How rural women entrepreneurs in Assam are stifled by harsh business conditions
Local artisans of Dhansiri Cluster Development Federation

The rise of Assam into global recognition stems from its beautiful landscapes and tourist attractions, a booming tea industry and a thriving commercial ecosystem. 

Add to this a budding tech industry and technopreneurs with several promising startups, and the future seems bright. However, sustainable growth and development cannot be achieved if it is not all-encompassing, cutting across the state’s suburban and rural regions.

With local industries like handloom, tea production, and livestock concentrated in rural Assam, there is a need to pay close attention to how well the local women, who make up a significant percentage of stakeholders in these sectors, are faring.

These women point out numerous challenges limiting their chances at success: from lack of technology to limited capacity and training, there’s so much they have to contend with.

Handloom sector stuck in a time warp

The handloom sector is common among the Dimasa tribe in Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao districts. The traditional products: handwoven rigdo, rijamphain, risha, mekhela sador, gamosa, and shawl among others are usually found at all Assam-themed stores in Diphu and showcased in exhibitions and fairs in Assam and elsewhere. However, Mukuta Hojaisa, President of the Dhansiri Cluster Development Federation under Assam State Rural Livelihood Mission, Karbi Anglong, believes they need more exposure. 

“There are several other challenges these women have to contend with, such as lack of easy access to weaving materials, which are mostly available in the towns. Also, they don’t have access to technology which is why they take longer to weave clothes using traditional methods. This requires a lot of handwork which attracts a higher price for their products,” she says.

Sabina Teronpi

Hojaisa also mentions a lack of innovation on the part of the women due to little or no training facilities to help them understand the latest trends, designs and product viability. The point is reiterated by Sabina Teronpi, Secretary of Matipung Bowa Kata Samabai Samiti whose constituent oversees more than 2,000 artisans engaged in handwoven jewellery and embroidered clothes.

Teronpi concurs that lack of training and exposure are the two major challenges facing local artisans. “Even though the reception has been encouraging and we see our products on shelves across Assam and even in Delhi, there is a need to put in place regular training programmes and workshops for the women, while also giving their products more market visibility for increased sales,” says Sabina.

Tea farming, livestock and all things between

The rural agricultural sector, especially tea processing and livestock production, contributes handsomely to the economy of Assam. However, those who do the work have some unpleasant experiences to share. The passion is obviously present, says Pranjal Konwar, Chief Operating Officer, Assam Startup, IIM Calcutta Innovation Park. “We, at IIM Calcutta Innovation Park, have had the opportunity to meet these women entrepreneurs from rural Assam, while driving the National Rural Economic Transformation Project (NRETP) Incubator Programme for Self Help Group-driven rural enterprises. We have been pleasantly surprised to see the passion and perseverance of these women entrepreneurs.”

But passion and dedication must be met with the necessary tools to do the work. They must be met with the right policies and actions. No one understands this better than R Hazera Marak, a wood apple tea entrepreneur who delved into organic wood apple tea production in 2019. Starting with 3kg of wood apple tea in the first phase, she scaled up to 5 quintals of wood apple tree today which she exports to countries like Australia.

As Marak says, there’s so much more to do. “My product lacks proper branding and packaging,” she notes.

“We are receiving orders from across the country and the world through networks and connections but I need help with branding and packaging, and also research and training guidance to make our processes and operations better and for certification purposes,” she adds.

Although Konwar says the government has done a lot to support these businesses, including initiatives like Self-Help Groups and Village Organisations under the State Rural Livelihoods Missions, he admits not many would know about the cluster-level federations which bring the village organisations on a common platform and provide various forms of support such as funds, market linkages and connecting the entrepreneurs to institutions with relevant domain expertise.

Pheta Gaon pig farmer, Urmila Diphusa

This lack of awareness may be why other entrepreneurs and artisans in rural Assam are finding it difficult to grow their businesses. Pheta Gaon pig farmer Urmila Diphusa underscores the many challenges women like her face in their livestock business, including the lack of infrastructure and access to feed. “I am able to rear only 10 piglets because I don’t have a big breeding house. I took training on pig farming but I am unable to provide my pigs good quality feed as it would require me to regularly travel to the town,” she says.

This is the case with many other livestock farmers like her. Ranjita Saikia Deka, who runs a fish farm in Sonapur using the Recirculatory Aquaculture System for sustainable water usage, still lacks the kind of market exposure she needs to grow commercially, despite already having ten grower tanks. “I do not have market exposure and lack knowledge of marketing techniques, so I am not yet able to tap into good markets. It would be of great help if the government or even the private sector could provide us with relevant training and help us with marketing tools,” she adds.

Ongoing efforts and the way forward

The Self-Help Group initiative is one of the most practical interventions by the government to help bolster the capacity of rural entrepreneurs. By hand-holding members of each group across the state, it is hoped that these local entrepreneurs will benefit from the numerous skills, including financial management and digital know-how to grow their businesses. According to Ashalata Sargiary of Belpara Padumtali Self-Help Group, under Block Mission Management Unit – Rangjuli T.D Block, Goalpara, more should be done because the rural women entrepreneurs need guidance and exposure to boost their business and uplift rural economic development.

Artificial pond for fish farming. This artificial pond model makes it easier during the harvest process.

“Proper financial training from professional experts is required to ensure appropriate management of funds. There is a need to boost ‘Vocal for Local’ in order to encourage local production and consumption and increase demand so that local manufacturers can gradually become self-sufficient. Digital literacy needs to be provided so that rural women entrepreneurs can become digitally literate and products can be easily sold through e-commerce platforms,” she says.

The good thing about some of the programmes of the government is that they are tailored towards specific needs, but awareness and direction must be put in place. Initiatives like the National Rural Economic Transformation Project (NRETP) Incubator Programme by National Rural Livelihood Mission in association with IIM Calcutta Innovation Park can prove to be a game-changer in this regard. The programme offers structured handholding to help entrepreneurs understand business concepts and implement the best practices in structuring the business. It also helps them align with market needs and tailor their products accordingly, says Konwar.

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There is also a growing conversation about the increased focus on women entrepreneurs with regard to government interventions. Already a disadvantaged and vulnerable group, women entrepreneurs, especially those in rural settings, need all the support they can get to operate on a level playing field. As Amitav Dutta, Agribusiness Incubation Specialist at Assam Agribusiness Growth Lab (AAGL) advises, “Existing government schemes for grants, loans and subsidies can be amended to give more focus to women entrepreneurs. It is also important to increase women’s awareness about technology for easy access to help grow the business.” Assam Agribusiness Growth Lab (AAGL), implemented by Centre for Innovation Incubation & Entrepreneurship (CIIE.CO) & Innovative Change Collaborative Services Pvt Ltd (ICCSPL), is a first-of-its-kind World Bank-funded initiative under Assam Agribusiness and Rural Transformation Project (APART) to support and accelerate the growth of agri and allied enterprises in Assam.

Towards a more prosperous rural business ecosystem in Assam

A bottom-top approach is the best way to grow an economy, and supporting low-hanging fruits like the handloom, livestock, and tea industries can kick-start the process. To be fair, the government at the state and central levels have done quite a number of things to address the challenges, but loopholes must be plugged.

Assam Agribusiness Growth Lab (AAGL), implemented by Centre for Innovation Incubation & Entrepreneurship (CIIE.CO) & ICCSPL, is a first of its kind World Bank funded initiative under Assam Agribusiness and Rural Transformation Project (APART) to support and accelerate growth of agri and allied enterprises in Assam

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