The Jay Maa Kali self-help group in Kudalgaon village of Bastar district, which comprises 11 women, bakes cookies with little millet, kodo, finger millet and other traditional grains, scented with mahua blossoms. The group has earned about Rs 20,000 in two months.
Photo: By arrangement
It’s around one in the winter afternoon, and Lili Thakur, president of Jay Maa Kali self-help group (SHG) in Kudalgaon village in Bastar block of Bastar district, is busy. She and 10 others, clad in saris sit inside a room furnished with plastic chairs, steel utensils and different kinds of jars. They are all set to bake fresh batches of hand-made cookies for the day.
The women, ranging in age from 25 to 42 years, work every day from 11 am to 5 pm in the village’s community hall, to make nine varieties of cookies — including the popular multigrain version made with grains such as kodo millet (koden), little millet (kutki) and finger millet (ragi) as well as refined flour and whole wheat flour.
Some of the members sit on a thin mattress to knead millet dough while others press small balls of ready dough between their palms to shape the cookies. Finally, the cookies are placed on a baking tray and head to the waiting oven, to be baked at 180 degrees centigrade.
It’s been over a month since this group of women (some of them are tribal people and some from other backward communities) in Bastar began baking cookies to sell at Bihan Bazaar, which retails products made by self-help groups in Chhattisgarh, and other retailers.
So far, they have made 750 packs of 250 grams each (priced between Rs 80 and Rs 120), sold them for Rs 75,000 and earned a group profit of Rs 20,000. This has provided them a source of income at a time when pandemic has hit most livelihoods and income sources.
“I help make about thirty to forty packets every day. The dough is the hardest to make. Sometimes, we use tutti frutti, cashew and dried mahua flowers, which we are very fond of, for added flavour and crunchiness,” Mamta Thakur, a group member told Gaon Connection.
These women have earned a lot of appreciation for making nutritious cookies this festive season while becoming self-reliant. Such snacks made with millets are in tune with the Centre’s efforts since 2018 to promote millets through its nutri cereals initiative.
The cookies are marketed under the brand name of Tribal Taste through Tribal Tokni, the marketing platform of non-profit Arya Prerna Samiti, based in the district headquarters of Jagdalpur. The website will list the products this weekend.
According to Mohit Arya, who runs non-profit Arya Prerna Samiti, which trained the women, 20 to 30 per cent of the cost of the cookies goes to the group — between Rs 20 and Rs 30 a packet. The retailer gets about 15 to 20 per cent. The money directly goes to the group’s account. “We are yet to calculate the pace at which they make cookies, since they are still new to the job. Once we do that, we wish to give them a full thirty per cent as their share,” Arya added.
The Jay Maa Kali group was formed on February 2, 2016. However, this is the first time the group has attempted to collectively earn a livelihood by making a value-added product. Like all self-help groups, this one too was registered as part of the Indian Government’s National Rural Livelihood Mission, which envisaged the formation of women’s self-help groups.
Since COVID-19 struck, several livelihood initiatives aimed at helping rural communities have been implemented in Bastar district to help supplement people’s income. Several of these initiatives involve women’s self-help groups. Across Chhattisgarh, many such groups are engaged in different activities. Some facilitated the collection and sale of minor forest produce such as mahua flowers and sal seeds during the lockdown.
“We came to know about the initiative to make cookies through the district administration in October last year and got trained later that month. It is a godsend opportunity, for money is tight after the pandemic. After the initial fifteen-day training, we started making cookies,” Lili told Gaon Connection.
Arya arranged for the training to bake cookies after being approached by the district administration. The women in the self-help group were trained by Gaurav Kushwaha, an engineer turned baker based in Bastar.
Kushwaha trained the women of the self-help group after Arya approached him. In the beginning, Kushwaha informed the women about basic ingredients needed to make cookies — all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, fats (ghee, vanaspati and margarine), flavours such as vanilla and chocolate and milk solids. They were also taught about the right proportion and how the taste can totally differ if this was not followed.
“I have not used any chemical additives in these cookies. The women use a hand blender for making cookie dough. I have also taught them how to add flavours. I still sometimes go and check the end quality,” he said.
The target is to ensure that each member earns upto eight thousand rupees a month. “As of now, sales are good and there are repeat customers, since we use quality ingredients and there is no palmolein, artificial colours and preservatives in the cookies,” Arya added.
Arya’s wife Preeti Arya oversees a part of the operations. “Cookies are a much-loved item and sold on a daily basis. The women were trained for five hours and picked up the skill very fast,” she told Gaon Connection. Since most women could not come in the morning due to household work, the training was held in the afternoon.
Lakshmi Thakur, a resident of Kudalgaon, loves her new job. “I had no idea how to make cookies before this,” she told Gaon Connection. Another member Geeta Thakur finishes her daily household chores such as cooking and washing clothes before coming to work.
Geeta admitted she found the 15-day training period difficult. However, practice has given her confidence.“For making cookies, I have to mix together butter, sugar and milk powder using a hand mixer or blender. After that, I stir in the flour and turn it into a pliable dough. Finally, I bake it for fifteen to twenty minutes. After that, the cookies are cooled and packed,” she explained to Gaon Connection.
Since 2012, several self-help groups have been formed in Bastar; it now has 9,385 groups. As people have become more aware, newly-married women arriving in the villages are urged to form groups with 10 to 15 members each. Before this, a few women in the Jay Maa Kali group earned a livelihood through stitching, operating a photocopy machine and running small grocery stores.
The funding of Rs 1,25,000 for the cookies project has come from the start-up village entrepreneurship programme of the district administration. Jay Maa Kali group contributed Rs 32,000 and the Arya Prerna Samiti contributed about Rs one lakh. Currently, the group is not charged for using the community hall, but in future, they will have to pay rent and foot the electricity bills, district programme manager Raj Kumar Dewangan said.
According to Arya, there is a plan to scale up the initiative from the current daily production of 60 packets each. “This initiative is aimed at generating local livelihood during the pandemic. It also tries to give women a platform to become self-sufficient,” he told Gaon Connection.
The group hopes to shortly introduce imli or tamarind cookies. “The local grains, especially koden and kutki, are high in nutrition. The cookies’ initiative can help promote nutritious grains, especially millets, through value addition. People like the products and the response is good,” Arya explained.
With cookies already finding a ready market, other items such as cakes, chocolates and khakra are in the offing. Seeing the success of Jay Maa Kali group, other self-help groups are looking forward to learning to bake cookies too. In neighbouring Dantewada district, a group is being trained to prepare premium mahua cookies.
And so, in a terrain so far scented just by mahua, the local people are getting used to the heady aroma of molten butter and cookies being baked.