestead based ornamental fishing in the area, leveraging on the traditional knowledge and practices that existed among the villages of these panchayats, which are bordered by the Vembanad Lake.

The area has a tradition of fish rearing; people have always been engaged in activities relating to fishing and fish culture. Most of the households in the area have their homestead ponds where they grow fish. This is the context in which the district mission thought of a project that would transcend the traditional approaches in fish culture and related practices. The district mission, in its approach paper to the project had stated that they had a vision that went beyond the traditional practices of fishing and fish processing; a vision that addressed the potential for the sector in development of tourism and creating new employment opportunities.

The response had been encouraging; tens of families from the two gram panchayats came forward to take up ornamental fish culture. Children were the biggest enthusiasts. Each household kept seven tanks for different fish species such as Platy, Guppy, Soretail, and Black Molly. Gold fish was also kept during May and June. Each household had four concrete ring tanks and three polythene tanks each, totalling seven units. Every morning the new fingerlings are transferred to a different tank. The fingerlings can be sold off once they are one to one and a half month old.

There would be 200-600 fingerlings to be transferred every day. Transferring is a process to be handled punctually and carefully. In the Vaikom project, the district mission had deployed a person for linking with the traders in Kochi. In the early months after starting the project, a household was able to earn as much as Rs 600 per week from selling fingerlings.

Even though fish culture is done at household level, five families were pooled together to form groups. For a group of five families, the investment needed was Rs 75,000, which included a loan, a subsidy component, and beneficiary contribution. Matsyafed had provided support by supplying fish feed to the farmers and also by training them in the preparation of fish feed.

Sreelakshmi Restaurant, Valiyaparamba, Kasaragod

The six women who run Sreelakshim restaurant in Valiyaparamba has an interesting story tell.

Valiyaparamba is a picturesque island on the southern tip of Kasaragod district. It is surrounded by Kavvayi Lake, part of Thejaswini River on the one side and the sea on others. Their mode of transportation to the mainland has been traditional plank canoes. Valiyaparamba is a long stretch of 24 kilometres length. It’s a single building that houses its panchayat office, agricultural office, and veterinary clinic. ‘Sreelakshi Hotel’ is located in these premises. The unit is run by a group of six women led by Mridula.

The first attempt to set up a restaurant in the locality was in 2003, but it failed. The women, however, were not willing to give up. When the restaurant project failed to take off, they took up supplying tea and snacks to the panchayat office as per requirement. During this period, the group gained further motivation from the stories of successful café experiments under the Kudumbashree network across the State.

The group succeeded in their second attempt. The again opened a restaurant selling tea and snacks breakfast in the morning, fish curry and rice for lunch, and tea and snacks in the afternoons. In addition, they supply food and beverages as per orders for the government programmes held in the panchayat.

During the second attempt, the group experimented with new management practices and techniques too. They could improve to a state where any two members could run the show on any given day. This provides a lot of leverage for the group in taking up additional catering assignments.

By July 2006, they were able to buy three cents of land and building their own space for housing the restaurant. While doing well in their current enterprise, the women had an eye on emerging opportunities through the promotion of tourism in Valiyaparamba.

Drive-in Restaurant at Edappally

The drive-in restaurant at Edappally, the first successful Kudumbashree initiative in tourism sector, marked the collaboration of two social movements – Milma, the apex federation of Kerala’s Anand pattern dairy cooperatives built the space for it; an activity group from the Kudumbashree network set up the restaurant.

Built aside the national highway between Edappally and Ernakulam, the construction was ideal for an eatery meant for tourists. Milma constructed the facility as a set of seven umbrella-shaped canopies raised on individual pillars. The eating places are below these umbrellas.

Place was ideal; however, the Kudumbashree group led by SanthaThirumeni won the facility on rent through open tender. The rent was high as per the standards those days. Rs 32,000 per month as rent was considered unviable. After winning the bid competing against some of the big players from Kochi, these women were determined to make it a success.

The group members underwent three months rigorous training programme at the largest catering training centre in the region. The women developed good understanding on the conceptual and practical aspects of professional restaurant management through the training programme.

In spite of all these preparations, Kudumbashree’s Ernakulam district mission had apprehensions about the viability of the project. These apprehensions were not baseless. The women members of the group were from some of the poorest families in the area. Though educated, whether they would be able to handle tourists coming in from different States of the country as well as from other countries was a big question. At the beginning of the project, it was not easy to conceive a situation where these poor women would handle customers of all hues with professional hospitality and services.

The women went beyond expectations and made the restaurant a success. The comments entered by different types of visitors in the diary kept at the restaurant bear testimony to the success that these women achieved.

A Sculptor in Payyannur

The story of Payyannur’sBabu, is an example of a man and his family benefitting from the Kudumbashree network, and in turn the network gaining from their contributions.

Babu, a gifted sculptor from Payyannur used to earn a living my making ornamental umbrellas used with Theyyam performances in the region for which Payyannur is famous for. Babu used to make umbrelllas and give them on rent to temple festivals also. As years passed and family expenses increased, the earnings from these became insufficient to meet the ends.

By this time Babu had trained in sculpting with various materials including fibre and pulp as well as bronze. It was lack of resources to invest in a sculpting unit that prevented him from starting a business out of his talent.

Kudumbashree, knowing about the situation from Babu’s wife who was a Kudumbashree member, supported him in availing a bank loan of Rs 30,000. He established a sculpting and craft enterprise with this money, which the family members joined together in managing.

Later Kudumbashree availed Babu’s services as trainer to train ten women members in making fibre sculptures as part of the skill upgradation programme under SJSRY.

Leena Detergents, Thodupuzha

As one of the early enterprises that attempted production and marketing of hand-made detergents, Leena group in Thodupuzha had to cross numerous hurdles to set up their enterprise and make it operational.

The first attempt was under the DWCUA scheme in 1998-99. The women went for a one-day training programme in detergent making to Malanad Social Welfare Society in Kanjirappally. Even though the training was good, it did not help gain adequate confidence to start an enterprise.

Then these women applied for another training programme conducted by Khadi and Village Industries Board at Nadathara, Thrissur. Even though all of them wanted to be trained, only two among them got selection. Two women underwent month-long training programme at KVIB.

Getting a bank loan was the next hurdle; it took four months for them, after the KVIB training to get a loan sanctioned from Syndicate Bank, Thodupuzha. By the time they got the loan, the group had completed a full year after its formation, with no activity other than training and trying hard for the bank loan.

Once they got the loan, the group started work, produced detergent and sold through small retail outlets in the area. The group doubled their sales by initiating direct to home sales also. Then they diversified their product portfolio. Further, they started taking up sales of other products too through their direct to home sales.

Step by step, the group work towards a steady growth of their enterprise.