Sukirna Majhi is a 65-year-old widow who was once not allowed inside a temple because she belonged to a lower caste. She had no source of livelihood and was ruthlessly exploited by moneylenders. Tikuri Murmu, 52, lost her husband but had three children to feed. Life for her became unbearable.
Rani Hembrum is a young woman who was suspected by her villagers of practising sorcery and witchcraft. She was thrown out of the village. Rita Murmu’s husband was an alcoholic and was beating her every night. As a result, her family was living in penury.
When life was hell and becoming a burden for these tribal women of Balasore district in Odisha, came the shades of Vat Vrikshya in their life.
Vat Vrikshya, literally means banyan tree, was founded in 2014 by Vikash Das, a software professional, who sacrificed his highly successful career in IBM. His motto: To provide diversified and sustainable livelihood opportunities to countless tribal women of the district. Without any office space, the entire operation was carried out under a banyan tree with only one woman as Vat Vrikshya’s first customer and entrepreneur.
Four years on, Vat Vrikshya, through grassroots initiatives and strategic corporate partnerships, has a workforce of 2500 women artisans. It has directly and indirectly impacted the lives of almost 18,000 tribal women who are living a life of dignity and self-respect.
Vikash started the venture all alone but now his team has 72 actively involved and equally motivated people and volunteers who help him share his vision. The middle men are completely eliminated from the chain.
Tribal women are connected with role models, such as successful women entrepreneurs from other tribal villages, enabling the creation of a market network between different tribal villages, towns and cities. They are given the initial capital, linkages to women’s social groups, NGOs and financial institutions to help them launch their own arts and crafts enterprises.
Vat Vrikshya makes a seed donation of Rs 3000 to women of every family in the villages it works in. To this, the women add their own contribution based on their monetary situation. Vat Vrikshya also helps these women to avail bank loans.
Vocational training is given to tribal women based on their expertise and areas of interest. The enterprise identifies market needs by interviewing potential customers about the requirements. It also educates urban customers about tribal arts, handicrafts and culture to encourage sales. The products are then branded and packaged attractively. Women are also taught how to market their products effectively.
Now Sukirna Majhi, an expert in bamboo crafts, is an entrepreneur and has employed 26 women from her village. Rita is now a self sufficient farmer who has achieved a sustainable source of income. She has transitioned her life from an exploited wage labourer to an independent farmer. She grows several varieties of organic vegetables and has incorporated livestock and fish culture into her farm.
Vat Vrikshya even organises counselling sessions as a result of which many tribal men have stopped drinking. “My husband is now a changed man. He helps me in farming. He has stopped drinking and motivates others to do so,” said Rita.
Sangeeta Tudu’s children no longer sleep hungry. Now, she has a colour television at home. She saves money in a bank account to see her children achieve financial empowerment. Rani, Sukima and Rita are some of the successful entrepreneurs and after attending Vat Vrikshya’s Women Shakti programme, these women have achieved more confidence in decision-making and interpersonal relations.