Though women in the northeastern state of Nagaland have traditionally enjoyed a high social position, within their family as well as the community, a strong prevalence of patriarchy has ensured that they are not just kept away from key decision-making but are also barred from inheriting ancestral assets like land and other property.
In fact, while it would not be wrong to say that Naga women are chiefly responsible for keeping the state’s agrarian economy going, especially since the menfolk migrate in large numbers to nearby towns and cities in search of better paying work, they do not have any ownership rights over the land they till. The female members invest a lot of time, energy and money into the jhumland farms – community lands where any member(s) of a village can practice shift cultivation – that dot the countryside. From selecting the right seasonal crops to cultivate to sourcing input for the land to managing the harvesting, their hands-on approach has worked wonders as they produce high-quality yields of indigenous grains such as Tshube (millet) and Truta (maize) besides varieties of soya bean, Kashu (rice bean) and Kholar (kidney beans). Today, they have gone a step further and transformed themselves into successful entrepreneurs by forming Self Help Groups (SHGs), where together they convert all the organic, fresh foods they have grown into marketable goods.
Kohima-based Lochimi Lotha, 48, is one such happy farmer-turned-entrepreneur. She founded Khuben Thera (meaning flower) SHG in 2013 with 13 other women and jointly they have been working tirelessly in their fields and later going all out to sell the harvest in the local market. Says Lotha, a mother of four, “What binds all of us is the ambition to do well in life and give our children a better future. We are poor and have to find ways to supplement our family income. Nowadays, it’s impossible to run a home on a small salary of a single member. My husband, a Grade Four government employee, will be retiring soon and so it will be up to me to keep the kitchen fires burning. The SHG enables women like me to stand on our own feet.”
Aranla Longchar and her young daughter, Akokla are member of Eleos SHG in Dimapur. The duo is completely sold on woman power. Says Akokla, “I have realised that if women join hands then they can achieve anything. In our SHG, we are our own bosses. We decide on what vegetables to grow and when to harvest them. Everything is organic. We form teams that undertake door-to-door sales and also supply to the nearby vendors and local stores. I have been handling the marketing side of the work.”
Of course, creating an SGH and running a small business is not as simple as it may seem. The women farmers have to convince the village council of the merits of forming the group and then take permission to use the common village land. Moreover, all members have to spare some seed money to start operations. Mary Khiamniungan, a member of Shurun (meaning unity) SHG in Tuensang district, recalls, “When we had decided to set up our group in 2011 we were confident that we would be able to reason with our village council. Our SHG’s founder president Yinsola Yimchinger was a respected woman leader of the local church and she assured them that we would follow the rules of the council and work in cooperation with them. They had no objection after that.”
Shurun SHG has a membership fee of Rs 100 and it has members from five villages. “Our main objective is to provide equal opportunity to all women. They get the chance to work, earn, take decisions and manage their own affairs,” elaborates Khiamniungan. According to this skilled farmer, all of them practice either terrace or jhum farming and they “do not use any chemicals to boost production”. Of course, the hardships they face are many, “Inclement weather is our main challenge as it adversely affects the crops. Moreover, we do not have any storage facility. At the time of harvesting, we hire a vehicle, collect the produce and then stock up in the homes of a few members,” she shares. After this, the women branch out to sell the fresh produce like maize, rice, millets or tree tomatoes (locally called tamarillo) to vendors in the market. The items that need to be dried before packing are put through a set process. “We do house sales and approach the neighbourhood shops too. In addition, we set up stalls at social gatherings and during festivals,” adds Khiamniungan.
Recently, Khiamniungan, Lotha, Longchar and several other cultivators-cum-businesswomen, had travelled all the way to Delhi to sell a variety of local delicacies like pounded puffed sticky rice, wild apples, yam leaves and canned items such as bamboo shoot and the infamous Raja Mirchi, as part of a special organic food festival. For Lotha this was her first trip to the Capital and although she did face some difficulty in communicating with her customers, in general she was happy that she could manage to interact with everyone with “thoda, thoda Hindi”. She shares, “Our products were such a hit with the people that we had sold over 50 per cent of the stuff by the third day. Just goes to prove that if women get equal opportunities to work and earn they can achieve a lot.”
Mitingliu and Tinghamak are 20-something and part of Wibibi (meaning ‘step by step’) SHG that was constituted in 2013. While they are not into farming, they focus on food packaging and marketing. The young women run a small store in Peren district, where they sell dried, canned food items. Their Delhi experience was “good” as they realised the potential the organic food business has for all of them.
Assisting women SGHs in the state to overcome the various challenges and expand their work is the State Women Resource Centre (SWRC). Says Ajabu Tungoe, Coordinator, SWRC, “There is a demand for pure organic foods but the production challenges are many. We are constantly trying to come up with ways to make sure that these women can maximise cultivation and tide over the difficult times especially created due to unfavourble weather. The trip to Delhi was quite an eye opener for many. Besides this, the SWRC has introduced various initiatives to give a fillip to the social-economic development of Naga women.”
Organic farming is their mantra for prosperity – and these hardworking Naga women farmers are going all out to realise their potential and their dreams.
Women"s Feature Services