ANANATAGIRI, India - Chintapakka Jambulamma, 34, looks admiringly at a solar dryer. It’s the prized possession of the Advitalli Tribal Women’s Co-operative Society- a collective of women entrepreneurs that she leads.
She opens up a drawer in the dryer, scoops out a handful of the medicinal plant Kalmegh and exclaims, “Look, it’s drying so fast.”
Around her, women from the co-operative break into laughter. The women are from the Koya and Konds tribes in the Eastern Ghat mountains of southern India. The forest has always been their home and their source of sustenance. Now, these women are tapping the sun that shines through it.
The solar dryer has four panels attached. It was installed two years ago by the Kovel Foundation – a non-profit group that helps forest tribes defend their rights and improve their livelihood.
The dryer – one of the two such machines installed by the foundation so far, cost about a million rupees (17,000 dollars) says Krishna Rao, director of the foundation.
The investment has been worth it, he says, because the women are using it to run a business sustainably. “There are 2,500 women from 20 villages in the cooperative. None of them have studied beyond the junior school. Yet, they know how to run a business well,” Rao tells IPS.
“They are organised and work well as a team. Also, they are learning how to collect the roots, leaves and fruits without harming the mother plant, so that their resources don’t run dry.”
The forests of this region yield more than 700 non-timber forest products that include leaves, edible herbs, medicinal plants, fungi, seeds and roots. Most popular among them are honey, gum, Amla (Indian gooseberry), Tendu leaves, Mahua flowers and soap nuts.
Koyas and Konds have made a living for centuries off such forest products. Penikala Ishwaramma, 23, is one of the herb gatherers. On a good day she gathers 20-25 kg of herbs. This year there is a bumper growth of the kalmegh herb in the forest, and Ishwaramma has gathered 116 kg of it.
The forest department buys much of this produce – 25 products must be sold to the department alone. But tribal people find the department’s procurement process slow and its prices lower than the market price. The forest department pays 45 rupees for a kilogram of gooseberry, while the existing market price is more than 60 rupees (about a dollar).
It’s this disappointment with government prices that drove the women to build their own collective business of selling forest products. Within two years, they are close to earning the 200,000 rupees (3,300 dollars) the Kovel Foundation loaned them.
The foundation had also provided basic entrepreneurial skill-building. Every day women like Ishwaramma bring their bounty directly to the cooperative where the managing team weighs and buys them, paying much higher than the government rate.
“We work hard, gather good quality herbs and seeds, “ says Ishwaramma. “Our life depends on this money. Why should we settle for less?”
But making a profit for the cooperative depends on producing good quality herbs quickly and efficiently – a difficult task as the women lack proper infrastructure to store or dry their produce. In addition, forests villages are very vulnerable to extreme weather, especially cyclonic storms.
According to the Disaster Management department of Andhra Pradesh state in southern India, the area has witnessed over 60 cyclones in the past 40 years, and the frequency is rising.
Using solar energy to dry their herbs has helped the women minimise risks of damage. In 2013, their forest was hit by five big cyclones – Mahasen. Phailin, Helen, Lehar and Madi. Yet the group didn’t lose much of their produce.
“Before a storm approaches, we try to dry as much of the herbs as possible and quickly pack them,” says Jambulamma. “We no longer need to leave them in the courtyard to dry.”
With drying and packaging no longer under weather, the group is now focusing on building a network of regular buyers, which would help them break even.
Bhagya Lakshmi, programme manager at the Kovel Foundation which connects the women with herbal product manufacturers, agrees. “They have already got their first big client which is a Bangalore-based herbal pharmaceutical company called Natural Remedies Private Limited. Currently, they are buying kalmegh in bulk quantity. We are trying to find more firms who will buy other products from them.”
Besides establishing a clientele, the women are planning to upgrade their technology. Krupa Shanti heads five forest villages in the area. Shanti says she is proud of the women’s cooperative and would like to see it grow bigger.
The government has installed a solar photo voltaic station at a nearby school that can convert and store solar power. Shanti is lobbying authorities to install one such station in her village.
“The government has so many welfare schemes. But for forest women like us, the best scheme is one that will help us become economically independent. If the government installs a solar charging station in each of our villages, we can expand this business and change our future.”