Bodili (Gujarat), July 9 (IANS) India is reaching out to Africa with its expertise in grassroots development and gender empowerment projects to help poor women in countries like Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria become self-reliant with sustainable farm-based and traditional livelihoods.
One of the country's largest independent networks of grassroots women, the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), is working in the agro-processing and textiles sectors in Africa by partnering with local non-profit groups, said Reema Nanavaty, SEWA's director of rural and economic development.
The organisation is powered by 1.35 million members across 11 states in India.
'We have engaged with more 40,000 women at the grassroots in western Africa with the support of the Indian government,' Nanavaty told IANS in tribal-dominated Bodeli town in Gujarat's Vadodara district.
Nanavaty said the organisation's intervention projects in Africa were in the greater scheme of India's bilateral initiatives in capacity building and facilitating sustainable development in the continent.
'We have set up five food processing centres in Ghana for women and two each are on the way in Mali and Burkina Faso. They will be followed by one in Nigeria, which is a difficult country to work in,' the SEWA functionary said.
Created in Gujarat in 1972 by grassroots visionary Ila Bhatt, SEWA has spread its women's empowerment mission across the borders to forge gender solidarity in Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan.
It has a turnover of nearly Rs. 600 crore ($133 million).
Last week, the organisation unveiled a new partnership with MasterCard in the agro-processing sector by inaugurating a food packaging centre for women in Bodeli. The centre is an initiative under the organisation's RUDI brand, owned by marginal women farmers to ensure food security in the micro and domestic sectors.
Under the three-tier structure of the RUDI enterprise, a chain of women workers collect the produce from small cultivators at fair prices to avoid the nexus of middlemen and bring the stock to an agricultural development centre. These centres are the nodal processing bodies from where the processed food is sent to the RUDI centres to be packaged and weighed for sale by women.
A fleet of women hawkers sells the processed agro-products in the villages.
'Our organisation has engaged with 28 Afghan women in three RUDI centres across Afghanistan. The network is expanding in the impoverished grassroots,' Nanavaty said.
In India, the focus is also on remote regions like Kashmir, where SEWA has made a debut in agriculture, food processing, solar energy and textiles by engaging with Kashmiri women, the official said.
And true to the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi's ideals, the organisation works among 35,000 salt pan women workers in Gujarat and provides livelihood to thousands of ethnic women in Meghalaya and Assam in the northeast.
Change has been SEWA's slogan as it has marched from its textile labour roots to empower women in agriculture, food production, energy and crafts, Nanavaty said.
'We were part of the women's wing of the textile labourers founded by Gandhiji to recognise the work of headloaders and the poor cloth sellers in the markets and villages. (SEWA founder) Ila behn decided to organise these women into labour unions in the informal sectors where there is no employer-employee relationship. We wanted them to become stakeholders,' Nanavaty said.
SEWA has two feathers in its cap. It has been able to give women rights in family holdings to recognise them as farmers and has been the role model for the Nobel Prize-winning Muhammed Yunus' Grameen bank Project in Bangladesh, Nanavaty said.
'Granting land rights to women was a big struggle. We found it difficult to convince the men who questioned the need to have the names of women in family land titles. It was necessary for joint loans. In the late 1980s, we managed to include names of women in family land titles. It was the beginning of a slow transformation,' Nanavaty said.
The organisation has an extensive micro-credit loop: Members deposit their monthly savings - sometimes as meagre as Rs.100 ($2) in remote villages - at the SEWA Bank in nine Gujarat districts. They are eligible for three times the amount as credit.
'The loan recovery rate is 90 percent,' Nanavaty said.
Recalling from a fragment of memory, the official said: 'In 1974, Muhammed Yunus came to visit the first SEWA Bank model. He spent some time and returned to Bangladesh. A year later, he started the Grameen Bank.'
The organisation is now looking to marry technology with women's socio-economic empowerment in villages, the official said.
(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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