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The Laddoo Model: Five Women in This Maharashtra Village Found a New Vocation

Twenty-six-year-old Natiya Vashantakumar quit her job at Goldman Sachs and is now helping the women expand production.

Vaishali, Vanita, Nirmala, Devki and Ganga are all housewives in Vanganpada village of Jawhar in Palghar district, Maharashtra. Some months ago, they too, in this village dominated by Kokana Adivasis, would look for work under the MGNREGA and attend to farms when there was any work to be done. These days, however, they are setting up their own business. The organic ragi (finger millet) that grows in their area is made into highly nutritious laddoos, and these are slowly beginning to find orders from Mumbai and Pune.

So how did they come to make the laddoos? Twenty-six-year-old Natiya Vashantakumar had arrived in Jawhar on an SBI Fellowship after quitting her job at Goldman Sachs in Chennai. She too was looking for a project, and when the laddoo idea first struck her, she researched recipes and then arrived at one that involved use of jaggery, coconut, ghee and cashew nuts. Natiya was attached to a local NGO working to revive local varieties of seeds as part of her fellowship. She distributed laddoos among people she worked with, got feedback and fine-tuned the recipe.

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It was, however, not so easy to convince the women. Although they had agreed to make them, when the first order arrived ahead of Diwali in 2018, it was also harvest time. Natiya said she had bought the ingredients and arrived at the village, hoping for the women to get together to make the laddoos. “It was harvest time, they were tired and disinterested,” Natiya said. “But there was an order of 10 kg to be supplied, and we had no time! I argued and pleaded, and one of the men in the village joined me in persuading them not to let the opportunity slip. And then the five women said they would do it,” she said.

That was how the five first came together to make the laddoos. Now, according to orders received, they have a mechanism for sourcing material and coming together at the house of Vaishali to make the laddoos. Proceeds from the sales are distributed among the five, with Vaishali compensated additionally for use of the house and electricity. Natiya says that since Diwali, they have managed to sell laddoos worth about Rs 45,000. Each kg is priced at Rs 500. Any leftover is distributed among children at the local anganwadi, free of cost – this has given the women a new status in the local community. About 20 children attend the anganwadi, and the kids love the laddoos. There is a move now to introduce these laddoos as part of the angandwadi meal elsewhere in the area, and local officials have expressed willingness. Ragi is gluten free, rich in fibre, packed with calcium and great for the nutrition of children.

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The variety that goes out to the anganwadi, however, will have to be priced lower and so the plan is to make it without as much ghee – with sesame oil as substitute, and with no cashew nuts. For this too, there is a recipe ready.

At 26, Naitya has gained a lot of experience. “It was not easy, initially. The women would grab a bit of jaggery as they were rolling out the laddoos and pop it into their mouths. That would affect the proportions of our material. It took a while for them to learn not to do that. The laddoos were made at Vaishali’s house, so when someone turned up in the house it was odd not to ask them to take a laddoo or two. We had to somehow get the women to learn to resist that urge for hospitality. And I once weighed the laddoos and found one that weighed 23 gm. We want each to weight about 18-20 gm, so I got them to crumble the whole lot and roll again. Now, it has become an obsession – every laddoo is weighed!”

To taste the laddoos, contact natiyaerd@gmail.com

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