When Yasmin Arimbra was sixteen, her father told her she could not study further due to financial constraints. “Come and help me in the paddy field instead,” was the unequivocal injunction.
“It pained me to see girls my age going to school and building a future for themselves. I knew that I couldn’t expect more from our family’s deplorable situation. I was turning into the kind of person I had detested all my life, someone who is denied an education and deprived of all social activities,” says 35-year-old Yasmin, a native of Thennala panchayat in Malappuram district of Kerala.
But Yasmin is made of sterner stuff. Mistress of her own destiny, she is now the Managing Director of Thennala Agro Producing Company that grows and sells paddy. Her rice brand ‘Thennala’ has made inroads in the regional markets and is widely known for being chemical-free.
Not only that, Yasmin has changed the lives of more than 500 women in the district by engaging them in farming activities, she has made them shareholders in her company.
In the last fiscal year, the company made a profit of Rs 24 lakhs that was equally distributed among these shareholders.
Breaking the Mould
After clearing her ninth standard with good marks, Yasmin was excited about tenth standard for she knew that freedom awaited her in college. But, her father’s words shattered her dreams.
“Hundreds of thoughts, both positive and negative, crossed my mind. There was not a single person I could talk to or lean on. I was desperately looking for one hope, one signal to cling onto. Though a little late, help did come,” she shares.
The state government’s Kudumbrashree Mission reached Yasmin’s village in 2010. The mission is a social collective working towards women’s upliftment through awareness, training programmes and financial aid.
The collective, that comprises of nearly 5 million women, forms Self-Help Groups (SHGs) at the grassroots level and gives its members vocational training.
The collective also solves the problems of the members through weekly meetings. It encourages small-time enterprises by helping them open bank accounts, to begin with, and later, they help them in availing subsidised loans from banks.
The moment Yasmeen heard of the Kudumbrashree Mission, she was one of the first to join.
“I was not alone. There were so many girls and women who were confined to the four walls of their house. Amidst all the issues, I saw hidden aspirations, hopes and an eagerness to be a changemaker. Their stories became my inspiration to form my own identity,” informs Yasmin.
Having worked for two years with passion and dedication to bring in more women under the mission, Yasmin was elected the President of Panchayat level unit of Kudumbashree.
And her first plan was to revolutionise paddy cultivation in the village.
“Most men would leave the village and go to the Middle East for jobs. The fields were abandoned and paddy cultivation saw a decline. Since these farms were already fertile and rice production was something that all of us were well-versed with, we decided to utilise the opportunity.”
Yet, even here, people did not make things easy for her. ‘Women cannot do ploughing’ and ‘your group won’t be able to get a fair price’ were some of the jibes she had to hear on a regular basis.
Forming the Agro Company
Disregarding the taunts, Yasmin mobilised local women (mostly from BPL families), which was a daunting task in itself. With no help from the family members, the onus of purchasing the land came entirely on the women.
Instead, the women got the required land on lease.
Yasmin divided all members into 126 groups (each having four women). Each cluster leased 1-3 acres of paddy field.
These 126 acres eventually increased to 522 acres with Kudumbashree’s constant financial help.
Alongside, Yasmin also enrolled in the State Literacy Mission in 2013, pursuing a level equivalent to class ten. Currently, she has joined a degree course in Sociology under the same programme.
From 26 tonnes of paddy in the first year and 30 tonnes in the next, the paddy cultivation thrived. However, women received marginal revenue as middlemen would mostly take the profits.
“Most of us are either school or college dropouts. We had no idea about marketing strategies, packaging and storage. The cost of renting a warehouse and paddy processing was too high. It was time to escalate our activities,” says Yasmin.
In 2015, Yasmin and her group took a brave step by launching their own company to avoid getting duped, remove middlemen and increase revenue.
Kudumbashree and NABARD both chipped in with Rs 10 lakh each. Each of the members gave Rs 1,000 and became shareholders of the company. Meanwhile, the Krishi Bhavan gave free seeds and natural fertilisers to these farmers.
In September 2015, Thennala Agro Farmer’s Producer Company Ltd was formed. Now the activities include cultivating, processing of paddy into rice and rice products (like rice flakes, rice bran, payasam, rice flour) and marketing them.
Under the brand name ‘Thennala rice’, the company packs the rice in cotton bags of 2,5 and 10 kilos.
The company sells its produce through trade fairs conducted by Kudumbashree, in local retail stores and to individual buyers.
Life has changed for these women, who once believed that taking care of the house was the only contribution they could make. Financial independence aside, there is a sense of confidence that resonates in the group.
“Earlier, I was just a housewife. But farming has changed my life. We were reluctant to come out into the public sphere. Now, we have gained confidence as there is financial independence and interaction with various people. All the jobs in the company are done by its members,’’ Hajira Syed, who cultivates 25 acres with seven other women, told The Indian Express.
Yasmin cultivates on five acres of land and has also started a school for 36 specially-abled children in the Panchayat.
Through her own savings, she runs the school where she has hired local teachers. “I spend close to Rs 36,000 to meet the school’s expenses. More than the money, it is my time that is more challenging to give. In future, I hope to provide them with vocational training to make them independent.”
Over the years, Yasmin has managed to turn the taunts into praises. Today, she is respected in the community where people, even men come to her for advice. Kudos to her for not giving up on her dreams under societal pressures!
Featured Image Source: Kudumbashree/Facebook
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)