by Lesley D. Biswas
Anjali Das, an elderly woman, sits in her bright yellow Bou cart at a strategic road crossing in Salt Lake City, Kolkata. She is selling hand packed edibles, spices, jute handicrafts, dry fruit, and colorful dry flowers. She earns a little over $3 a day; yet despite her meager income, she is still smiling.
“Now my husband respects me and I have a say in the family’s decision making process,” says Das, her newfound confidence shining through her weary eyes. Previously Das was dependent on her husband to provide for her and was regularly scorned for being unemployed.
Unemployed and dependent women eclipse all other progress made in India. For millions of women, India’s empowerment policies have failed to earn them basic human rights. Only 52.5 percent of women influence household decisions. Surprisingly, there is not much difference between urban women and their rural counterparts – only 61.4 percent urban women and 48.5 percent rural women are involved in the decision making process.
Gender disparity largely manifests itself in women’s unemployment. With an aim to change this, 36-year-old Aparna Banerjee, an entrepreneur from Kolkata, founded Project Sukanya in 2005. The project, which claims to be the world’s largest all woman micro retail chain, uses Bou carts (Business organizing units) to generate employment amongst women.
Banerjee’s dream of becoming an entrepreneur and changing people’s lives has come at the right time. Self-employment, for women like Das, has helped them earn something priceless - their dignity and independence. For centuries Indian women have been caged in and prohibited from taking jobs in mills and firms because it called for them to come out of their homes.
Banerjee believes that to bring about positive socio-economic change, it is important to encourage women entrepreneurs at every stage, including those living below the poverty line. One reason India’s national self-employment schemes to empower women are struggling, is because there has not been a mechanism that generates employment at the grassroots. Although employment schemes have shown promise in creating jobs, they fail to realize their true potential because they lack a market linkage.
Project Sukanya not only helps mobilize women at the grassroots, but also helps women take advantage of market opportunities by directly connecting rural manufacturers and urban customers. Rural women manufacture pickles, spices, soft toys, decorative items, and artifacts. These products are then sent to packaging units in urban and semi-urban areas where more women are employed. The products are then retailed through Bou carts where women again are the entrepreneurs.
After the successful trial run, self-employing over a hundred women in their pilot project through 141 Bou carts, Project Sukanya has demonstrated sustainability. It is set to launch 230 new Bou carts in seven states across India. Project Sukanya aims to employ 100,000 people by 2013, and self-employ 400,000 more with retail counters across the world.
“It’s difficult to say how this idea arrived,” says Banerjee honestly. “I wanted to provide self-employment and independence to Indian women and Project Sukanya serves this purpose.”
For Swati, a young mother of two, it was an uphill task to raise her children with an alcoholic husband. Swati obtained a Bou cart during Project Sukanya’s pilot program and earns around $60 a month for her children’s education.
In a country where women entrepreneurs are few, Aparna Banerjee’s experience is an encouraging one. She not only convinced the bank with her vision and secured a loan for Project Sukanya, but also was fortunate enough to gain Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s support, which boosted her confidence in the initial stage of her enterprise.
“When I met Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, he gave my project a very patient hearing. Then he put his hand on my head and blessed me. Thereafter, he sent me a letter assuring full support, if I ever require it,” recalls Banerjee.
For centuries, Indian women have been prohibited from jobs outside the home. Rural women, largely deprived of the right to education, are culturally wired to do jobs that do not require them to be literate, such as cottage industries and agriculture. Despite women’s significance in the informal sector, their efforts are belittled by both family and society.
Project Sukanya uses a simple enrollment form that women complete in order to identify their interest, whether it is in retailing, manufacturing, or packaging. Even elderly women, women who are physically challenged, and those unable to work in the fields or in any other sector have found employment in packaging units where the products sourced from rural areas are packed and sealed before selling.
Tanu Das, an elderly woman, and her sister-in-law, Baby Das, radiate confidence as they go about their routine task briskly packing dry flowers, spices, and handicrafts. “We’re happy to contribute to our family’s income,” echo the women.
Recognizing the sustainability of this project, local civic authorities across West Bengal are using Bou carts for their own independent employment generation programs. Biswajiban Majumder, Chairman of the Bidhannagar Municipality, the civic authority governing Salt Lake City said, “Project Sukanya has proved that it helps unemployed marginalized women get a reliable source of livelihood and encourages independence amongst them.” The civic chief was hopeful that the bright new carts would also add novelty to his township.Banerjee has scouted the world for indigenous products that are in demand, but do not have a market link to reach customers. In 2008, she sourced 17,000 kg of apples from the Kashmir valley and sold them for a profitable margin in Kolkata. She is interested in handmade products that are indigenous to tribal communities around the world, including the USA and Africa. She has also begun to access markets in the Middle East and Europe.
Project Sukanya is being compared to another Indian women-centric brand, Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad (SMGULP). This brand began four decades ago with a meager loan amount of Rs. 80 ($1.71 USD) and now has an impressive annual turnover of Rs. 3.1 billion ($66.4 million USD) SMGULP’s success is also attributed to women entrepreneurs at the grassroots level.
Who would have imagined that illiterate women - who were only skilled at kneading dough and rolling out chapattis - could build an enterprise to such stupendous success?
About the Author
Lesley D. Biswas is a freelance creative writer and journalist based in Kolkata, India. She has written extensively for the past eleven years on sports, gardening, women and youth issues. Her articles have appeared both in print and online for publications such as the Woman’s Era, Reader's Digest, Funds for Writers, 4indianwoman, Kolkata Mirror and East Kolkata, among others.