Ever since he was a child, Satendrasingh Lilhare had seen the struggle of women up close. His father left the family and remarried. He was raised by his mother and maternal aunt. Theirs was a poor family living in a village in the Gondia district in Maharashtra, bordering Chhattisgarh. His mother was a small farmer growing paddy.
“Land was our only source of livelihood. Because of middlemen, we were left with hardly any income after selling paddy. We had to subsist on ration,” says Satendra.
“I recollect that in class 12, I would get to eat only once at night. At times, due to weakness, I would fall asleep in class,” says Satendra with a smile.
But he was a bright student and aspired to become either a bureaucrat or an entrepreneur. After his B.Sc, Satendra pursued development studies at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru where he got a full scholarship. His stream of education and the motivation that came from his childhood experiences made him want to help tribal women in north Bastar improve their livelihood opportunities.
Today, the 35-year-old is the co-founder and CEO of ‘Bastar Se Bazaar Tak Private Limited’. Formally set up in September 2020, and based out of north Bastar, the venture provides post-harvest management of Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) which include fruits and nuts, vegetables, fish and game, medicinal plants, resins, essences, and fibres.
The NTFPs that Bastar Se Bazaar Tak deals in are tamarind, custard apple, jamun, ‘desi’ mango, papaya, elephant yam and ‘mahua’ flowers (used by tribal communities in cooking), among others. These are processed at the three processing centres, set up by the venture, into pulp, slice, powder, puree, paste and cake.
Empowering tribal women
“Chhattisgarh is a densely forested state and in Bastar, 85 percent of the rural population resides in forest regions. For livelihood, they depend a great deal on the income from the sale of NTFPs. The produce often perishes after harvest, leading to huge losses. Also, the absence of market linkages and value addition possibilities often force the tribal women to sell the produce at lower rates,” explains Satendra.
Bastar Se Bazaar Tak is involved in the procurement of forest produce, processing and marketing. It buys the produce, which is brought to village collection centres, directly from the tribal women. Some of the women collect wild produce while others undertake farming and grow fruits and vegetables.
“We measure the produce fairly and give them (tribal women) more than double the rate they would get if there were middlemen involved. We procure around Rs 40-45 lakh worth of NTFPs annually,” he says.
Bastar Se Bazaar Tak also employs women to wash, sort, and grade the produce. Thereby, the venture creates flexible and supportive local employment.
The venture is associated with 1,150 tribal women in 17 villages. In the financial year 2022-23, the annual revenue was Rs 52 lakh. By April 2024, they hope to touch Rs 1 crore, says Satendra. The enterprise model is of community ownership where half the shares are owned by the tribal women.
Bastar Se Bazaar Tak employs tribal women or their family members in the processing units to augment their income. The gains from processing and selling the produce are passed on to the women. They earn Rs 6,000 per month as wages on average. This is in addition to what they get on sale of produce.
The purity of nature
Bastar Se Bazaar Tak sells under the brand name ‘Forest Naturals’ with its tagline being ‘from the hands of forest dwellers’. Not only does it bridge the gap between the forest and the market, it sells quality forest-based products to urban consumers.
“Our products are pure, natural and healthy as they are free from chemicals, synthetic colours and artificial flavours,” says Satendra.
The products under the Forest Naturals brand are custard apple pulp, mango pulp and slice, jamun pulp, yellow papaya cubes, amchur (dry mango powder), tamarind pulp and cake, kasuri methi (dried fenugreek leaves), triphala powder (a medicinal product), and seed powder of custard apple, tamarind and jamun.
These natural food products are also affordable, according to Satendra. The price of custard apple pulp is Rs 210-340 per kg while tamarind cake (seedless) costs Rs 55-95 per kg. Amchur is priced at Rs 250-350 per kg.
Offline sales are significant. Custard apple pulp is sold widely to ice cream companies and fruit pulp is picked up by juice parlours. The company also has a network of distributors and retailers who pick up the processed products.
Forest Naturals’ products are sold in Raipur, Durg, Bhilai, Indore, Nagpur and Hyderabad.
Ambika Kashyap, a local farmer, is the director of operations, of the venture. “I manage the workers both at the village level and at the processing centres. Some come from 3 to 5 km away to work at the processing centres. I ensure the various operations – cleaning, sorting, grading, processing and packing go on smoothly. For instance, it takes 25 people to process 100 crates of custard apples. If workers are not available the produce will get wasted. Checking product quality and conducting orientation programmes to train the women in villages are other activities I am involved in,” says Ambika.
“It was an uphill task to get the venture going in 2020. I have been in tears several times in those early years. I was experimenting with my future, but I was also involving poor tribal women in my plans. The first hurdle was that the government grant that was supposed to come in 2019 did not arrive. I had already told the tribal women about the proposal and they were deeply disappointed. I did not have any funds of my own. That’s when the women said they would chip in with their own funds. From Rs 400 to Rs 10,000 they contributed what they could. We collected over Rs3 lakh and initially made five tonnes (5,000 kg) of custard apple pulp.”
Then another huge challenge arrived – COVID.
People did not want to eat ice cream and juice at that time! “Our pulp was in a cold storage facility in Raipur. We were waiting with a prayer on our lips for the lockdown to lift,” narrates Satendra.
Around this time, he decided to further hone his business skills. He studied development management and learned the need to have a vision, mission and clear goals.
The Buddha Fellowship was a turning point. “I was selected in 2022. The Buddha Institute has given us Rs 5 lakh and another Rs 5 lakh is due. The institute is the key ingredient in our success. Its support enabled me to take risks,” he says.
Today, The Buddha Institute, Upaya Social Ventures and IIM Calcutta are some of the institutional partners who have invested in Bastar Se Bazaar Tak.
Satendra has two mentors, one external mentor from the industry and one from The Buddha Institute. Hitendra Singh is the ‘anchor’ or Satendra’s mentor from the Buddha Institute. An MBA in rural management, he has over two decades of experience in the social development sector. “Satendra is a very genuine person. He gives the tribal women a fair price for their produce and fair wages for their work. Also, his commitment to the cause is quite evident. Earlier, middlemen would cheat the tribal women. Satendra’s biggest USP is his honesty,” says Hitendra.
“I am in contact with him almost 24X7 and assist in solving problems of all kinds. Mentors do not just deal with business-related issues but also with communication issues, particularly with the government. Mentoring involves helping the Buddha fellow sharpen his business sensibilities and tap business opportunities,” he adds.
Bastar Se Bazaar Tak has won awards for its innovative approach and significant social impact. Among them are the ‘Tata Social Enterprise Challenge 2021’ and the ‘3M-CII Young Innovators Challenge Award’.
Satendra has been advised by his mentors to develop new products from the produce with available facilities and reduce wastage further. That’s how amchur and triphala were added to the product range. Tamarind is a major product. Now, the making of tamarind candy and jelly and tamarind seed powder, which is used to make starch, is being planned. Also, the venture is likely to make ‘papad’ and ‘wadi’ and other products in the dry form. A pilot project on making herbal ‘gulal’ was undertaken and this is likely to become another product.
In the next three years, the venture wants to engage with 5,000 farmers and collect and market 200 tonnes of NTFPs.
Currently, the procurement of NTFPs is around 40 tonnes or 40,000 kg. There is also a plan to replicate the model in Jharkhand.
At present, the processed products are kept in a rented cold storage facility in Raipur. Bastar Se Bazaar Tak is collaborating with SELCO to set up solar-powered cold storage facilities in remote villages, a vital link in the supply chain. Since they are dealing with highly perishable products, this will prevent spoilage of forest produce during transportation.
“Our vision is to create a sustainable and inclusive ecosystem that empowers tribal women farmers of Bastar, respects the environment, and delivers natural, wholesome products to consumers. Our venture demonstrates the effectiveness of market and consumer demand-driven solutions,” says Satendra, putting it in a nutshell.
(Aruna Raghuram is a freelance journalist based in Bengaluru/Ahmedabad. She writes on parenting, personalities, women’s issues, environment, and other social causes.)