With a unique waterway system comprising freshwater lakes, small rivers, lagoons and canals that are interspersed with small islands surrounded by gangly groves of coconut trees and verdant mangrove forests, Kumarakom in Kerala’s Kottayam district is a popular tourist destination.
In fact, this sleepy little backwater village is one of the destinations in the world listed by National Geographic magazine. This cluster of islands has the mighty Vembanad Lake in the backdrop. Recording an annual footfall of about seven million visitors, the kettuvallam (houseboat) rides are especially popular.
The traditional cuisine comprising seafood dishes like Chemmeen (prawns), Kakka (clams) and Karimeen (pearl spot), elicit a fan following of their own.
And then there’s the legendary Bird Sanctuary by the side of Vembanad Lake. A famous haunt of ornithologists and bird watchers from across the world, many migratory species like the Siberian Stork and the Wild Duck, along with more common species like darters, herons, egrets, waterfowls and cuckoos can be found here.
Against this picturesque backdrop, imagine a group of local women silently heralding the cause of Responsible Tourism through delicious meals since 2011.
Welcome to Samrudhi Ethnic Food Restaurant.
One of Kumarakom’s flagship initiatives under Kerala’s award-winning Responsible Tourism (RT) Mission, this humble joint has been offering tourists a taste of local cuisine while providing a steady source of income to the women carrying its reins.
Vijayamma Sarlappan, Samruddhi group’s president, shares how it all started. She begins, “With the boom in the tourism industry that was shortly followed by various Responsible Tourism initiatives, employment scope for home-bound women like us gradually began to take shape, and with that, the possibility of a steady income finally seemed a reality.”
She explains that each of the ten wards under the Kumarakom Panchayat selected a Kudumbasree unit member to put together Samrudhi’s workforce.
“As an initial investment for the restaurant, each of us pitched in Rs 10,000 from our savings, in addition to a loan of Rs 2 lakh that we received from Kudumbasree, plus Rs 1 lakh as a subsidy,” she adds.
Under the Café Kudumbasree initiative, they also received training in catering as well as clean and hygienic restaurant practices.
“We were even trained with tips and practices to keep in mind while serving food. Everything we prepare is strictly in line with the Green Protocol and does not contain any artificial food colours or chemical additives. We have been practising this in our kitchen religiously from day one,” shares Puthuparambil Raji, the restaurant secretary.
Samrudhi Ethnic Food Restaurant opened its doors to people for the first time on 11 April 2011.
Today, Samrudhi has become a recognised Kumarakom brand, catering for nearby events as well. “We have prepared food for about 200 people and are positive that we can undertake orders for larger groups in the future,” adds Raji.
Starting at 6.30 am, the restaurant operates till 8.30 pm, with the local backwater delicacies finding maximum takers. From vegetables to seafood, everything is sourced by the team from local farmers and fishermen.
Organic vegetables like pavakya (bitter gourd), payar (beans), padavalangya (snake gourd), cheera (red spinach), vazhachundu (banana flower), mathangya (pumpkin), ethakaya (raw plantain) and etha pazham (ripe plantain) as well as milk, pappadom (papad) and coconuts are purchased by the women from farmers and Kudumbasree members.
Part of the Kerala government’s ‘triple-bottom-line’ mission which comprises economic, social and environmental responsibilities, Samrudhi restaurant is one of the 14,000 registered units operating under the state’s pioneering Responsible Tourism Mission.
As of the achievements of this ambitious project, about 75,000 people from across the state have found jobs in the tourism sector, while 40 villages have become part of RT packages. The total revenue of Responsible Tourism activities in the state is around Rs 10 crore annually, and the total revenue from RT initiatives in Kumarakom is Rs 3.15 crore a year, says Rupesh Kumar K, Responsible Tourism Mission, Kerala.
As of the achievements of this ambitious project, about 75,000 people from across the state have found jobs in the tourism sector, while 40 villages have become part of RT packages. The mission has single-handedly contributed to the state tourism sector with an annual turnover of Rs 7.15 crore.
Livelihood opportunities that empower once-confined local women to interact with people from across the globe are the accomplishments closer home.
In fact, Harold Goodwin, a tourist from England, penned the following words in their visitors’ diary. “Delicious food that is prepared and served with love. Extremely amiable and well-behaved employees. Thank you, thank you so much for all your services.”
From incorporating traditional jobs to seamlessly fit in with the tour packages, forming local women’s groups and integrating these into the tourism sector to introducing traditional cuisine from the backwaters to glocal tourists, Samrudhi is setting a rare benchmark for the tourism industry.
“Earlier, as ordinary home-makers, our interactions rarely extended beyond the peripheries of our households, let alone the society. Now, we can go anywhere without any fear or inhibition, and can ably interact with the community. These are changes that have significantly impacted our lives. In addition to that, we have managed to provide a quality education to our children, get them married, and even repay debts and loans. Thanks to Samrudhi, we have become pillars of support for our families,” shares Sarlappan, proudly.
The women have taken their responsibilities a notch higher by making cloth and paper bags to eliminate plastic waste. Earlier this month, they received the prestigious gold award conferred by the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).
This was one of the three awards conferred by PATA to Kerala Tourism for its women empowerment initiatives under the RT Mission. Samrudhi boasts of an annual turnover of Rs 15 lakh and plans on expanding to services like live kitchens, juice counters, and food festivals.
These successes, they attribute to the support and supervision of RT Mission’s state coordinator Roopesh Kumar and Kumarakom coordinator Bhagat Singh V S.
Remarkably, Samrudhi is not the only people-powered local initiative. Of the 15,500 RT units in the state, around 13,500 units are headed by women! Together, they reiterate how responsible tourism can uplift a region socially and economically.
As for the tourists, exposure to these places not only satisfies their wanderlust or gastronomic goals but also enriches their lived experience. So why not be part of an initiative that gives you so much and also allows you to give back to the place that made your trip worthwhile?
For more information on Samrudhi Ethnic Food Restaurant, reach out to Puthuparambil Raji at 9562750260.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)