How Forest Post empowers Kerala’s indigenous communities through handmade products

Founded by Dr Manju Vasudevan, Forest Post gives tribal communities better livelihood opportunities by using Minor Forest Produce to make skincare, home decor, and food products. The forest dwellers work for 15 days a month, earning up to Rs 12,000

Aruna Raghuram
New Update
Dr Manju Vasudevan at a tribal hamlet (left) and Forest Post products (right)

Dr Manju Vasudevan at a tribal hamlet (left) and Forest Post's handcrafted soap (right)

Ecologist Dr Manju Vasudevan has always found joy in the wild. “My father was in the defence accounts service, so we lived in urban centres. But every year, we would come home to Kerala. I would look forward to the rain and picking the small ruby red seeds of Adenanthera (coral bean tree). I still do that. That part of me has not grown up,” she says (with a laugh). 

The 46-year-old obtained a master’s degree in ecology from Puducherry and went on to do her PhD in pollination ecology from the UK. In 2014, she started working for Keystone Foundation which has been empowering indigenous people by building socio-ecological resilience since 1993. 

Turning point

In 2014, the tribal community in and around the Vazhachal forest division in Kerala’s Thrissur district became the first in the state to receive Community Forest Resource (CFR) rights. CFRs refer to the right to protect, regenerate, conserve or manage any community forest resource that they have been traditionally conserving for sustainable use.

This landmark decision was also a turning point in the life of Manju. Holding on to her belief that the community can lead conservation and take on a stewardship role, Manju started working actively with the tribal communities. “From 2016, we worked like an NGO, not an enterprise. Initially, we worked in only three villages. When we ran out of funds, I spoke to my women and asked them whether they wanted to carry on. They did.”

Women harvest ferns to make pickles. Pic: Forest Post

UNDP officials visited the venture. Since the products were good and the women were enterprising, they advised Manju and her partner Dr K.G. Sreeja, who is an agricultural economist with expertise in climate change, to take it to the next level. UNDP offered marketing and branding support. 

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“That’s how our enterprise Dharaa Livelihood Initiative LLP was born. It was registered in 2021. We decided to name the brand Forest Post,” says Manju.  

Forest Post engages with indigenous forest-dwelling communities in eight villages in central Kerala’s Western Ghats. 

The venture has given the communities varied livelihood options and boosted their incomes substantially. It partners with the forest department and local panchayats. 

Community-led conservation

Manju strongly believes that forest dwellers know how much to harvest without exploiting the forest. Sustainability is embedded in their native wisdom, she says. 

“When the community has a stake in the resources that they harvest and value-add locally, they tend to keep an eye on the plant population, protect it from external pressures, and ensure it is not over-harvested. We discuss harvest protocols with the Minor Forest Produce (MFP) collectors. We encourage them to freely harvest abundant local resources like ferns, mango ginger roots, East Indian arrowroot, and others. Many of the plants and herbs we use to make foods can be cultivated. Also, bamboo plantation is going on,” says Manju.  

forest seeds
Harvesting cycas to make flour from its seeds. Pic: Forest Post

Two major challenges the venture has faced are a shortage of funds and the geographical scattering of villages. 

In 2021-22, the sales revenue was around Rs 9 lakhs. This figure more than tripled to Rs 31 lakhs in 2023-24. 

Things are looking up, with Forest Post having been selected for the prestigious Buddha fellowship given by The Buddha Institute founded by IIM, Ahmedabad alumnus Ved Arya. “We are looking at a Rs 12 lakh grant and mentorship. The institute has a strong government connect and we hope to leverage that. The priority is infrastructure – tools for soapmaking and drying (to reduce manual work and for quality control), and storage and transport facilities,” says Manju. 

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Forest Post has also obtained a Kerala Startup Mission grant of Rs 12 lakh for marketing. That money will be used to revamp the website and hire a social media manager. 

Basket of unique products

Forest Post brings together women’s groups and trains them to add value to the forest produce. 

Forest Post helps in procuring additional ingredients and provides market linkages. The products are environment-friendly, community-sourced and handmade, explains Manju. 

The venture facilitates the production and sale of 40-plus products. 

Skincare products: Beeswax soaps and body butter are their flagship product. Beeswax (a substance secreted by bees which is a byproduct of honey) is known for its anti-allergen and anti-fungal properties. The handcrafted soaps are free of harmful chemicals and account for 50 percent of Forest Post’s revenues. 

 A variety of soaps containing sweet basil, ... d rose petals, among other ingredients
A variety of soaps containing sweet basil, aloe vera, rose petals & other ingredients. Pic: Forest Post

Then there are the exfoliating soaps (scrubs) with ingredients like jasmine, cinnamon, orange and coffee powder! The lip balms, grapefruit moisturizer, pain balm and insect repellent are a simple combination of olive oil, beeswax and essential oils. The Vanilla Kokum Body Butter is very popular. The Cedar Hemp Body Rub contains omega-6 fatty acids which have powerful anti-inflammatory qualities.  

Wild edibles: This is a popular range of products. 

Some stars among the wild edibles are fern pickles made of sauteed ferns in a sesame oil base and scraped Shatavari (wild asparagus known to be nutrient-rich) roots immersed in honey. 

Chewable candies made of mango ginger and sundried nutmeg are also hits. The foods are free of preservatives, artificial colouring or flavouring agents. As far as wild edibles are concerned, the venture avoids harvesting what the animals eat. “Our women came up with the idea to make jam from ‘mooty’ fruit. But since it is a big favourite with elephants, deer and monkeys, we dropped that plan. Queen sago flour, cycas flour, black pepper, coffee, honey spiced with pepper and tulsi, are some of the other food products. 

Also Read: Shruti Tharayil’s wild food walks bring Grandma’s greens back into urban kitchens

Hair oils: Among hair oils, a recipe from the tribal women has become a bestseller. It is a sesame oil infused with eight herbs. ‘Nilanarakam’ (medicinal plant with healing properties) is another offering. 

Hair oil made of ‘shikakai’ (the pods are famed for deep conditioning of hair) and ‘Nelli’ (gooseberry known to stimulate hair growth) is also sold by Forest Post. Both shikakai and Nelli are found in abundance in the forests. Coconut oil, traditionally used in Kerala for hair care, is added for nourishment. 

Macrame wall hanger (left) and Shatavari roots in honey. Pic: Forest Post

Craft items: Bamboo yoga mats and baskets are the common products. Spoons, hangers, trays and tongs are a recent addition to the bamboo range, skills acquired by young men. Macrame wall hangers, jewellery, and playful items like crabs and owls are made by the girls and women. The craft of Kannadippaya, an exquisite square pattern of bamboo weaving, is promoted by Forest Post. The craft, practised in a remote village in Kerala, recently got a GI (Geographical Indication) tag.  

Overall impact  

Forest Post secures sustainable livelihoods for forest-dwelling communities. This goes hand-in-hand with the conservation of forest resources. The venture is involved in skill enhancement and training. For instance, the women have been trained by experts in contemporary crafts like macrame and crochet. Bamboo weavers are given design inputs.  

Through its initiatives, Forest Post curbs migration to cities and also reduces the drudgery faced by women by engaging them in creative, income-generating activities. 

The enterprise ensures that the producers get fair prices. Since it promotes handmade, artisanal products, it helps preserve traditional crafts and recipes.  

Growth plans

“Most of the people we engage with are women. The men are harvesters or bamboo craftsmen. Currently, our women get work 15 days a month and earn between Rs 6,000 and Rs 12,000. I want to increase this. Our products are getting good reviews. So, we plan to grow the business to increase employment and revenue,” says Manju. 

 Bindu Sivan (left) and Cedar hemp body rub. Pic: Forest Post

One of the producers for Forest Post, Bindu Sivan, 49 is from Karikkadav village in Thrissur district. 

“I make small batches of soap, balm, hair oil, pickles and jam. My husband is a harvester of NTFP (Non-Timber Forest Products). I earn Rs 8,000-10,000 a month, and a little more if I conduct training programmes. I work for around seven hours a day,” she says. 

“I like working with Forest Post because I am self-employed and get to learn a lot. I am also happy to share whatever I have learnt and know,” says Bindu.

Forest Post has both B2B and B2C clients. The products are sold in shops in Kochi, Trivandrum and Calicut. Fifty percent of sales are through online channels but the venture takes part in exhibitions and local marketing events where the team interacts closely with customers. “We want to tap into the corporate gifting segment. When the G20 meet was held in Chennai we supplied 300 gift hampers. For a conference in Delhi on the Blue Economy we supplied macrame turtles and starfish,” relates Manju. 

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Products with a heart

Maya Matthew, 56, lives in Coonoor in the Nilgiris. She is a textile designer and fibre artist. She has been a regular buyer of Forest Post products for the last five years. “I am a regular user of the soap made by Forest Post. I feel there is ‘heart’ in Forest Post products (unlike those of large FMCG companies) though they may not be perfect in shape and size,” says Maya. 

Maya Matthew has been buying the products for five years. 

She also relishes the fern pickle, mango ginger pickle and honey. “I like their products because of their quality – since they are made in small batches a lot of care is taken in production. Also, I know that Manju is conducting the business ethically and responsibly. Forest-dwelling communities themselves are very aware and will never kill the ‘golden goose’ (the forest),” she adds. 

“Going forward we want to see how our model can be replicated in other places. For instance, we want to give beeswax lip balm-making training in Chhattisgarh. We want to be known not just for our soaps and balms but our crafts as well,” says Manju. 

“We want to focus on brand recall this year. We want to say: ‘Here’s a great product. Incidentally, it is made by indigenous people.’ We want to transition to a private limited company and be more open to investment. We would like to have our outlet or even a franchise,” she signs off smilingly. 

(Aruna Raghuram is a freelance journalist based in Ahmedabad. She writes on women’s issues, environment, DEI issues, and social/development enterprises.)

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