Adolescent girls take the leap
Growing up has acquired a different meaning and value for many adolescent girls across Gujarat who are involved in neem seed collection for the Neem project. The project has lent a sense of ambition, confidence and expanded their horizon on their future possibility. The project has also given them a grounding in the value of skill development, education and financial literacy.
Adolescent girls from different villages across the districts of Kutch, Gandhinagar, Patan, Bharuch and Banaskantha are getting involved in seed collection in increasing numbers. Most of these girls have studied only till standard VIII and this is their first foray into earning for a living. Social norms and family circumstances have forced a lot of these girls to drop out of the formal education system.
What started initially as an experiment and recreational activity has in the last two years matured into a fully-fledged economic activity wherein the girls earn a steady income for the two months which constitute neem seed collection season. Encouraged by the income that the activity generated in the first year of operation (2015-16), the girls now hire a small van to travel to other villages and their vicinities to collect more neem seeds, thereby earning more income.
Their stories are full of hope and ambition. Nitishaben mentions how she wants to continue with this project and is involving her friends in it too, because of the benefits. She sees the value in skilled labour and is very keen on taking the next leap towards getting trained in a particular skill because she sees the empowerment that it has brought to her.
Many adolescent girls are saving money to pay for the education of their siblings so they do not have to drop out of school and indulging, some say for the first time, in personal luxuries of buying jewellery and accessories.
A story of empowerment
The path is narrow and clean, lined with lush Neem trees. There are bricks and sacks of cement stacked along the way. As we walk along, a beaming Kanchanben, a woman of around 35, points out towards the bricks and cement and tells us with an unmistakable sense of pride that she bought it this year to repair the walls of her house with the money she earned through Neem seed collection. There is a sense of confidence, and a sense of hope and optimism in her tone. Next year, she tells us, she plans to earn more through seed collection so she can pay for her daughter’s senior secondary education. She has already started discussions with neighbourhood women and GNFC officials on ways to optimise collection in 2017.
A UNDP impact assessment study conducted on the Neem Project, reports that women involved in the project have stated that they exert greater decisions making powers in household decisions and financial control over their own earnings and assets that they buy/repair. This has given rise to a sense of empowerment among the women.
Kanchanben earned about seven thousand rupees in May-June this year by collecting and selling neem seeds to GNFC as part of the Neem Project. “This is a dependable and conformable source of income. We all want to be more involved in this. The project is becoming increasingly popular. Last year, when this project was launched in the village only 50 women were involved. This year, because of the nature of work and the money it helps us earn, 200 women have joined by their own accord. Nearly all the womenfolk in our village are now part of this project,” she says.
Unlocking the untapped entrepreneurial spirits of women in rural Gujarat
The Neem project has given rise to dreams and aspirations and fuelled the entrepreneurial spirit of many women in Gujarat. Currently different models have been established to maximise income through the livelihood opportunity that the project offers.
Maltiben Choudhary, from Pratappura village, Kalol in Gandhinagar District, Gujarat has been on the forefront of leading initiatives for women in her village. When the Neem project was announced and explained to her and other women in the village they decided instantly that this was a project that they wanted to be involved in.
Maltiben and other women from her Sakhi Mandali got together the next day and spoke to the labourers who work on the fields. They explained the project to them and the economic potential it holds. The labourers during seed collection season now collect the seeds from the land belonging to the women and their families in the Pratappura. In addition they also collect neem seeds from their own villages are nearby vicinities and sell it at the Village Level Collection Centre (VLCC).
Maltiben and the Sakhi Mandal members are the nodal persons for the project and are the go-between for GNFC and the seed collectors. They take a commission on a per kilogram of neem seed that is sold at the VLCC. On an average the Sakhi Mandal members are earning around INR 8000 a month during seed collection time.
From making soap to making dreams come true
Laxmiben Vaghela, a middle-aged woman from Umdad village in Bharuch, Gujarat speaks confidently about her aspirations and future plans. She wants to send her children to private school so they can, in her words ‘shine in life’. She admits these were things she wished for before but didn’t quite hope for because of financial issues. Educated only till standard VIII, Laxmiben used to sometimes work on an ad-hoc basis depending on the financial need at home. Her husband, hitherto the only breadwinner in the family is a daily wage labourer. “While some months are comfortable, we have also seen some very lean times.” This she says is now a thing of the past.
Today Laxmiben holds a day job as a skilled Neem soap manufacturer. She is iṇvolved in manufacturing Neem soap for GNFC in the plant set up by the company and earns a steady income of around INR 8000 a month. This has opened quite a few opportunities for her
In continuing with its focus to generate empowerment for the rural poor, especially women, GNFC has trained women volunteers from villages peripheral to its Bharuch plant, in Neem soap manufacturing. This weaves in with the company’s forward integration model of diversifying its product portfolio of neem oil based products. The company approached Sakhi Mandalis involved in Neem seed collection with the proposal that they would be trained by incumbent soap manufacturers in soap making. The rationale was to magnify the socio-economic benefits by involving SHGs in making the soap end-to-end instead of selling the Neem oil to incumbent producers, and/or outsourcing the product manufacturing.
The women workforce will earn around INR 200 a day for the entire year that the factory will be in operation and beyond. A steady income of INR 6000/- is a great relief for all them as they dreamily narrate their aspirations and plans. This doubles the household income, which currently stands at around INR 6000-8000 for a five-member household.