Odisha’s tribal women stitch a bright future with siali leaf plates

Tribal women in Odisha’s remote district Nabarangpur are now earning well by making biodegradable siali leaf plates which are replacing plastic. Much sought after in India and overseas, these leaf plates are creating tribal entrepreneurs in the hinterland

Niroj Ranjan Misra
Updated On
New Update

Tribal women are earning a steady income by making plates and bowls from siali leaves

It’s just dawn and Ganachi Majhi, a Bothra tribal living in the Semla village of Nabarangpur, Odisha, is already out for work. She reaches the nearby forest of Ampani Ghati and starts plucking the leaves of ‘siali’ (Bauhinia vahlii), a creeper that typically grows around Sal trees. She continues to collect the large-sized leaves till afternoon after which she returns home. 

Then Ganachi starts stitching together leaves to make khali (plate) and dana (bowl/cup). Like her, tribal women from 100 families in her village make ecofriendly leaf plates and bowls to supplement their family income. “The men folk in our village mostly work as labourers or have migrated to earn more. We stitch the khali and dana to earn some extra income,” says Ganachi.

Nabarangpur is a tribal-dominated area with limited livelihood opportunities and siali leaf plate making is one of them. The consistent income from making biodegradable leaf plates, which are a sustainable alternative to plastic, is improving the lives of tribal people. About a decade back, these women would sell a bundle of 100 leaf plates at Rs 50 (or 50 paise per plate) and bowls at 25 paise a piece. 

Also Read: Vistaraku: How Telangana’s start-up is taking traditional Indian leaf plates to the world

From unorganized to organized

At that time, the work was unorganized and the uneducated women were exploited by traders, who further sold the products at more than double the rates. Due to limited market opportunities, the women accepted whatever came their way.

“Earlier, we used to stitch 100 to 150 khali and 75 to 100 dana per day and earn about Rs80. It was difficult to make ends meet,” says Ganachi.

In 2012-13, Odisha Rural Development and Marketing Society (ORMAS) entered the scene. “It encouraged us to form an all-women group Matru Shakti Producer Enterprises (MSPE) in Semla and that helped us to get the right market rate,” says MSPE president Swapnabati Nayak.

Tribal women making siali leaf plates in Odisha
Tribal women with siali leaf plates. Pic: Courtesy Niroj R Misra

MSPE comprises over 250 women members from seven adjoining villages under the Papadahandi block. They have now switched over to sewing machines for making khali and dana which has increased production rate and also boosted their income. 

Also Read: This Kerala-based geologist is making edible & biodegradable cutlery to replace single-use plastic

“We have installed 50 sewing machines that cost Rs 5,500 each and a pressing machine for Rs 1.2 lakh for MSPE. This machine helps make moulded (buffet) plates,” says Allaka Uma Mahesh, the deputy chief executive officer of ORMAS, Nabarangpur.

Now every MSPE member earns over Rs7,500 per month.

The MSPE production centre makes revenues of around Rs 35,000 per month. The centre’s earning is reinvested in the purchase of leaves from non-members when demand for khali and dana shoots up and the collection of leaves is inadequate. “MSPE buys good quality leaves for use throughout the year,” says Chitrasen Majhi, MSPE’s ‘Sanjog Sathi’ (cluster coordinator), who belongs to the Bothra tribe. 

siali leaves and plates
Siali leaves and the plates. Pic: ORMAS 

While MSPE has scripted its success story in Semla, ORMAS is planning to replicate it in four villages under the Chandahandi and Tentulikhunti blocks of Nabarangpur.  

“The MSPE has its production-cum-raw material bank in Nabarangpur where beneficiaries, called swarojgaris (self-employed persons), make leaf products and store them,” he added. 

Also Read: Tamul’s areca nut leaf plates travel from Assam to the world as plastic ban gets stronger

Siali leaf plates and tribal culture

Tribals collect leaves between April and November, as their quality, texture and durability deteriorate between December and March. Siali creeper’s bark is used to tie the collected leaves and store them for future use. 

“Nearly 100 MSPE members collect and stitch leaf plates while about 50 are involved in stacking and packing them,” says Chitrasen.

The dana or bowl made from leaves of sal trees (Shorea robusta) and siali creepers is closely associated with tribal culture and religious ceremonies. Tribal priests, called dehuri, use dana of sal leaves in puja during harvest time and on festivals like Chata Parab. “It is also used during festive feasts and special occasions like the ceremonies around childbirth,” says Chitrasen.

An ORMAS official demonstrating leaf plate making to tribal women, including from Bonda tribe who

came from Malkangiri to Nabarangpur on an exposure visit. Pic: ORMAS 

Tribals dry the leaves in the shade in the open for a day or two before using them to make plates and bowls or cups “We never dry leaves in a place that receives direct sunlight, as it affects their quality, texture and durability,” says MSPE secretary Bhabani Majhi. 

Minor forest produce

“Siali and sal leaves come under minor forest produce (MFP) that also includes tamarind, mahua and kusuma seeds, jhuna, honey, guggal and shatavari herb. So their collection by tribals is exempted from restrictions,” says Nabarangpur’s divisional forest officer (DFO) Suvendu Prasad Behera.

Each MSPE member makes 400 to 500 khali and 300 to 350 dana per day with sewing and pressing machines. 

Also Read: Katul: The craft beer of Odisha’s Kutia Kondh tribe

Loose siali leaves alone fetch 20 paise per piece. Food stalls, small hotels and restaurants purchase loose leaves to serve dry snacks to their customers. Even street vendors sell sukhua (dried and salted fish) on leaves. A roughly stitched plate sells at 60 paise, while the price of bhoji khali or feast plate is 80 paise. “A machine stitched plate sells for a rupee to Rs 1.20 at the local market. However, traders sell each plate at Rs 1.50 in adjoining areas of Andhra Pradesh,” says Bhabani.

ORMAS officials with leaf plates and their makers. Pic: ORMAS

ORMAS also plays the role of a mediator in the sale of leaf plates to Hyderabad-based Annapurna Cottage Industries and Srinivasan Enterprise. They purchase nearly 30,000 buffet plates and 50,000 loose plates in two phases -- between September and January and April to July.

“Tribal people are also provided with stalls at fairs and festivals within and outside the district to sell their leaf products,” says Mahesh. Siali leaves are available at the border between Papadahandi and Tentulikhunti blocks. The forest department in cooperation with NGOs should plant siali creepers, particularly in degraded forest areas in all 10 blocks of the district which will help bring about a substantial upturn in tribals’ income, he adds

“Leaf plates are eco-friendly and have immense export potential, as their demand is said to be increasing in several European countries. So the forest department should plant siali creepers along with other native trees under its afforestation programmes,” says Ishwar Sabut, the chairman of NGO Gram Vikash Sangathan in Nabarangpur district headquarters. 

DFO Behera of Nabarangpur admits that the plantation of siali creepers is yet to be included in his department’s afforestation programmes. They will be included in the afforestation drive from next fiscal, he says.

(Niroj Ranjan Misra a Cuttack-based freelance writer. He writes on rural and tribal life, social issues, art and culture, and sports)

Also Read: Two friends, Rs 20,000 investment and Rs 23 crore leaf plate business

Look up our YouTube channel