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Working at the grassroots level, how Srujna is generating livelihoods for women affected by poverty

Vaishali Gandhi and Jyotika Bhatia started Srujna in 2012 to help women’s Self-Help Groups (SHGs) with infrastructure, market linkage, training and organisational support. Its Super Didi programme enables women to become leaders/entrepreneurs and impact other women in their communities.

Working at the grassroots level, how Srujna is generating livelihoods for women affected by poverty

Thursday May 25, 2023 , 6 min Read

As MBA students at Narsee Monjee Insitute of Management Studies, Jyotika Bhatia and Vaishali Gandhi worked a volunteers with a women’s shelter in Andheri, Mumbai.

Here, they helped them learn mathematics, English and other basic interaction skills, but it was an experience that stayed with them long after.


Women at a SHG unit

“These rescued women are placed in shelter homes for a minimum of 21 days. But on leaving the shelter, most of them do not have families to fall back on. They lack money or vocational skills to start new lives. They end up being trafficked again,” said Bhatia.

Determined, the students of social entrepreneurship decided to set up a pilot project in the same shelter. As luck would have it, a woman from the same shelter agreed to train the others to make jewellery.

Bhatia and Gandhi later sold these pieces to different places—corporate campuses, universities, pop-ups and exhibitions to be sold. This pilot which lasted eight months was reaping generational livelihoods and income in this space.

“We did our own research and discovered multiple models in existence. NGOs were employing women or artisans for making products. But self-help groups (SHGs) were not connected to the customers or clients directly,” says Bhatia.

This is what led to Srujna –a not-for-profit set up in 2012 to link self-help groups, artisan groups, and other non-profits working with women to clients and markets.

In the next two years, Srujna associated with various existing SHGs or livelihood generation units run by women by inviting them to exhibit their products.

“We work with three categories of women – those affected by poverty, abuse, or human trafficking. These are typically women from low-income groups with a family size of 4-5 members and a combined income of less than Rs 15,000 a month. They work mostly with textile and food and could be either part of registered on non-registered self-help groups.”

Support begins with infrastructure. For example, a group might have just a simple sewing machine for making 20 pieces. Srujna helps them scale so they can fulfil orders of more than 5,000 pieces in a short time.

Capacity building happens in the form of training by experts to upgrade their skills according to market demand. The organisation also provides a team of merchandisers whose help begins with procuring of raw material to processing of orders. Srujna helps with the marketing and once the group is self-sustaining, connects it to the client directly. Its intervention usually lasts between three to five years.

Creating fireballs of change

When Srujna felt the  internal ecosystem was running smoothly, what they found was a lack of leadership skills among women. “Two years ago, we observed that while Srujna’s interventions were helping women, and changing their external environment with income generation, their mindsets still remained the same,” said Gandhi.

This led to the Super Didi programme, in collaboration with The/Nudge Institute, as part of its latest cohort of social enterprises.

Some were lax about fulfilling their orders citing domestic reasons and had a passive attitude,” says Gandhi.

The founders had worked hard to procure them orders, but the chalta hai (taking it easy) attitude displayed by the women was frustrating. They realised that the internal mindset towards change and taking charge of their lives was also important.

“The idea is to create fireballs of change in different parts of India who can create 10x more impact than we were doing by backing them with the right resources and support, which will then percolate into the community and reach more women,” said Gandhi.

The aim of the programme is to increase self-confidence, create positive beliefs, make the women become self-aware, hone their leadership skills, develop life skills, and encourage a growth mindset.

According to Bhatia, women selected to the Super Didi programme work at the grassroots level and must display certain leadership traits and characteristics that show their commitment to a business idea and the community.

Like Kumari Rao, a resident of the slums of Khardanda in Mumbai. She learned tailoring from a small machine she had at home and would take orders from those around her. Shortly after enrolling in the Super Didi programme, she registered her own business with Srujna’s help and currently employs six women from her community.

“We ask grassroots NGOs to appoint women who are then taken through a 10-week course where they must also exhibit their eagerness to impact other women on completion. At the end, they must initiate a community project. Level two of the programme is for women starting their own businesses. They are provided with infrastructure support,” she says.

There are three outcomes for Super Didis to become entrepreneurs – they are already working in a livelihood unit, or want to start something of their own, or are looking to scale their current unit that nominated them.

The support solutions also include financial literacy programmes for women in communities in nine states in India where Srujna is present.

The journey to empower women

Bhatia says the focus on textile (garments, fabric, etc) and food (papads, pickles) is intentional. Working in these areas give women the flexibility to be within the community and not travel far, thus managing both home and work.

SHGs, under Srujna’s supervision are also producing bacteria-free, chemical-free and odour-free reusable sanitary napkin kits for Rs 365 that will last a year. They believe it doesn’t matter if a group has three women or 30 women, it’s important that the unit sustain itself and the women make an income out of it. Srujna has reached 20,000 women till date with 44 Super Didis impacting 2,900 women in just six months.

The biggest challenge in their journey is changing mindsets, whether of the women or the donors.

“People often priortise family responsibilities over work and leave the work mid-way. It’s tough for us to explain to clients when orders are not fulfilled on time,” said Bhatia.

Gandhi says it is tough to come to terms with a donor mindset that insists on ‘the entire 100 rupees it donates to reach the beneficiary”. What of staff salaries? Do machines run on their own?” she asks in frustration. Most of Srujna’s funds have come from CSR programmes of more than 56 companies.

This is where they say support from The/Nudge Institute has helped both with funding and the growth of the Super Didi programme.

“We have a clear vision for the next three years. We want to distribute one lakh sanitary napkin kits in the next two years. This will create more employment. Our target is also to create a 100 Super Didis and each one, impacting 30 other women. We are also committed to expanding our financial literacy programme,” Gandhi said.


Edited by Akanksha Sarma