For women living in rural areas, independence is a constant question and starting their own business is like a fantasy only to be dreamt about and never realised. But in the case of these women from Uttar Pradesh, one company has transformed their lives and turned them into entrepreneurs in their own right – young women who can earn a livelihood to support their family and discover the power of their own voice and ideas.
Mrida, a social business venture, is trying to put power in the hands of rural women by helping them build sustainable and scalable business models aimed at holistic rural development and economic upliftment at the bottom of the income pyramid.
“I see so many young, educated girls in my village. But after they complete education, they just sit at home,” says Kokila, who has discovered her voice thanks to skill development programmes from Mrida.
“After a while, they become adults and are married off. They do not know how to think beyond this,” she continues. “Earlier, I used to think, we just need to live in life and then die. That’s all,” she says.
Yet another woman explains how even after studying, she didn’t know what could be done beyond it. She went to school, went to college, and then returned home to study and complete household chores. She never went anywhere else.
Skill development programmes can take these educated women and give a direction to their lives and make them self-sustainable, empowered and financially independent women.
Aiming along this direction, Mrida has helped set up two stitching centres in UP which is run by local women who are not just employees there but decision-makers and entrepreneurs in their own right.
How did the UP girls take part in the skill development programme?
Mrida had initially started to work on a village development programme and CSR initiative in a village near Bareilly named Tahtajpur. In their survey, when they asked the women what they wanted to learn, they said they wanted to learn stitching.
Mrida then mobilized CSR funds and the services of a trainer from a local NGO to arrange for these stitching classes. The women themselves also made a token contribution in order to participate.
Community engagement and some financial commitment – however small – is something that Mrida typically insists upon to build an entrepreneurship mindset.
“We believe that some of the key factors for whatever success we have been able to showcase so far, have been community engagement, insisting that the women contribute financially – even if in a token manner – to any initiative that they undertake, and in general, to take their future in their own hands and move forward,” says Arun Nagpal, Co-Founder, Mrida Group.
The first stitching class started with a group of 15 women using mats spread out under a tree, and three basic sewing machines.
Over the next two years or so, the initiative spread to the neighboring village Faridapur Inayat Khan. Today, over 100 women are equipped with basic stitching skills, which they can use at home, and also carry with them if they move elsewhere after they get married.
How the girls got their NIOS certification
Once the women had learned some basic stitching skills, they came forward with the interest to upskill themselves even more and go in for courses with NIOS Certification.
Mrida handheld them through the process of pooling their token resources, registering for an NIOS certified program with a local NGO, and supporting them for the commutation between their village and the training centre.
The advanced training resulted in eight of the students coming together to turn entrepreneurs and start their own units — the Raj Laxmi Stitching Centre in Tahtajpur, and a few months later, another stitching center in Faridapur Inayat Khan set up by a women’s group called the Aparajita Vikas Samuh.
“Earlier, whenever a company used to come to hire, we wouldn’t talk. We would become scared and hide,” says Geeta, who runs the Raj Laxmi Stitching Centre in Tahtajpur. But now, their financial independence has changed the entire scenario.
Mrida’s main idea is to equip rural women with basic skills that will help them in building a sustainable future for themselves.
“For those who are willing to take the initiative, we support and guide them in upskilling themselves; finally, for those who are willing to go even further, we help them in becoming entrepreneurs in their own right,” says co-founder Arun Nagpal.
The skill development training also gives these women the chance to take on stitching orders which come to them personally and not through the centre they work in. Their skill allows them to stitch clothes for themselves and their relatives which saves them money while also getting them new clothes to enjoy.
How do these stitching centres work?
Pooja and Geeta who hail from the local areas run the Aparajita Vikas Samuh in Faridapur Inayat Khan, and Raj Laxmi Stitching Centre in Tahtajpur respectively.
As the most skilled from their teams, the two ladies lead the projects and stitching orders. They are then supported by the Mrida Field team for administration purposes and in procuring material.
Not only do these centres receive local orders, but they also work on projects received from the Mrida Head Office in Delhi. Here, a team is dedicated to developing sustainable market linkages for rural artisans and their products.
These linkages are created through B2B (Business to Business) orders for events, festivals or for organizational requirements — for example, cloth bags made for Jaypore – an e-commerce company which uses these bags to package customer orders.
The income of these women depend on the number of orders they receive and complete on a monthly basis, as well as a pre-decided wage that the women collectively discuss and agree upon, depending on how big or complex the order is.
The climb up the entrepreneurship ladder
The women started with smaller orders and slowly climbed to a larger business model. At first, it was just orders for blouses, suits, petticoats and minor repair work.
But as their work started to speak for itself, a range of orders started to pour in — from apparel like palazzos, wrap skirts and wrap pants to lifestyle items like bags, cup sleeves, sandwich bags, and even institutional orders such as school uniforms.
The more orders they worked on, the more the skill of the women grew. Soon, they were making bags for the e-commerce fashion brand Jaypor, ‘potlis’ for a menstrual hygiene products company Boondh, and workshop bags for 91springboard (a co-working start-up) and Google Startup’s ‘Superwomen in Business’ initiative.
The best part is that the baby-suits they make for a Bangalore-based exporter are now selling in France under the brand name ‘Navilou’! With quality being of utmost importance in export orders, the women have taken on the challenge to stitch clothing that meets international standards.
How being entrepreneurs transformed the lives of the women
When a woman launches a business, it not only gives her an income source, but also provides something more crucial – self esteem and confidence.
Women from lower-income households rarely have much disposable income and very few get the chance to work outside their home in a respectable space such as retail. Mrida’s skill development programmes proved to be a big boon for them.
From being almost faceless entities in their homes and villages, these UP girls are today well on a path to becoming self-sufficient individuals in their own right as they are not only earning an income for themselves, but also contributing to their family income in the process.
“Usually our parents get us married off right after we complete class 12. But now, after school, we are studying for our BA degree and also stitching orders on the side,” says Geeta.
“After stitching work, we also go to travel together to different places,” she adds beaming.
“When we were young, we had never thought that we would come this far,” says another woman working at the same centre.
The confidence these women got from their business ventures has pushed them into the path of being ‘modern women’ — from wearing ghungats in their initial conversations with Team Mrida, the women have found their ‘voice’ and are much more confident to speak about their lives, their wants, and needs publicly.
The stitching centre also serves as a support system — a place where the women look forward to going every morning and meeting their peers and friends.
The girls have grown so much that today, they are in a position to pay the rent for their premises, invest in stitching equipment, and upskill themselves over time – thus bringing in an element of sustainability.
Team Mrida continues to support the women in the areas of business development and commercial transactions, but the objective is to progressively involve them in these areas as well.
Though they might not yet be ‘big’ in the conventional sense of the term, they have made significant strides in their own right, and are poised to grow further as they go along.
“I tell the new girls coming to learn at our stitching centre to sew in a way that it can help them earn money and succeed in life. We shouldn’t need to be dependent on anyone. We shouldn’t need to ask for money from our parents or brother or sister-in-law,” says Pooja Verma, who leads the Aprajita Vikas Samuh and runs the Faridapur Inayat Khan stitching centre.
“I am even thinking of starting our very own company or factory in our name, where we will all work together,” beams Pooja.
And even if that doesn’t happen, we will start a small boutique of our own and keep everyone together. I just hope that we all stay together, our work is good, and we keep growing and succeeding,” she adds.
Team Mrida has helped to create a sense of confidence in these women that allows them to dream about building their own career and future. This has created a support system which then adds to building other initiatives that the team has undertaken in terms of educating the women on health and hygiene.
The ‘community’ feeling that is created allows the women to experience a network of support and provides them the courage to become a part of sensitive dialogue that often surround issues such as menstruation.
Perhaps the biggest change in their lives is how even after being a woman, they can provide for their own families. Their new-found independence has done away with their families’ push to get them married off.
They now have their own personal savings before getting married and enjoy earning through engaging in work they truly enjoy.
“I just want to say that just like our parents supported us in this venture, I hope others in the village also support their girls and help them go farther than we could go in whatever they want to do. They shouldn’t keep their daughters locked up at home, that’s all,” says Devaki who is working at a beauty parlor launched with Mrida’s help.
How does Mrida plan to develop this programme and churn out even more women entrepreneurs?
“Over time, we have plans to train more women and open many more stitching centres in different parts of the country, as a part of our overarching goal to develop rural India holistically – these centres will create more channels of opportunity,” says Arun Nagpal, Co-Founder, Mrida Group.
Mrida also plans to launch their own niche brand under which they would sell apparel, lifestyle and handicraft goods made by the women and rural artisans.
Doing this would help them create a sustainable and streamlined source of orders which would generate the necessary funds to further help Team Mrida expand operations. The move would boost the positive impact while encouraging Indian consumers to purchase products made by homegrown artisans and women from rural India.