Market linkage for sustainable empowerment of women Self-Help Groups (SHGs)

Article by Hillol Talukdar

Around six years back Zarina Begum (32) wanted to start her vegetable farm. Zarina is a resident of Kanuwari village of Nagaon district, Assam. Back then she did not have money, neither she had access to any formal banking system and along with that came various challenges: inadequate financial literacy, documentation complexities and high-interest cost of loans. A few years back, she was helped by Mila Priti, a Self Help Group (SHG) in her village. The SHG loaned her a sum of ₹ 5000 with a minimal rate of 2%. This financial aid helped her to start her farm with various vegetables. This small help led Zarina to scale up her business. Now she can avail a bank loan of ₹ 2 lacs.

Zarina’s story is one amongst many rural women who have been benefitted by SHGs which are set up under National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM). NRLM is a World Bank-supported poverty alleviation scheme implemented by the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India. The vision is to empower rural women and mobilize them into Self Help Groups (SHGs) so that there is an appreciable improvement in their livelihoods on a sustainable basis.

Key challenges and problems: An assessment of the current state of SHGs

Last month, we took a small assessment of the SHGs in Bajiagaon Development Block in Nagaon district of Assam. There are around 1732 SHGs which has mobilized and impacted close to 17,526 households. Most of these SHGs have been linked to a bank, but very few are linked to a market. On doing a market study, we found out that SHGs were producing various goods, but they did not have access to a permanent marketplace to sell their products. Secondly, there is a knowledge gap in terms of go-to-market strategy and sales promotion measures. Sometimes, this leads to a huge inventory pile-up, much of which pass expiry date. Thirdly, there is hesitation and fear to go out to the market to sell goods directly. There is a lack of connectivity to far-flung villages in terms of a robust supply chain.

A short term go-to-market strategy: Bhogali Mela 2021, a pilot project to enable and empower women SHG members to sell locally produced goods

This January, with Magh Bihu around the corner, we planned a 3-day Bhogali Mela, a marketplace where women SHG members highlighted and sold their products. The marketplace was set up in Samaguri High School playground from 10th to 12th January 2021. A variety of products were highlighted and sold across stalls – Handwoven clothes, Traditional food items, Pottery items, etc. An open market was also set up within the Mela where few rural women sold vegetables, fruits, Khori (firewood), livestocks, etc.

The vision and goal of the pilot project was to –

  • To empower women-led Self Help Group (SHG) members to earn a sustainable livelihood
  • To promote and encourage entrepreneurship and start-up culture among rural people
  • Training and up-skilling women to acquire knowledge related to finance, operations, marketing and event organizing skills.
  • Bringing out rural women to be more participative and interactive

To be able to effectively organize the event, women-led committees were formed to look after every aspect from Operations, Marketing to Finance. All these women were part of various Cluster level Federations that operates under Bajiagaon Development Block. In terms of operations, approval and permission were taken from various stakeholders to arrange and maintain the venue, electricity, water, law and order, health and fire safety.

The marketing of the event was planned through intensive local marketing in all gram panchayats under the block. Additionally, all Jeevika Sakhis (Livelihoods community cadre) were empowered to take marketing decisions and promote the event through word of mouth as well. A few local media covered and highlighted the event. To ensure effective financial planning, an initial budget was derived taking into considering all the cost levers. Various stakeholders were also identified who could be approached for fundraising.

All of these activities listed above were carried out by enthusiastic women of various SHGs who wanted to volunteer for this cause. As part of the Mela, various competitions were organized during the day from time to time – Art competition, Dance competition, Drama competition and Tree Plantation Drive. The idea is to maximize footfall to the event to boost sales opportunity. A banker’s meet was also planned where bank managers of local public sector banks were invited. The idea was to highlight the impact created by women SHG members with the bank credit made available to them.

Key learnings and takeaways

Livelihood interventions conceptualized, designed and implemented without solving the market linkage issues are likely to fail. We must find ways to address the market linkage challenge to see appreciable improvement in rural livelihood. The women-led pilot project had stalls from over 40 SHGs which impacted around 450+ rural women. The event led to total revenue of around Rs 3,19,000 over the 3 days. The cost of the entire event was around Rs 78000 which means there was a profit margin of more than 300%. The state government can set up Mahila Bazaars (women based permanent marketplace) in every block across all districts in Assam. Gradually, these SHGs can register their products on online platforms to ensure that they are not affected by any unforeseen event such as the pandemic triggered by COVID-19. But, to transform this into a reality, a strategy with an emphasis on digital literacy of women needs to be in place.

There are strong enthusiasm and desire among rural women to overcome social divide/taboos and unite for the greater cause. This was highlighted through their active participation right from the beginning to the end of the event. A rich variety of products are produced by these SHGs. There is a huge revenue earning potential if these SHGs are linked to a proper marketplace. Also, adequate training needs to be provided to these women to be able to scale up and excel in their area of expertise. With proper market linkage, strong marketing knowledge and expertise and sufficient investment/credit, these rural women SHGs can be key to India’s post-COVID19 economic revival.

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