This social entrepreneur is changing the lives of tribal women and youth in Naxal-affected Chhattisgarh

Social entrepreneur Shaikh Raziya started Bastar Food in 2017 to uplift Bastar's tribal women and educated youth, often labelled Naxals by default, by creating job opportunities specifically for them.

When people in power were battling the decades-long battle of malnutrition in Bastar district in Chhattisgarh only by suggesting they eat healthy and very little action on ground, Shaikh Raziya decided to take matters into her own hands and work towards progressive change from within networks of women

Raziya, who holds a master’s degree in microbiology, was working as a researcher at an Ramkrishna Sarada Seva Ashram, an NGO funded by the Tata Trusts.

The key areas of her research work were health, nutrition, and livelihood. She also conducted training workshops for tribal women, educating them on the necessary diets during and post-pregnancy while also encouraging them to pursue their skills and knowledge to start small-scale businesses and earn a livelihood.

Raziya says she tried convincing government officers that they also needed financial support but to no avail.

“They told me that this was not my business; that I was just a researcher who should focus on her work. But what good is research when no steps and actions are taken from it?” she asks.

Starting up for social good

After she completed her projects at the NGO in 2017, she decided to take matters into her own hands and started up from her home. The motive to start Bastar Food was not only to uplift the tribal women but also the educated youth in the district, often labelled Naxals by default, by creating job opportunities specifically for them.

She turned away the job opportunities that came her way to work at government offices and other organisations. 

Raziya noticed that while there were products being made in the district, most lagged in terms of packaging, hygiene, licensing, and marketing. 

She began by providing services of packaging, identifying a market, branding, and helping out with cost analysis. “We also guide them on applying for various licences and the importance of doing nutritional analysis for every product,” she adds. 

The Mahua miracle

Mahua ladoo being made

Interestingly, Raziya says, that it was also the same time when the now bestselling product of Bastar Food, Mahua ladoo, was created. 

Ten tribal women whose husbands had migrated to cities in search of work approached Raziya. The group of women told her about ladoos made from Mahua flowers, which are traditionally used to make liquor. 

Raziya saw that the other ingredients being used were of poor quality and taste, but agreed to help and dedicated the next six months towards research and development of the product

She found that the mahua flower, a source of natural sweetener, has a high nutritional value that can benefit children and mothers by increasing haemoglobin levels in their blood as well.

According to the Unicef, 53 per cent of children in Chhattisgarh are stunted while 48 per cent are underweight. 

“As the Mahua tree is worshipped in tribal culture, they would earlier make alcohol out of it, and give it to pregnant mothers and children, saying it’s a prasad (god’s offering),” she says.

Bastar Food then started selling Mahua ladoos and bars, which were also presented during the TiEcon 2019 in Silicon Valley, California last year. In fact, the product also caught the attention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and several ministers when it was presented at a programme in Delhi. 

Soon, they saw sales soaring on their website with orders from cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Raipur, Hyderabad, and Kolkata, among others.  

Women working at Bastar Food

Empowering the youth

The Bastar-based social entrepreneur is in the process also opening up  opportunities to young people. 

Raziya explains, “Many would come and learn technology operations. Since it is a mainly Hindi-speaking region and most tech-related work requires an understanding of English, we translated the terms into Hindi and taught them.”

Most of them now work on detecting adulteration in food and assessing nutritional values of traditional and tribal food

“I wanted to set an example that nothing is impossible in Bastar. If you think that Bastar is a Naxal-affected area where there are no resources, you are wrong,” she adds. 

Gradually, the team went on to create a website and entered the social media space. They hope to launch a YouTube channel as well. 

The COVID-19 impact 

In January 2020, Amazon reached out to Bastar Food to meet its consumers' demand for natural and organic products.

When the company was about to ship its first orders to different cities earlier this month, Raziya says, the nationwide lockdown put all operations on halt. They have paused all business operations since then. 

Raziya and her team hope to get back to work as soon as problems surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic are resolved.      

(Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan)


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