Rural Livelihoods – using value chains

Srikantha Shenoy T V

“ We have some hopes now. We need not migrate to cities now for those two square meals. Five years ago we hardly used to get wages for 60 to 70 days in a year. Now we have our own place and get 250 to 300 days. Our earning has increased from Rs 25 per day to Rs 80 to Rs 150/- now. Earlier Davangere at best was the biggest city we ever saw in awe. Now we have visited many cities. I am now called Dubai Shankaramma. Others have visited Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore several times. We can afford to have our dreams. And we are confident that we can realize these small dreams” – Dubai Shankaramma

There was no end to the enthusiasm with which Shankaramma and her colleagues from Lakkvanahalli and surrounding villages narrate their experience to the visitors to the natural fibre cluster in the village. They are the active members of the evolving natural fibre cluster covering Lakkavanahalli, Kunikere, Shigehatti, Mayasandra, Hucchavanahalli in Hiriyur block of Chitradurga district in Karnataka. These are non decrepit villages largely dependent on dry land agriculture. Ragi or the finger millet is the staple cereal crop limited to one cropping season. There were little source of income other than farm labour and rearing sheep – goat to the large population of agricultural laborers in these villages. Migration to irrigated belts and cities was common after kharif season – the main cropping season.
These villages lacked many of the basic infrastructures – drinking water, housing, health care, transport – the list of deficits have been quite long.

Few women of such poor families were initially organized as Self Help Groups as thrift and credit group by Prayog – an NGO. It was part of a women empowerment project of Government of India and Karnataka during 2001. As with most of the SHGs, these SHGs were in the verge of disintegration in the absence of shared vision of their own socio economic development. Meetings and savings became too ritualistic. When the hopes of these village women were at its low, during 2002, IDF (Initiatives for Development Foundation) another NGO came on the scene to adopt these groups and explore how the women can take up sustainable livelihood activities as a group rather than as individuals.

Participatory exploration

‘The women had little faith on NGOs and the Government officials. It was very tough to build rapport when we came here. We ourselves never had any ideas of what the members can and cannot do to augment their income. They wanted immediate, working solutions to earn income!’ recalls Shrikanth Hebbal, one of the Executive Trustee of IDF. With little financial base, the poor women were averse to experimentation and take risks.

Risk mitigation framework

IDF team took on the task of participatory development of ideas on economic activities, to make the rural community own them, developing a frame work of identifying range economic activities. The villagers desired activities which would be a) local resource or skill based, b) preferably have local market potential or niche potential, c) allow time and space to women to take up farming work whenever nature gods please and d) should not require large capital requirement initially, so that if the going becomes risky, the losses could be minimized. These are nothing but common sense backed risk mitigation strategies.

Business Idea development

Several ideas were discussed and evaluated, ranging from primary food processing to coconut broom manufacture.  Only one activity was new to the area – extraction of natural fibre. In these villages, most of the families migrate seasonally to neighboring Mandya and Mysore district to collect an aquatic grass, locally known as ‘Aapu’ (Typha grass). The long mature grass was cut, bundled and brought to the village by bullock cart. In these villages rich sun shine – higher temperature was the best resource. The grass stems were sun dried, split into thin strips, bundled and traded in Hiriyur town. These strips are purchased by traders and farmers and were extensively used in tying the betel leaf vines to the supporting trees or stalks. Being soft and supple, the aapu strips allow the growth of the vines without cutting into the stems, yet firmly hold the vine in place and are the best bio degradable alternative to plastic strings.

IDF team tossed ideas of developing utility handicrafts like mats, basketry etc using the aapu fibre. Anand Dharwadkar, a textile engineer in the network of IDF, showed how to extract natural fibre from this grass as well as from banana stems. The typha or banana yarn was found suitable for production of handicrafts, either independently or blended with other natural fibers. The extracted fibers can be braided, twisted for use in handcrafts as well as used for making good quality paper. The dried grass can also be split longitudinally in to 5 – 10 wide ribbons that can then be twisted to form beige-colored thick twines, which are used in the weaving of mats.

The twines can be colored with ease using basic dyes, direct dyes. The products made from yarn are completely bio – degradable and have an unusual texture which is very much appreciated to people who have a keen sense of aesthetics.

Hence, the collective business idea was that organizations would buy such extracted fibre for further weaving to produce many handicrafts. The women members were not sure whether it would fetch them decent income for all the labour work put in. The fibre had to be shipped to Bangalore using public transport.

Idea to activity

With intense persuasion, IDF team cobbled a team of 16 women to start fibre extraction from Aapu and later banana stems. Members put in their money  – savings and small loans to purchase the spinning wheel.

The production was uneven, the enthusiasm of members and IDF field team was short lived as most of the fibre produced was rejected due to un-even quality and low volume. And when small part of it was sold, the income was very meager. Only four members persevered in the activity though their earnings were less than Rs 8 per day, whereas the wages if available were minimum of Rs 20 per day. Banana stems were not available in the village. They had to travel nearly 10 – 15 KM to irrigated belts and bring banana stems during harvest season. Extraction of fibre – the lowest end of the value chain was a very low key activity for nearly nine months. The activity was about to be scrapped.

Value Chain potential

The study by the IDF team showed that value added natural fibre based life style products had high market value in cosmopolitan cities. As a first step the rural women needed to be given motivation, and skills to climb each node of value chain leading to marketable products.  Persisting, IDF teamed recruited Pandurang Wali, a master crafts man to train the women in weaving the yarn produced in the village. To learn new skill, out of curiosity women who had left the group came back to the group. They borrowed abandoned handlooms from the government training centers, got it repaired and underwent hands on training on weaving.

None of the women had prior experience in weaving. The first products though were rough, gave them some confidence that they can do something about the new economic activity. Acquisition of new skill and looms were also a matter of social prestige and basis of recognition to them, as most of the women were from the Dalith community.  They prided with their new found identity as skilled Artisan than as a laborer, a basis for upward social mobility.

 Bankers Trust

Responding to the enthusiasm of producer women, Chitradurga Grameen Bank released a subsidy linked loan of Rs 2.5 lakh (About $ 6500) to the group during 2004. The group hired a vacant shed in the village. The collective earnings during the year were less than Rs 25000 ($ 660). NABARD recognized the opportunity to develop the cluster and encouraged the activities.

Turning point

The products were simple runners which were purchased by few designers in Bangalore. IDF realized that as an NGO it cannot support marketing of the products. The State Government could not carry forward the idea of community owned marketing organization for      self help group and artisanal products. Hence, promoters of IDF, incorporated Gramya –  a dedicated company for marketing of products from the deprived community.

Gramya facilitated display of products and participation of producer women in various national and international sales promotional exhibitions. The simple products were noticed by lead marketers like Fab India. The bulk order of Fab India during 2006 for Rs 5 lakh (about $ 13000) boosted the morale of the producer women.

Evolution of the natural fibre cluster

Lakkavanahalli became the nucleus of natural fibre based cluster. Networking and liaison of IDF and Gramya team brought more visibility by the print media, brought more visitors from the local and state government, NGOs, Banks. More women and more villages joined the evolving group enterprise as they started getting regular work, income and social respect interacting with urbane people. Ms Linda Mani, a young US citizen and fellow of Indus Corp from, stayed with the producer women for more than a year to learn about the evolving enterprise as well as help the women build their vision about themselves.

Climbing the value chain

As the women gained experience, incremental skills were imparted through various skill and design development workshops at the villages. Help from Ambedkar Hasta Shilpa Yojana from Government of India and NABARD cluster development programme came in hand to meet part of the cost of various training and exposure visits services.

Diversity in the product base and aesthetic appeal came with the involvement of social minded designers with a keen sense of market, ecology and aesthetics in developing the capacity of the neo artisans.

Says the England returned Savita Parikh, a designer now intensely associated with this activity “I was simply bowled over by the looks and feel of these natural fibres. They are rustic, eco friendly and yet very contemporary. And these are produced by deprived women struggling to have decent living standards.  I met these producer women in a Tribal fair and I made a decision that I can contribute value to this emerging group enterprise in design development and market linkage”.

Savitha teamed up with a Bangalore based designer Rajashekar Naryan is helping the IDF – Gramya team to develop contemporary products using various blends of natural fibres which has niche markets especially for corporate gifts and packaging.


The product base expanded from simple yarn to now aesthetically beautiful handcrafted range of utility handicrafts such as runners, window blinds, yoga mats, files, folders, coasters, dinner mats, pillow covers, bedspreads, lamp shades. Now there are 152 women actively involved in various levels of economic activity in the value chain. There are 25 working looms and 72 women have joined into the venture learning the basics of production at the lowest value chain.  During 2008, the group enterprise collectively produced and marketed products valued to Rs 30 lakh. All the producer members are now share holders of Deccan Crafts and Weavers Pvt. Ltd a subsidiary of Fab India. All of them have now Life insurance coverage. IDF Financial Services has made available need based micro finance services and bridge loans to the women members  for developing their own working shed, office and meeting working capital. A solar lighting system has been put in place with the part investment from the producer women.

Impact on farming

All these developments however did not adversely affect the farming activity in these villages at current scale of operations. Most of the women still work as agricultural labour during sowing season and harvesting season, as farming is part of their socio economic culture.

The new found confidence of women borne not merely out of economic power, but also due to social empowerment has brought in indirect impact on agriculture economy and local infrastructure. The banana farmers no longer sell the banana stems free. Now the women need to buy them. After extracting the fibre, the waste is now being composted as value of vermi-composting is known in the village. Due to the development of the village as a cluster, unemployed youth have found viable self employment ventures running regular auto rickshaw, setting up telephone booth, small eateries and kiosk etc.

Challenges ahead

Traversing along the poor women in this journey of exploring sustainable livelihoods, IDF – Gramya team is very much aware of the challenges ahead, foremost being the institutionalization of the group enterprise and community ownership of various spheres of entrepreneurial activities, especially the finer nuances of niche and distance marketing of the products and financial risk management. As various activities in the value chain gets specialized to specific groups, focused efforts would be needed for robust integration of cluster workings as complementary activity with the culture of dry land farming which otherwise would be lost due to labour shortage.  The visibility to the activity and benefits to the poor women, does also bring initial derision, later claims for leadership from the petty politicians which can be effectively tackled only by strong community ownership of all the spheres of the economic activity.

Srikantha Shenoy TV

Executive Trustee

Initiatives for Development Foundation

e mail:;

Cell: + 91 9845692087

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