International Women’s Day: Change agent Mitali G Dutta is giving hope and livelihood to women in rural Assam

The need to empower women to attain their full potential comes to the forefront once again as the world marks the 2022 International Women’s Day on March 08. While the United Nations’ global focus for the year is gender equality, there is a need to pay close attention to women in rural communities and how they can become more meaningful to themselves, their families and the society at large.

Hence, our attention shifts to one woman who, through sheer commitment to the growth of other women, is championing a cause that is not just changing lives but transforming communities in no small measure. Assam’s Mitali G Dutta’s story began in 2015 as a mere quest for financial independence.

“I was raising my daughters and exploring the possibility of working from home. Those were pre-pandemic times. The goal wasn’t exactly to become an entrepreneur. I just wanted to hone my craft and scale up my digital marketing skills, even if I was bootstrapped. Then I set up Food Sutra by Mitali (FSM). At the time, I had decided I would be a baking and culinary instructor. I had just one student, but with each passing year, the business just kept growing.

“It wasn’t easy though. It took understanding the needs of my current and prospective students, modifying my teaching content and training modules, learning about marketing, business management, sales, and moving outside my comfort zone to get to where we are today,” she said.

Having a mother who taught her a lot about food and cooking and working in the hospitality industry for a while certainly had an impact on her life, but it is her penchant for learning and research that has catapulted her business this far. FSM started by providing cooking and baking classes to women, before eventually specialising in just baking. The goal is to empower women to not just learn about delicacies, nutritional value and culinary presentation, but to also learn marketing and promotional aspects of it using digital skills.

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This digital marketing skill made the difference for FSM during the lockdown when Mitali trained about 1,000 students and generated a monthly turnover of Rs 10 lakh. “Before the pandemic, I used to conduct sessions in my studio, and I used to regularly post about my sessions, techniques, and finished baked products, which helped FSM build credibility and trust amongst viewers. Post-pandemic, I had to transition entirely to an online coaching mode. Again, I used social media marketing to advertise and promote my sessions and workshops for increased reach and it has boosted my sales tremendously,” she adds.

It wasn’t until 2017 that her journey began to make a lot more sense. Meeting the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and entering into a strategic partnership with them would go on to reshape the course of her history in no mean way. Her job was spelt out; to transform the local wives of ex-poachers into traditional culinary entrepreneurs, who would attract tourists and visitors with their local cuisines and greens. But beyond cooking, they would gain a lot of experience in hospitality and presentation.

Women from Karbi, Missing and Bodo tribes in the various rural areas of Assam like Sonapur, Natundanga Village (Kaziranga), Barangabari (Manas) and also in Karbi Anglong have now become independent, while their husbands have left poaching and are now collaborating with authorities in ecological and wildlife preservation.

“My experience as a culinary enthusiast with vast knowledge of the hospitality industry came to bare, and the project has been a huge success ever since. My objective was to help the women understand that the naturally rich environment that surrounds them is a treasure. These communities are highly dependent on their natural habitat. Their traditional cuisines are exquisite, and most dishes are cooked using locally available herbs and greens. The training that I have imparted focuses on both aspects – theoretical understanding of the locally-available ingredients and practical knowledge of preparing the food for people in larger numbers and serving them in a way that delights them. Additionally, they are taught hospitality, code of conduct, presentation and plating and also eco-friendly waste management techniques. The way the trainees have adopted and applied the learnings is commendable.”

“These women have also gone on to set up their enterprise called Gungzema Kitchen, which has hosted numerous guests from around the world. Overall the impact has been a meaningful one because now they have an alternative and sustainable source of earning and livelihood,” she notes.

Santina Basumatary, a member of Gungzema Kitchen, highly regards Mitali’s consistent efforts to teach them both hard and soft skills. “We never had any idea about running an enterprise like this. We did not earn. We only knew household work. But Mitali baideo (madame) has taught us to better our skills and work hard to be consistent and professional in our work.”

“Earlier, survival in itself was a concern for us. Now we are earning and are self-dependent, because of Gungzema Kitchen and the training that we have received,” says Bhadri, another beneficiary and staff of Gungzema.

A traditional Bodo platter served by Gungzema Kitchen contains about 7-8 items and is priced at Rs 500. Customers have often appreciated and acknowledged the culinary skills of the locals and valued their efforts to upscale their household skills into a growing business venture. Another member, Sharmila said, “When tourists sample our food, they usually tell us of how they relished our platter. It encourages us and makes us happy!”

Deba Kumar Dutta from WWF India informs us that the collaboration with Mitali turned out to be quite successful. Speaking further, he says, “The women here now live with dignity. There is a sense of empowerment within the groups. They are working hard and are motivated to do so much more. We’ve seen quite a lot of tourists visiting Manas of late and the feedback on food and hospitality is excellent.”

As a result, Mitali set up a second venture called FSM Food trails to focus on these vulnerable communities in the same way culinary tourism is spreading in Northeast India. Market linkages and better organisation are other avenues for growth in these areas, according to Mitali.

Mitali is certainly worth celebrating as an International Women’s Day icon. Having equipped herself with the necessary skills as an alumnus of the U.S. Consulate’s Academy of Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) and the Binge Marketing Club, she’s set on a path to impart her knowledge- one woman at a time.

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