Odisha entrepreneur and single mother Lalita Debi Singh shares her story of how she went from daily wage work to establishing a paper plate making unit that today earns lakhs and employs local youth and widows.
Life moved swiftly for Lalita Debi Singh, a resident of the Rayagada district in Odisha.
Growing up in a poor home, financial constraints forced her to drop out of Class 8. Like most girls in her village, she was married off by 14. Over the next ten years, she settled into her life as a homemaker with her husband and three children.
Things seemed to be going as they should, until 1998, when her husband unexpectedly passed away.
“I was shocked and left clueless. He was the only breadwinner of the family and with three small children, I didn’t know what to do. Even though family members helped for a few months, it was only a temporary solution,” she recalls.
Lalita began taking up several daily wage jobs within the village and engaging in stitching after work. Even if she was rendered exhausted, she wouldn’t stop, as was certain that her children shouldn’t suffer like she had to. They should be provided with the opportunity to study as much as they want, she thought.
With expenses and bills piling up, Lalita understood that her family could not sustain her mere daily wage.
“There was no chance of getting a full-time job, as I hadn’t even completed high school. Yet again, my future was a question mark,” she says.
The turning point
For a few months in 2014, Lalita worked as a daily wager in a paper plate-making factory. Here, she would quickly pick up the skill and learn how to operate machines in the factory. While thinking about starting her own enterprise to get a better income, a paper plate-making company appeared as one of the possible options.
“Instead of taking fresh paper to make plates, I decided to use waste paper including newspaper and magazines to manufacture them. In 2016, after borrowing Rs 15,000 from my family, I registered my venture Jay Hanuman Paper Plates in Amalabhata, Rayagada,” says Lalita.
In a few months, she realised that this capital wouldn’t suffice to purchase machinery, rent a room, and employ people.
“I started looking for loans from several banks, but living in a rented house and with no other collateral to provide, every request was rejected. That was when I came in contact with Bharatiya Yuva Shakti Trust (BYST) through a friend,” she adds.
BYST is a non-profit organisation which provides a platform to turn business ideas into profitable enterprises by providing financial help and guidance. The board of trustees include C K Birla, chairman of C K Birla Group and Lakshmi V Venkatesan, daughter of former president R Venkataraman.
“With the help of this organisation, I got a loan of Rs 5 lakh from a public sector bank. In a period of six months, I equipped the factory with new machinery, labours and other amenities.”
The paper plate-making unit manufactures up to 10,000 plates a day and earns a profit of Rs 30,000 per month, she says. “Even during the lockdown period, this income remained static and the employees never lost their jobs.”
Lalita’s unit supplies plates to all nearby shops and events in the district. She gets customers from neighbouring districts too.
When women work together
Other than making profits, Lalita says her major aim was to provide employment to people like her.
“I was widowed at the age of 24. Lack of education and social stigma towards single mothers were two issues I constantly faced in life. While putting together the company, I was certain about employing marginalised and uneducated people,” says the 48-year-old.
She continues, “At present, 20 people work in the unit. Of them, 10 are women coming from poor backgrounds. Since the inception of the unit six years ago, I have trained over 50 widows, school dropouts and adolescents who lost parents. This was made possible through the BYST organisation. I am now a mentor there and provide part-time jobs to my students at the factory.”
Sreedevi (name changed upon request), a full-time employee of Jay Hanuman Paper Plates says, “I was married off at the age of 15 to a man who was much older than me. In three years, I became a widow and single mother of a daughter. It was really hard for me to find work as I am uneducated and this was during the peak of the pandemic. In 2020 Lalita didi employed me in the unit on a part-time basis and later on full-time. I earn up to Rs 12,000 here.”
With an annual turnover of Rs 25 lakh, Lalita is all set to install a paper sheet-making machine as the unit at times faces unavailability of quality raw materials. The unit is registered under the medium enterprise category. In 2020, she received the Vijayalakshmi Das Entrepreneurship Award for her excellence in the field.
Edited by Divya Sethu; Photo credits: Malaya Kumar Rath