- Geeta Oza
Cooking their recipe of success: How RASKUM women producers dared to dream big for themselves
Updated: Feb 14
A team of eight tribal women from RASKUM mahila producers company took on the challenge of preparing a meal for 100 guests at IRMA, using the opportunity to develop their skills and confidence to establish their own catering services.
A tribal women’s enterprise
As the pickup van drove out of the IRMA campus on November 25th 2021, there was a feeling of achievement and elation amongst the tribal women of Dahod and Panchmahal who had come to serve guests and dignitaries as part of the Kurien Mahotsav. Savitaben was never tired of saying
“Amaru khavanu badhane gamyu, Hamne to ahiya bahuj saru lagyu” (Our cuisine was appreciated by everyone. We enjoyed being here).
I was feeling proud of the team who took up the challenge despite lack of prior experience. These women belong to RASKUM Mahila Producer Company Limited which got registered in July 2021, though they have been working since 2009 as an unregistered collective. This was in part due to the efforts of ANANDI, which has been mobilising and strengthening rural and tribal women’s collectives in Dahod; Morbi and Panchmahal districts of Gujarat for over two decades on issues of gender justice, nutrition security, and community forests rights amongst other issues. The Company comprises of 600 shareholders who are involved in organic farming. Members also collect NTF produce and sell it to RASKUM. They also prepare vermi-compost and are engaged in vegetable nurseries.
I had joined ANANDI in March 2021 and was engaged in formalization and capacity building of Ratanmahal mandali as a Farmer Producer Company. I want to develop the Company as a platform of opportunities for women to develop their entrepreneurial skills. So, I was on the lookout for avenues which gave them exposure, confidence, encouraged them to take calculated risks, and increase their self-esteem.
The catering group was one such group of members. The catering unit was promoted by ANANDI, to fulfill twin objectives:
1) to work for economic independence of women
2) to popularize the local cuisine and usage of local produce-millets, maize, and locally grown vegetables.
The catering unit used to serve orders given by ANANDI during its training programmes which usually have 30-40 participants. Their only outside exposure was having stall during Annual Sristi Mela, at Ahmedabad, organized by IIM, Ahmedabad. The catering unit which now functions under the aegis of company comprises of 8 women who belong to tribal and OBC community. The unit is also engaged in value addition of mahua flowers and tamarind for which they received training from Department of Food and Nutrition, M.S. University, Baroda and International Institute of Hotel Management, Ahmedabad. Products like mahua-ragi ladoos; Mahua-chikkis; Injipooli and Tamarind-Dates pop were developed.
So, when I received an invite from IRMA for catering of 100 guests for Kurien Mahotsav, I thought of discussing with the team. The team leader and Secretary of the Company decided to visit IRMA two days in advance to assess the kitchen, surroundings and deciding on the menu.
Anxiety and anticipation
“Will you be able to prepare so much food? Just say ‘no’ if you are not feeling confident”
I asked. The women had just travelled for more than four hours from Dahod, and I could sense that they felt a bit overwhelmed seeing the campus and managing expectations.
In a barely audible voice and a shy smile, the team leader Savitaben Bachubhai Nayak said,
“we’ll do it.”
This was followed by a nod by Varshaben Rathwa, the secretary of RASKUM. We decided to take up the challenge.
They visited the kitchen of IRMA. They came out with a menu which was to be prepared from locally available vegetables. Costing was calculated by Savitaben and Varshaben based on the price of raw material, remuneration and other indirect costs. A wholesome and seasonal menu of Pumpkin curry, Drumstick flower curry, Dal, Rice, Mithalo (Masala Maize flatbread) and Pumpkin pudding was decided. They planned on serving urad vada and Makai vada as snacks during tea.
Soon after their return from Anand, Savitaben called a meeting of catering team. The menu was explained to the team members the tasks was delegated. The purchase of vegetables that required to be procured from women farmers was arranged. Transport facilities was also arranged. They had to arrive at the campus the night before to begin cooking early morning the next day.
Despite her decisiveness and smooth management of the tasks, Savitaben later expressed how nervous she was,
“My fear was whether we will be able to serve guests on time. Whether guests will enjoy the dishes prepared by the team. What would happen if our menu is not sufficient enough to serve 100 guests. How do we cope up with sudden shortfall?”
The new surroundings and ambience also presented a challenge for the women, some of whom were venturing out of Devgadh baria for the first time.
“The IRMA chefs were so courteous and made our catering team feel at home. Our members were provided with tea every half an hour. There was a time when I felt jittery as our mixer broke down and the catering team had 10 kilos of soaked udad to be grinded. The IRMA chefs again came to our rescue, they agreed to help the team in grinding the udad in the canteen’s wet grinder”
Raveena ben, another Board of Director shared her feeling of anxiety and excitement that she was coming to Anand for the first time. She had visualized a kitchen full of women. However, she was pleasantly surprised to see men as chefs and men cleaning utensils. Usually, women are engaged in cleaning utensils, but here the men were involved.
“I was feeling so happy and excited when the guests were asking details of the menu. They liked lasan-marcha ni chatni (garlic- chilli chutney) and one of them gave us the idea to sell the product packaged in small pouches.”
The culinary route to capacity building
Apart from cooking, the team had also decided to set-up a counter to sell their products. This was also a tough task for them because of inexperience in handling such spaces, and language barriers. Varshaben commented,
“I was not feeling confident in managing the counter. How would I manage, if there are too many customers…? I do not understand English. If somebody asks me about RASKUM and products, how would I explain?”
Despite their inhibitions, they were determined to give it their best.
The women found the IRMA staff and student volunteers extremely friendly, and that helped them gather their nerves. They were also able to have a brisk sale at the counter due to the support from student volunteers who helped in setting up the counter, handling digital payments and advertising about the products to the visitors. In total, they managed to sell products worth Rs.16655/- at the counter.
Overall, the event turned out to be an immense confidence booster and learning opportunity for the women. Apart from gaining a technical understanding of equipment in large kitchens, they also realized the importance of talking to experienced chefs to get an estimate of quantity to be prepared, and costing of dishes. They also understood their own requirements better, and plan to create a systematic protocol cum checklist to take up similar orders in the near future. They were able to serve another order for IRMA at short notice and hope to receive regular order from such institutions to expand their capacity. The highlight for them during their second catering service was a visit to the AMUL factory, allowing them to imagine possibilities of strong cooperatives. I am sure their determination will take them a long way.
Geeta Oza is a human rights activist engaged with marginalized communities in Gujarat since 1990. She is currently working with ANANDI as Programme Manager, anchoring the intervention of strengthening RASKUM. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org