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Sweet, Nutty and Uplifting

You don’t usually connect a beach holiday in Goa with social concerns such as rural women’s empowerment — and I don’t mean the women prowling the beaches selling you trinkets and scarves. You see, the ‘season’ in Goa attracts tourists, vendors from interstate, who sell everything of a questionable value, and their desperation wells up from the unscaleable business model. For rural women, or women who are forcibly cast into the oldest profession in the world, there is an alternative. Unseen and unheralded by the chatterati, south of the border, in Karwar, Karnataka is a fascinating project that has successfully grown beyond an experiment into a herald of how people and governments can work together.

Started by Sanjeevini, a Karnataka government run agency, women with no other means of support get a modest loan to start a business making and marketing chikki, that crunchy sweet peanut brittle that predates all the brightly coloured, foil wrapped, elegant confectionery that masquerades as food. With a couple of easily obtained local ingredients, jaggery and roasted groundnuts are transformed into chikki marketed to shops and hotels. Who doesn’t remember this childhood delight?

Recognising that one woman making chikki is not a scaleable or possible long term business model, Sanjeevina encourages five or more women to get together and create a company. Sanjeevini provides loans, mentorship, developmental and marketing help but the profit, responsibility and repayments remain solely with the women entrepreneurs of the chikki startup. There are those words, “startup” and “entrepreneur” so beloved of the online and trendy classes — applying here down at the grassroots level, changing social paradigms and providing tangible benefits to both the buyers and the vendors.

The Shri Sai JLG is made up of five women, and together they set up the chikki making “factory” in two rented rooms. It was difficult to get anyone to rent space to them, in a small town, where everyone knows everyone, but with the help of some astute and persuasive talk from the department, they were able to start in the rented rooms.

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In this case the two rooms allow them to sell chikki for others to eat, and unlike the huge food companies that sell us questionable delights, and cause massive pollution, sweet producers like Sri Sai JLG produce a sweet that is made from two ingredients, jaggery and groundnuts in a process that is hard of the hands and elbows, but leaves only a small footprint on the earth. And the “factor” is set in the rural outskirts, where clean air and water abound, this is no fetid sweatshop in a slum.

I was enchanted by the colours the women had chosen for the interiors, bright pink and blue. With the basic equipment in place, they are able to make the chikki quickly — the longest time is taken in the manual packing into individual slabs. At this visit, the local project director, Ms, Shamala, who has personal oversight of the women’s dedication and hard work, advocated that the department consider an additional loan or grant for an automatic packing machine.

So, how is the peanut brittle made? The women are all suited up with their hair covered, aprons, and gloves for hygiene. The peeled nuts are evenly roasted in a pan filled with hot clean sand, straight from the white beaches of Karwar, and then shaken clean of both sand and skins. The jaggery is boiled to the perfect setting temperature, the nuts quickly mixed in before pouring into steel trays and rolled quickly and hard to get the exact depth. It’s hot and sticky work, rolling the peanut brittle before it sets too hard.

As it cools while it is still malleable, the ridged rollers cut the slabs into perfect squares. On cooling, tissue paper is dusted with cornflour, and placed between the layers of chikki, before being sealed into packs and loaded into small cardboard cartons that are despatched to the shops. Even this detail has been carefully planned, the cartons are small enough to be easily handled by the women, and purchased by small shops or cafes.

The next step for the chikki factory is be a co-working space, where projects like these can find a home more airy and cool than a cramped two room tenement. The National Rural Rural Livelihood Income Mission Innovation fund has committed an investment of 50 lakhs to provide both modern machinery and a working space. This would also enable more facilities to be provided to the entrepreneurs at a lower cost.

In Karwar’s hot and humid clime, only enough chikki is made to match the orders to avoid wastage and keep the sweet fresh. If you eat this chikki, you can be sure it’s fresh and wholesome. Nothing goes rancid quite as quickly as nuts, so chikki needs to be fresh. Local officials initially had to guide the women in marketing and accessing jaggery and groundnuts in bulk, but very quickly, they learnt to negotiate and access the hinterland to get the ingredients at the best possible prices.

The day I visited it with Dr. Mamatha Gowda, IAS, Mission Director National Rural Rural Livelihood Income Mission, I was impressed by the women’s quiet confidence and resilience in talking to the government officials. After all, they are entrepreneurs, on the verge of repayment of their loans, with profitable businesses.

In a typical case, one woman with 4 dependents had begun with 0 personal income, Rs.5000 family income, and the only family asset was a two room mud hut. Despite this she still managed to save Rs 50 a month. After starting her business, her profit is now Rs.10,000 per month, enabling her to save Rs 2000, buy Life and Health insurance, and upgrade her home to a brick house. Impressive and tangible results, that are sweet music both to her, and to the Government departments that run the project.

The women were from different communities, I was struck by how at the real levels, women are ready to join hands with women from other communities, and with government agencies that are quietly getting on with the job of providing resources to empower rural women to create a viable livelihood, rather than a dependence on hand-outs.

Great things can happen unseen when dedicated public service officials use their local knowledge and acumen to set up viable projects for the people they serve. The next time you bite into something sweet or salty, think how something as small as a bite of chikki or peanut brittle can change lives for the better.

I thought I escaped corporate to travel, have adventures, write bestsellers, and help others to publish. No travel but #amwriting http://bit.ly/BBCLvStrm

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