Women’s Day 2024: Catering dreams in Kerala

From an initiative to empower women, the state’s Kudumbashree Mission has become its lifeline 

The Adheba
self-help group provides direct employment to 200 women and maintains a vast network of 3,500 chefs and caterers across Kerala (Photograph: K A Shaji)

When the Kudumbashree Mission was launched in 1999, it was a government-sponsored endeavour aimed at empowering women, primarily through credit activities in Kerala’s rural areas. However, what began as a modest initiative has transformed into a project that is fuelling community development.

Supported by the Union government and NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development), India’s apex development bank, Kudumbashree has metamorphosed into the world’s largest collective of its kind, boasting over 309,000 self-help groups (SHGs) spread across the state.

Throughout its journey, Kudumbashree has proven its resilience, particularly during times of crisis. From the devastating Kerala floods of 2018 to the unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, women affiliated with the mission have emerged as pillars of support for their communities. During the pandemic, Kudumbashree facilitated interest-free credit amounting to some Rs 1,917 crore to 2.5 million members, providing a lifeline to Kerala’s economy.

This article was originally published as part of  Down To Earth’s special issue dated 1-15 March, 2024. 
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Furthermore, Kudumbashree’s impact extends beyond financial support. The organisation’s proactive engagement in various sectors, including catering, organic farming, agri-business and food processing, has empowered women to explore innovative avenues and contribute meaningfully to the economy.

One of the oldest ventures under Kudumbashree, started 10 years after the launch of the scheme, is the Adheba Institute of Food Research and Hospitality Management, situated in Thrissur. Adheba has become a symbol of empowerment, training women from low-income backgrounds in culinary arts and hospitality management.

Rathi Kunhikrishnan, who conceived and proposed the idea of Adheba to Kudumbashree, told Down To Earth (DTE), “Rural women usually cook well and they are ready to experiment. So I thought food was an area in which rural women could attain self-dignity.” Till now, Adheba has trained over 35,000 women to become chefs, with 15,000 of them undergoing advanced training to establish local catering units.

Today, Adheba provides direct employment to 200 women and maintains a vast network of 3,500 chefs and caterers across Kerala. Moreover, the institute’s influence extends beyond state borders, with training programmes being extended to women SHGs in Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand.

“If you have to celebrate an event in any corner of Kerala’s 14 districts, you can call us and avail our service,” says Rathi. The initiative, operating on a non-profit model, ensures that profits are equitably distributed among involved families, fostering a sense of collective ownership and empowerment.

As the Kudumbashree Mission commemorates 25 years of transformative impact, it has prompted many disempowered women to venture into innovative areas like organic farming, farm tourism, agri-business, meat processing, poultry, food processing, aquaculture and other micro-enterprises. It is also running an e-commerce platform for marketing products made by members.

By creating a self-help group, Meena Rahangdale raised money to buy the rice mill she used to work in as a daily wage labourerA BUYOUT

By creating a self-help group, Meena Rahangdale raised money to buy the rice mill she used to work in as a daily wage labourer

WHEN THE rice mill where Meena Rahangdale worked as a daily wage labourer shut shop during the COVID-19 pandemic, she did not lose heart. “The income had stopped and the mill owners wanted to sell the machines. Fourteen of us decided to buy them,” she says. Rahangdale, who is a graduate, and the other women daily wage labourers formed a self-help group. “We pooled in Rs 40,000 per head from our savings to collect Rs 5.6 lakh and took a bank loan of Rs 2 lakh under the government’s Deendayal Antyodaya Yojna-National Rural Livelihoods Mission,” she says.

Since the group had no common space, they decided to set up the machine at the cattle shed in Rahangdale’s house. “This also ensured that we do not have to commute to the mill, which is some 12 km from the village,” says Rahangdale. “So far, we have made a profit of about Rs 3 lakh which we plan to use to repay the loan and expand the business,” says Rahangdale.

Riding on her success, Rahangdale contested the 2023 Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly elections as an independent candidate but lost. “Many political parties approached me after that, but I have joined the Bharatiya Janata Party and am working as its zonal head,” says Rahangdale.

(Based on a conversation with Anil Ashwani Sharma)

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