By Naomi Menezes - International Representative (India)
Udaipur, fondly known as the 'City of Lakes', has a romance unmatched in Rajasthan; if not all of India. If you ever find yourself in the city, you should stop by Kodiyat village to taste the freshly baked ‘oat and maize’ cookies produced by the women of the village. They are nutrient-rich, preservative and cholesterol-free – ideal for anyone who is health conscious and looking for tasty snacking options. These cookies are more than just high in nutrition; they are the source of empowerment and livelihood to the women of the village.
Farah Ali - a young female social entrepreneur - is moving the needle on-ground by providing women in tribal villages around Udaipur with the opportunity to earn a dignified livelihood. She setup Binnis Enterprises, an organisation which trains and employs the women who produce these baked goodies.
Understanding the Problem
In 2014, Farah was working as Gandhi Fellow in the Dungarpur district of Rajasthan. She worked in villages; sharing knowledge with school principles about leadership, pedagogy and administrative efficiency. During her stay in Kodiyat, she encountered the hand-to-mouth existence and poor living standards of the people in the village.
The farmers would harvest corn during the season and migrate to nearby towns and cities for menial jobs on construction sites for the rest of the year. This migration most severely affected children, who often needed to drop out of school early. Furthermore, there were high levels of domestic violence against women in the region.
Government schemes have been put in place to attempt to generate opportunities for consistent employment for residents of rural areas, such as Dungarpur. For instance, there is MGNREGA - a labour law ensuring that 100 days of paid employment is provided for each household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. However, due to inefficient planning and rampant corruption, the implementation of MGNREGA been slow.
Farah’s experience made her realise that, in isolation, education wouldn’t be enough solve the larger problems of the region: livelihoods, health, and the overall welfare of the villagers.
Following her fellowship, Farah worked at Astha Sansthan and the Sambal Trust, where she created a strategy for empowering women, in addition to working towards the holistic development of farmers and their families. It was this experience that inspired her to start Binnis Enterprise in August 2018.
Overcoming the Challenges
Farah shares with us that, although the journey so far has been a complete rollercoaster ride, it has also been fulfilling.
She says,” I feel very passionately about the cause. However, being a woman entrepreneur has come with its own fair share of hardships. When I first tried to enter the market, I encountered various people (men) who would often pass patronising comments like, ‘Why are you doing this alone? You should settle down now and get married’, or ‘This is just a hobby, don’t think about Binnis too seriously.’ Initially, there were times I would get fazed by such comments but now I don’t get affected.”
“Sometimes it becomes difficult to navigate in the world of men. However, I have become thick skinned and I don’t get deterred very easily. I know the work I'm doing is important, and I have full faith in my own capabilities to establish a successful and sustainable social business. It is this belief which keeps me going through the hardships.”
Designing a sustainable solution
Initially, Binnis started by training 5 women in the end-to-end process of producing cookies; making flour out of whole wheat and oats, operating the oven and baking the cookies. Today, the women make cookies in coconut, elaichi, flax seeds and dry-fruits varieties and sell the cookies at the Upbhogta Bahandar market in Udaipur. The business has progressed so far that they also take bulk customised orders.
Over the last couple of months, Farah has started seeing positive changes in the women. They are now more confident and assertive. The additional income helps them take better care of their children’s nutrition and health. One of them has even taken a step towards visiting a doctor for a health problem that she was avoiding, due to the financial crunch. These changes, even though small, have a magnitude of impact.