How a techie is transforming the lives of tribal women 

Vat Vrikshya, a social enterprise set up by a former software engineer, Vikash Das, 28, works on economic empowerment of Adivasi women artisans in Odisha

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NH photo
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Supriya Nidhi

After completing my bachelor’s degree in Information Technology from the Visvesvaraya Technological University and masters in Software Engineering from Manipal University, I worked as IT security analyst in IBM Corp. Bangalore, India for a few years.

A visit to my hometown in Balasore, Odisha during Durga Puja celebrations in October 2013 changed the course of my life completely. I came across an old tribal woman who was begging outside a temple, along with her grandson. As she tried to enter the temple, she was abused and pushed out by some people. I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach. This incident made me realize my responsibility towards the society. It set in motion many pointed questions: Why am I here? What is my purpose on this earth? So on and so forth.

In April 2014, I quit my secure job and decided to start a social enterprise that could create diversified livelihood opportunities for the tribal women. The idea was to make them our business partners so that they could earn their living with dinity instead of depending on some kind of charity. This is how my social enterprise, Vat Vrikshya came into being. I had to invest my entire life savings in this venture.

Earlier, when I decided to start Vat Vrikshya, my family and friends didn’t really appreciate my decision to quit a high paying job and settle down in a remote tribal village. They thought that something was seriously wrong with me. But over a period of time, as they started to understand our business model and how effectively it was changing the lives of people, they started appreciating my decision.

I visited a remote tribal hamlet of Koibania in Odisha and stayed with community members for over two months to understand their problems. Initially, we had no office. Our first meeting was held under a banyan tree. That’s how we got the name of our organisation, Vat Vrikshya– Sanskrit name of Banyan tree. One of the major challenges that we encountered during our initial days was to convince the tribal communities. They were rightly apprehensive as they had feared being exploited by the outsiders. Subsequently, I approached my friends from the corporate sector. Soon, I constituted a core team of seven people. Our team then motivated the tribal people to come up with sustainable business models and we simply followed their ideas.

The team started working in a small tribal hamlet, which had a population of just 100200 people. We started working with the women who were already into the business of handicrafts, handloom, organic crops, herbal and cosmetic products. Vat Vrikshya taps the skilled of tribal women and tries to make them leaders by changing their mind-set and belief systems with our financial assistance and guidance.

How a techie is transforming the lives of tribal women 
Women busy in making ornaments at Vat Vrikshya

Over a period of time, we started realising that the women were already independent and hardworking. However, they did not have anyone to market their products. Thus the first goal of Vat Vrikshya was to cut out the agents and middlemen and get the artisans the right value for their products. They were then connected to women entrepreneurs from other villages. Several skill development training workshops were held by Vat Vrikshya.

Currently, Vat Vrikshya is working with 2300 women artisans and has directly impacted the lives of tens of thousands of other villagers due to the ripple effect of broad based community development programs.

Sukirna Majhi, the 65-yearold widow is now a business woman in the truest sense. Earlier, she had no money to meet her ends. She was abandoned by her family and she was ruthlessly exploited by moneylenders. She was good at making Bamboo products but middlemen were not paying her enough money for the hard work she was doing. After we provided her necessary skills and market access she is living a comfortable life. She is an entrepreneur and has employed 26 women from her village.

Rani Hembrum was suspected of practicing sorcery and considered a witch. She was thrown out of her village. She was left to beg on streets of Baripada. She was good at weaving stoles and scarfs, but little did she knew that her hand-woven products would find place in wardrobes of Europeans. She is also living a life of dignity.

How a techie is transforming the lives of tribal women 

We are self-sustaining social enterprise and we don’t receive grants or funds from any source. We provide vocational training, soft loans, expert advice and market linkages to help develop supplementary sources of income. We introduce tribal women to concepts of savings and networking. We provide leadership, marketing skills along with financial literacy. We impart personality development trainings as well. We track their progress and are always ready to motivate them and encourage them towards achieving their targets. Today, we are helping around 17,000 tribal women through 72 team members of Vat Vrikshya.

The challenges of working in the tribal regions of Odisha are unending. Geographic inaccessibility is one of the biggest barriers. The primitive tribal groups reside in extremely remote regions devoid of even basic infrastructure like toilets, electricity and roads. We risk our lives crossing dense forests and rivers to reach remote villages. Naxalites, who are the biggest internal security threat, actively oppose any development activities in most of the tribal regions. Their frequent combing operations continue to delay the pace of activities at Vat Vrikshya

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