Urmila ji packing bags for mushroom production.
I work in Chattisgarh, the rice-bowl of India. In the third biggest city of the state: in the tribal and semi-rural belt of the region. I work in a project where the bottom-line is to empower women through self-help groups by setting-up micro-enterprises. Well, that’s not a big deal I thought- when I was introduced to the project. Today, I get to understand it might not be a big deal but, is still a deal. Computers don’t work but, connecting with the community does. We talk, laugh, and try making these women comfortable, in sharing their lives with us. We suggest them business ideas (well, most of the time they do it and, know it better) and hand hold them until they stabilise and can manage all by their own.
One of such micro-enterprise which we figured would be profitable for them is cultivating mushrooms. The edible and fruiting fungi. The systematic and scientific cultivation of mushrooms on a commercial scale was the business. The model was already tested, and was a failure. We poked and prodded a little to understand the reason behind the failure. Mushrooms are available in different varieties. Button, Paddy, oyster, Shiitake, milky is some of them which can be cultivated in India. Each of this variety needs different settings to be profitable. Temperature, humidity, disinfecting are all different factors which influences the process.
We figured that it’s important for these women who, put their heart, soul, confidence and money in these endeavours, is to understand and have some knowledge about it. We arranged a training session in a place 70kms from the place we work in. Some women refused right away to step out of their homes for 16 hrs straight to get trained. While some were ready and were excited to see a new place and, a few saw this is as an opportunity. We started as early as 5 in the morning in the biting cold and got back around 10 in the evening with some idea on how to proceed with the plan.
The spawns are available in bottles, and have a maturing period. Once the spawns are matured, they are not suitable for cultivation. It was made clear the women could identify the maturity level of the seeds. Wet straw bale mixed with disinfectants is layered in a polythene bag, on which half-cooked wheat and seeds are sprinkled. A bottle of spawns is layered one above the other in a polythene bag. A maximum of four layers is advisable for high yield. Life- cycle of a mushroom is anywhere between 16-23 days. The bags are kept in shade and are sprinkled with water at regular intervals. A bag can yield up to 2.5kgs of mushrooms while, a kg is sold between INR160-200/-
We also make them understand, the fixed costs, their labour, and help them come up with a break-even analysis for that, to them – anything other than the raw material cost is considered profit. The tricky part of working in a tribal belt is making them understand that these fungi are edible and not poisonous. The myths that a particular variety is edible and others aren’t, just like rural women don’t understand business is much prevalent.
A few take the yield out themselves to the market and sell them, with their face held high while some, want us to come and be with them while they market it.
This lady Urmila Yadav, got introduced to me while working on this model and,1 she inspired me. This specific lady is from one of the self-help groups we work with. Since we promote entrepreneurship via shg’s, process would include getting them introduced to the concept of business and investment. It takes a lot of time to convince and make them understand the model, meaning- initial investment and investing the working capital, to deal with initial loss, recovering from it, getting out of their home to market their own products and so on.
We organised a meeting with this specific group as well to talk to them on these and also we wanted 2 women to come with us for a training that was taking place 70kms approx. from their place of living. This woman, Urmila Yadav not just volunteered but also made sure, there was one more person from the group who tagged along. She did everything that we were supposed to do that day. After the initial training she got in touch with the concerned trainer directly to get started with the new business and was mighty good at explaining the concept to her group as well. She sorted things within her group, where to do what and what not to do at that point. I remember the only thing she got back to us was to arrange a hoarding in front of her house to promote her group and their newest venture. She gets out of her zone leading the other group members to endorse and market it in their circle as well. When asked why, she said ‘We are responsible for our own lives’.
All they need is a person to talk to and motivate (well, not actually). She for me also blurred the difference or the gap between an urban and a rural woman.
If interested in knowing more, here’s a link I found online, which helped me understand the process before working with my community.