By Priya Thyagaraj, Envirofit India Director of Communications & Social Media
India undeniably challenges perceptions, and never more so when you consider the contrasts in how women are treated. This is a country where women once led armies and were freedom fighters. Today, women lead large corporations with distinction and actively participate in politics. Two women have led this nation as Prime Minister and President.
Given that context, there can be a mental disconnect to learn women also face discrimination and marginalization when it comes to social, political, and economic participation, access to education, and reproductive healthcare. What causes the gap?
Article 15(3) of the Constitution of India explicitly states: “Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women and children.” In addition, State Policy 39(a) directs the state to secure adequate and equal means of livelihood for both men and women.
Despite these provisions, gender pay gaps in India exist and are especially large in rural areas, where women often earn half of their male counterparts even as they work longer hours in the field. Money that’s earned by women is often saved for the home and education for their children. Other societal issues that impact economic parity include malnourishment and harassment. And, an issue that is closest to Envirofit – health hazards caused by Indoor Air Pollution. It disproportionately affects women and children in rural areas.
Helping women become entrepreneurs
Looking at the numbers, and given our experience in the field, we at Envirofit India asked if there was a way to further economically empower women in smaller towns and villages. Envirofit is an industry leader in the field of improved cookstoves, having sold over 500,000 stoves across India and over 1 million globally. In addition, we work with Micro-Finance Institutions to help women purchase clean cookstoves through financing programs. How could we extend the success of our flagship stove, the PCS1- SPANDAN™, to more women who needed them?
The answer lay within our organization – a program for successfully developing last-mile female cookstove entrepreneurs, first implemented by Envirofit in Kenya. The program was developed in partnership with Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Winrock, and the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC), and has been recommended by the industry.
With the help of grant money, our pilot program was held in Sangli, Maharashtra in December, 2016. Leading the event were Sr. Manager – Product and Consumer Experience, Ravi Kumar, and Sales Manager – West, Vinay Lapate. Our partner in the field is the Institute of Rural Credit and Entrepreneurship Development (IRCED). With their help, we worked on selecting the best female entrepreneurs in the area, with the intent of enhancing their abilities through a well-crafted training program.
Traditionally, and for a variety of reasons, drop-off rates for training programs in rural areas are 80 – 90%. Our pilot program looked at reducing that attrition rate to 50%. It began with selecting the right participants: 49 Village-Level Entrepreneurs (VLEs) were selected and shadowed for a month, both individually, and with IRCED. Our aim was to see how well they performed in the field when selling stoves, and to assess their levels of engagement in the process. This narrowed our field to 15, with 11 attending the program on the last day. The success of this pilot is enabling a second session which will begin in March, 2017.
Stories of success
Shobha Chandure, 40, is one of the first VLE’s in this program. A store owner who sells sarees and other material, she bought 10 SPANDAN™ cookstoves with a loan from IRCED, priced at Rs. 2000/- each. Using her shop as a platform, she engages with local women, demonstrating the benefits of an improved cookstove. Having sold six pieces to date, she is actively working on selling the remaining 4 and ordering more cookstoves. How does she do it?
“I see these cookstoves as a way to supplement my income and support my family,” says Shobha. “Each morning, I wake up thinking of different ways to sell my stock, and how to show women this stove will save on fuel and reduce smoke. It is a challenge for many people to pay Rs. 2000/- for a stove. I offer it to them on a loan; buyers pay me Rs. 100/- on a weekly basis.” She adds with quiet pride: “I studied up to the 4th standard. Now I have my own business and even sold 3 cookstoves in one day!”
It’s a story that vegetable shop owner Babitai Raosaheb Patil, 40, understands well. A 20-year resident in her community of Malegaon, she bought her first 10 cookstoves from IRCED as well. Buying them on loan at Rs. 2000/-, Babitai, like other VLE’s in the program, has the flexibility to offer a Rs. 100/- discount to cash buyers. She has already sold eight units, two on a cash basis and six to purchasers who cannot afford to pay more than Rs. 100/- on a weekly repayment plan.
Babitai’s fierce independence belies the fact that she has never attended school. Envirofit’s clean cookstoves provide a means to earn extra income for herself and her family of five; she recently celebrated after selling five cookstoves in one day. Babitai smiles as she says: “My customers know that I am trustworthy and that I will provide much better after sales services to customers as and when required. These stoves are good, they help reduce smoke, cook faster than mud chulhas, and help keep kitchens clean. Local stoves are cheaper, but I make Envirofit stoves affordable through my loan plan and know my customers will buy from me.”
In stories like Shobha’s and Babitai’s lie the seeds of a larger VLE program for women across the country. One we believe will succeed not just because Envirofit India took the time to study the process and select the best candidates, but because of the energy and ambition each participant brings to the training program.
To learn more about Envirofit India’s VLE program contact firstname.lastname@example.org