Sunita Nair was just 16 years old when she fell in love and got married in Kerala. Her husband held the reputable position of being a general manager at a small cement factory. Sunita was living her dream life until her entire world came crashing down. Her husband suddenly died in a car accident in 2015 and Sunita was left alone with two children to raise.
Since she was very young when she got married, she did not get a chance to finish her education. This led to a lack of employment opportunities for her after her husband’s death. The family, which had recently lost its only earning member, was left in a deprived condition.
After struggling for several months to make ends meet, Sunita decided to take matters into her own hands. She started a business in creating areca leaf plates and bowls in Hubli, Karnataka.
“Many people advised me to drop my elder kid out of college and send him to work. But I thought, ‘When my husband was alive, my kids never faced any issues. So now I will take care of their financial needs. I will not let their education suffer’,” Sunita recalled.
Sunita then embarked upon the journey as an entrepreneur in 2016. She did extensive research on what kind of products she wanted to sell. Both the raw material and the final product had to be long lasting and occupy less space.Furthermore, the product had to be made without expensive machinery. After several days of research, Sunita started a small business called ‘Arogya Plates and Cups’.
She was clueless about how to proceed. She sold her gold nose ring and purchased a second-hand machine to make the areca plates and started selling her products in the nearby market. But this wasn’t enough.
“I had never worked on my own. It was all too much to handle. Especially the marketing part,” she recalls.
As she struggled to sustain herself in the market, she received a much needed helping hand in the form of Navodyami, a program started by Hubli-based Deshpande Foundation to support micro entrepreneurs.
Sunita learned crucial marketing skills, expanded her network, made more products, and scaled her business several folds. She hired two employees and bought a new machine.
“After deducting all my expenditure, I manage to earn about Rs 7,000 per month,” she says. Her products are now in demand and she does not have enough space to keep them.
She currently sells plates and bowls in three sizes. She is soon planning to rent a bigger place and start manufacturing glass items as well.
Being financially independent can be liberating and solve many problems
Just like Sunita, 47-year-old Hemavathi Hiremath from Belgaum too is carving a unique path as a successful entrepreneur in this male-dominated field. After her divorce, Hemavathi realised the importance of being financially independent.
“Being financially independent is extremely important. You will have power if you are able to earn. Other problems can be solved easily if you are not dependent on someone else for your financial requirements,” Hemavati said.
Hemavathi held a BSc degree in chemistry, but could not work as she had to look after her young son. Hemavathi then decided to start a food processing business from her own house in 2007. Her first product was ‘Gulab Jamun Mix’, a powder to prepare gulab jamuns (an Indian dessert) instantly. Gradually, she started getting some orders. The business was decent and she was soon able to break even.
However, there was still a long way to go for Hemavathi. She got associated with Navodyami and underwent a week-long training where she learned to market her products to a wider audience. She was then connected with potential buyers and got key ideas on how to expand her business. The programme also guided her to get the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) certificate.
Today, she sells about eight products under the brand name of ‘Anmol Food Products’. She wants to expand to making more regional products. A small one room business now has clients from different cities. Hemavathi maintains proper accounts, which she never did earlier. This has given her a better understanding of revenue and expenditures. Her monthly turnover stands tall at Rs 60,000.
“There has to be proper clarity about what you want to do. Before starting anything, one should always do proper market research, know about the industry, and create your own USP. Also, punctuality is the key to get regular customers. Always deliver your products on time,” Hemavati advises other budding entrepreneurs.
An ecosystem to help women thrive as entrepreneurs
There are hundreds of women like Savita and Hemavati who started from scratch and managed to create a mark as successful entrepreneurs. And Navodyami has constantly provided them crucial guidance by validating their products, helping them develop marketing skills, and taking them into the mainstream market.
The programme was started in 2011 with an aim to nurture small scale entrepreneurs and help them scale up. After associating with Navodyami, these entrepreneurs get access to a plethora of opportunities to learn and expand. Connecting with like-minded people and potential buyers have encouraged them to keep doing what they do.
In the case of 46-year-old Sandhya Metrani, who runs a small garment business, Navodyami made her interact with fellow entrepreneurs. This led to an exchange of expertise and Sandhya learned about more ways to sell her products. Earlier she would just sell different dresses to her friends and family, but now she goes door to door to sell her garments.
“I lacked confidence and used to feel embarrassed to do door-to-door marketing. But when I saw other women doing similar work, I realised how crucial it is to approach even strangers to sell your products,” Sandhya said.
By connecting with these entrepreneurs at a personal level, Navodyami has been able to address issues faced by micro entrepreneurs which remained unnoticed before.
“We are monopolised as a society. There are limited brands. If we can divert even one percent of the budget of the middle class, we can support 31 million entrepreneurs,” said Neelam Maheshwari, Former Director, Navodyami.
After Navodyami’s intervention, there has also been an overall change in people’s perceptions. They have started looking at micro entrepreneurs with more respect. Even entrepreneurs have started aiming big.
Often people have credibility issues with unbranded local products. Navodyami selects entrepreneurs after an extensive screening process. This has furnished the products with the branding and quality validation they were missing before. In addition, an online market place has enabled these entrepreneurs to sell their products online easily.
“We want to make micro entrepreneurship a brand. Let’s make it fashionable to buy from craftsmen. Let’s support this collaborative competition and connect with entrepreneurs at a personal level,” added Neelam.
The multilayered approach
Navodyami works in three layers. The process starts with identifying aspiring small scale entrepreneurs with the desire to go big, and a skill set to scale. The selected entrepreneurs have unique products but may not have the necessary means to make their business thrive.
The second stage involves nurturing these enthusiastic entrepreneurs. Through confidence building, connection with fellow entrepreneurs, and access to various technical and experiential training programs, these entrepreneurs get much-needed clarity on the way forward.
For women especially, it is a pathbreaking experience. In the case of 47-year-old Sujata Chetta, whose husband was reluctant to support her venture, Navodyami came as a big relief.
In the middle of a family feud as well as health issues, Sujata managed to receive crucial help and now has become an inspiration for other women. The humble garment business, which was restricted to only family and friends as buyers have now scaled up. Sujata is now planning to export her products to different cities. She has learned multiple languages to reach out to more customers.
“I wasn’t good in networking earlier. Now I have got enough confidence. I have learned about internet banking and I am using social media to market my products. My dream is to open a big showroom in my parents’ name,” Sujata says.
The final stage of the programme places these small entrepreneurs in the mainstream by providing them credit connections, linking them with technical institutes and helping the participant get bulk marketing connections.
Poornima started her small business of selling sarees out of her own house. For one year she managed to receive a few orders every month. But after training and better market connections, Poornima started selling her products online. Her monthly turnover stands at around Rs 50,000.
“It is a great feeling since now I am able to financially contribute to my family. I am not dependent on someone else. I can buy anything I want anytime for myself and my kids. This sense of power keeps me going,” Poornima says.
A monthly market where buyers and sellers meet
To create better marketing opportunities for these entrepreneurs, Navodyami Santhe was introduced. It is a market space-cum-exhibition for micro entrepreneurs to set up a stall and sell their products. The three-day-long event gathers a huge crowd and helps these entrepreneurs sell their products in large quantities.
Over 30 Santhes have been organised so far and each Santhe has witnessed a footfall of about 4,000 people. Till date, over 400 micro entrepreneurs have been a part of this unique marketplace, which has resulted in transactions of over two crore rupees.
The entrepreneurs get to set up a stall for free for the first time at the Santhe, after which they pay a fee of Rs 2,000 for three days.
In the case of 55-year-old Jayshree Andani, who is a veteran in this field, market places like this have reduced her excessive workload. She had to go door to door and take extra orders to keep her business running.
Now, her delicious pickles, papads,
Jayshree had seen days when she would go to slums, schools, hospitals and give small samples to get orders. When she joined Navodyami, she got exposed to a larger market. She learnt crucial skills like digital marketing, selling her products online and facilitating online payment through PayTm, internet banking, etc.
“I don’t take small orders now. There is not enough time. Just by being part of such a market, we generate enough revenue,” she said. Her sale at every Santhe has been as high as Rs 80,000.
This talented entrepreneur has not just become a customers’ favourite, but has also built a house of her own without a loan. “I am satisfied now. Life is good,” Jayshree concludes with a smile.
With the help of such healthy ecosystems, these micro entrepreneurs are continuing on their journeys to become big. When the right opportunities are given, there is nothing that can stop these amazing women. They are growing every day and they are not looking back.
Photos: Shreya Pareek
This story was made possible with support from Deshpande Foundation.