TBI BLOGS: Rural Women Entrepreneurs in Tamil Nadu Sell Millets As Junk Food Alternative

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At a time when junk food has urban youngsters under its thrall, there is a need for interesting, appetising and healthy alternatives to burgers, pizzas and the like. Millet-based products could be a good option in this respect and women entrepreneurs in rural Tamil Nadu are capitalising on this need by using their business acumen to make and sell them.

Women entrepreneurs in rural parts of Tamil Nadu are bringing about a steady and silent change in the health sector with millet-based products. While organic products, food especially, are currently ruling the roost worldwide, millets are steadily becoming the next big thing.

“They have always been there, it’s just that in recent years people are starting to recognize their worth,” says Kalyani Karnan, leader of a Joint Liability Group of five women in Erumapatti village in Namakkal.

She had taken a loan from Gramalaya Microfin Foundation (GMF), a microfinance non-profit organization and a field partner of crowd-funding organization Milaap, to start a millet-based products business. Kalyani and Vijaya, a member of her group, have been making and selling millet-based health powder for seven months now. The powder contains bajra, jowar, ragi, wheat, cashews, and other healthy side ingredients. The two women dry the ingredients, roast them, and grind them into a fine powder that is now ready for cooking. Kalyani displays these packets in her hotel and markets it to her diners.

“You would be surprised how many people don’t know the nutritional value of millet products,” she says. “While Horlicks, Boost, and the likes have great brand value and fancy packaging, we are upping the ante here with simple yet nourishing millet-based powder.”

Kalyani Karnan

Kalyani Karnan is an entrepreneur who runs a millet-based products business.

Not just Kalyani and her group, there are hundreds of other women who work alone or in groups in many rural parts of Tamil Nadu, to put millets in the spotlight. For some, it’s about offering a healthy alternative, for others it’s purely business, and for yet others it’s a source of pride and a means of livelihood.

One such woman who takes pride in her millet-based business is Selvi Somasundharraj from Lalgudi in Tiruchirappalli. A borrower and leader of a joint loan comprising five members, Selvi is an inspiration to many women. Selvi’s husband faced severe health issues due to kidney failure. Bedridden and unable to provide for his family, the responsibility fell on Selvi’s shoulders. She took it up as a challenge and became a saleswoman – she travels around on her trusted bicycle to sell murukku and other food items. When she came to know about GMF and the enterprise loans they offer, she decided to seek a loan to start her own business.

“I have always encouraged women in my neighbourhood to step forward and become strong, enterprising individuals,” she says. “If I had shied away from being a saleswoman, I wouldn’t have succeeded and become the breadwinner of my family.”

Tamilselvi Balu from the Panchayat town of South Kannanur

She worked hard and raised her three sons without any outside help.

Selvi, along with Bashira and Shiyamala from her group, know that the millet-based powder they sell has a plethora of benefits. The three women gather twice a month to make the millet-based health mix powder. They buy 5 kg of ingredients, including bajra, ragi, jowar, roasted gram, jaggery, and more. The health-mix packets are then sold to the trio’s neighbours, friends and relatives, and others. Selvi, additionally, goes to the local farmers’ market on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays to sell the powder. She had made several contacts through her earlier stint as a saleswoman and uses them well.

“I am still a saleswoman,” Selvi points out with a smile. “I still go around on my bike sometimes, selling papads. I take the health-mix powder packets with me then and urge people to sample them.”

She has an innovative way of marketing the powder. She makes a few laddus, garnished with grated coconut, and porridge, and carries these along with her to offer her customers a sample of what delicious treats they can make with the health-mix powder. “This strategy has worked out really well for us,” she grins.

The three women make Rs. 1500 each month from this business. The money is useful to Selvi to pay her son’s school fees. “I hope my story encourages other women to step out and prove their mettle,” she says.

Selvi group lalgudi

Selvi Somasundharraj from Lalgudi

And then there is Tamilselvi Balu, who hails from the Panchayat town of South Kannanur in Tiruchirappalli. Her enthusiasm for her millet business is apparent when she talks about it. Tamilselvi has been making and selling millet porridge and laddus for the past three three months. She goes to a nearby school daily at 11 am and sets up a millet porridge stall. Many school kids come to her for a refreshing drink in the hot summer that is setting in. Her porridge is a big hit amongst the children and she charges Rs. 10 per glass.

“I also make a pot of porridge at home to sell to farm hands and other people who pass by, looking for an energizing and nutritious quencher,” Tamilselvi explains.

She adds that tea and coffee consumption in her home has reduced drastically after she started making the porridge. An eager learner and a shrewd saleswoman, Tamilselvi is planning to set up a moving cart in the coming months to reach out to a wider audience for her millet-based porridge and laddus.

All these women entrepreneurs are encouraged by the rising number of millet consumers. Moving away from junk and unhealthy fast food, people in towns and villages are progressing towards wholesome, nutritious food. The borrowers of the millet-based micro-enterprise loans all agree on one thing – when the urban population is ready to embrace millet-based food products and when the demand arises, they will be ready to take up the challenge of catering to city-dwellers.   

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