Cooperating in adversity: Tales from women micro-business owners in Chennai

Award-winning micro entrepreneurs in the city reveal how cooperatives contribute to empowering women in society and giving them economic freedom
The three women were felicitated on Tuesday at University of Madras
The three women were felicitated on Tuesday at University of Madras

The pandemic’s impact on small businesses was not small. Faced with financial fragility, paucity of reserves and challenges in accessing assistance, they struggled to stay afloat. In this bleak time, stories of three city-based cooperative entrepreneurs, who — apart from sustaining themselves — went the extra mile and generated employment for more women, serve to inspire. Meet Saaral, who runs a domestic brick-cutting unit, caterer Bhuvaneswari, and Grace, owner of a salon. In recognition of their entrepreneurial skills, the Indian Cooperative Network for Women (ICNW Chennai) — of which they are members — honoured them at the United Nation’s recent session of the Commission on Social Development. 

 A road of hardships

When the women, beaming with pride as they tightly hold onto their awards, narrate their success stories, the invaluable role that the cooperative network has played in their lives is evident. Starting one’s own venture with limited finances is the definition of a risky prospect. Saaral describes how receiving seed capital emboldened her to take that step two decades ago, “At 40, I had to become a daily wage labourer to support my family after my husband lost his job. I was helping cut bricks at a masonry centre. A friend then told me about ICNW’s informal banking. Initially, I was hesitant to take on more debt. I still went ahead and borrowed Rs 600 for my business, and purchased one load of bricks to start my own brick-cutting business at home. With additional aid, I kept procuring more material,” says the 60-year-old. With the profit generated from the venture, she went on to build a house for her family, got facilities like sewage drains installed, paid off all external loans, paid for her daughter’s wedding, and helped educate her grandchildren.

Bhuvaneswari, who managed an idli stall with her husband for years, dreamt of her own catering unit and established it with an initial cooperative loan of Rs 3,500. Their business now employs three others, and they have saved money to educate their son, who is a civil engineer today. Grace, who has been her family’s breadwinner from a young age, says, “I worked odd jobs to sustain my family of four. I couldn’t access bank loans owing to my unmarried status. I borrowed `7,500 from the ICNW to study Tally. But I was raring to become a beautician all my life. After I explained the financial feasibility of the trade, the cooperative decided to assist me.” Today, at 29, Grace is the proprietor of a beauty salon where two other women are employed. 

The women espouse the strong money management values that women cooperatives are known for. Bhuvaneswari notes, “We price each meal in a cost-effective way, ensuring we get a small profit too. The loan installments we receive from the cooperative are only used for the daily operations. If we use it to buy ingredients, for example, we guarantee optimal use so that we can pace our spending on items. We use the income generated from the trade to pay off the interest amount; what is left is allocated for our personal expenditure. We remember to save a bit, too.” The businesswomen are all clear about their money allocation — their loan amount is meant to further the thozhil alone. 

The crisis readiness of a society can be gauged only when faced by one. Toiling through hardships has instilled an enterprising spirit in the women, which reflects in the creative ways they employed to tide through a pandemic. “With no customers coming in, all the beauty products I had purchased expired. To supplement my income, I started conducting training sessions for aspiring beauticians,” says Grace. Bhuvaneswari, too managed to recover the loss by providing a delivery option and re-pricing her product.

The magic of transformation

Making repeated decisions in matters pertaining to their lives has had an emancipatory power in their metamorphosis, causing even family members to marvel. Saaral laughs as she describes how shy and fearful she used to be. “Ippo nee romba pesara, they tell me. I did not know anything about finances earlier; now I am the one who makes the decisions on how we spend our money.” On the other hand, Grace gained respect as the family head. Being recognised as a ‘Covid-heroine’ helped Bhuvaneswari rediscover her potential. “I got a different kind of feeling while receiving the award. Oru than-nambikkaiyum dhairiyamum vanduchu. Even my husband trusts me with the decisions now.” 

Despite the hazardous nature of the labour in her enterprise, Saaral does not want to retire. She is also helping her daughter with her newly established tailoring venture. “I love giving gifts to my grandkids. I want to keep aside money for that so I will keep working as long as I can.” Bhuvaneswari wants to start a restaurant with her husband soon, while Grace is confident that ‘Grace Beauty Parlour’ will expand across the city. 

The ability to take a chance, bolstered by the assistance provided by ICNW, has facilitated these women in the fringes to partake in the economy, control factors of production, and enjoy economic welfare. The values inculcated in them through the co-op help them guide other women. “We don’t visit the organisation to merely collect our micro-credit; we receive a lot of wisdom and advice from the community here. We are like family,” concludes Grace.

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