May News: Women’s Rural Business
We are excited to introduce Women’s Rural Business, a new program that aims to increase women’s earning potential, empowerment, and social and economic wellbeing in rural Tamil Nadu, India. WRB provides employment opportunities in traditional oil extraction and production to women from underserved communities who have long been kept from income-earning jobs and decision making roles. The independence and agency that women gain in earning for themselves has an immensely powerful effect; ultimately increasing capability, wealth and wellbeing throughout their entire community.
The project launched in early 2022, with the ongoing effects of the pandemic leaving the rural poor in dire financial situations. While rural unemployment and lack of cash flow in farming communities are long standing problems in India, the pandemic greatly exacerbated these issues. With no employment opportunities in urban centers, millions of laborers returned home to their villages with few prospects and little or no savings. As markets crashed, farmers also had no way to sell their product or earn a living.
Garden of Peace Director Professor Manivannan had been successfully operating an Ox-driven oil extraction unit for 5 years, providing employment and salary for four full-time female staff who are parents of students attending the Garden of Peace school. The unit continued to operate throughout the pandemic, ensuring not only financial security for the employees and their families but also for farmers supplying raw materials for the oil. Everyone involved with the project was able to weather the pandemic, as opposed to others in their community who struggled to make ends meet. With the demonstrated success of this program, Professor Manivannan invited Lotus Outreach to collaborate on implementing a women-led sustainable business model that would allow for expansion of the oil extraction operation to mechanized units.
With start-up funds from Douglas A. Campbell Foundation, Lotus Outreach purchased two mechanized oil extraction units. Each oil extraction unit employs five people, four of them women, and directly benefits an estimated 40 people including farmers, family members and vendors. The product is organic, cold-pressed oil; a high quality product in demand on local, national and international levels. Furthermore, in expanding, the project will adopt a co-operative model; inviting farmers and villagers to become shareholders in the business. With this collective model, the project could employ more villagers at a fair wage, produce more in-demand products and empower workers with the skills to run and operate the business as members of a cooperative. Profits fund operational costs, salaries, and generate a return to shareholders. Over time, the cooperative can expand to more oil units, more employees and increased economic wellbeing for the community as a whole, as this wealth ripples out across sectors.
The project is committed to hiring 80% women, thereby empowering them to be change-makers in their communities. They are the agents and experts behind this powerful business collective which contributes to the wellbeing of the community as a whole. Maheshwari is one of these women.
Maheshwari has worked in the oil extraction unit for the last 5 years. She joined the project after her husband’s death left her and her two sons with no income. Her sons attended the Garden of Peace school, and it was through them that Maheshwari become acquainted with professor Mani and his vision for the oil extraction project. When she approached him to ask for work, she was taken on as one of four women working with the ox driven oil extraction unit.
Working on the project gave her a consistent source of income and ensured that she did not have to depend on her in-laws for daily expenses. She was happy to contribute to the household expenditure, which, she said, brought respect to herself and her sons from the rest of the family.
She says that this job has given her the confidence to face tough situations. “I have only one regret in my life; that I didn’t pursue my education. Though I feel odd to study at this age, I would still like to pursue my interest. Dr. Manivannan has also encouraged me to do so and has asked a few teachers to help me. Currently, one of them is managing accounts of this oil project. I want to be proficient enough to take over that work from her soon.”
With the proven success of the project and the possibility for replicating it in other areas and at larger scales, we are hopeful at the potential of this sustainable business model. Reducing poverty in low and middle income communities is inextricably linked to wellbeing. This wellbeing is experienced at every level of society, from increased gender equality to educational outcomes to environmental impact.