Mumbai: Mann Deshi Chamber of Commerce, a first network for rural women-owned start-ups

Swapnali Doshi (39) had already given up her job as a government school teacher to look after an ailing relative when her husband’s employer announced retrenchments. Facing the prospect of home loan defaults and also unwilling to sell their flat at Kamothe in Navi Mumbai, Swapnali decided to start her own venture, selling her homemade sherbet instant mix powder.

A little over a year later, she invested all her profits from thousands of kilos of her sherbet powder to launch a small manufacturing unit from where she will make and distribute her product, called ‘Real Maja’. “It was sheer chance that I contacted the Kamothe branch of the Mann Deshi Foundation. Through the Mann Deshi Chamber of Commerce, I learnt everything from the basics of running a business to legal help to marketing and branding,” Doshi said at the Mann Deshi Foundation’s annual festival showcasing women entrepreneurs’ products.

The Mann Deshi Chamber of Commerce is India’s first such initiative for rural and peri-urban women entrepreneurs. “While a chamber of commerce usually focuses on networking and other assistance for organised industries, this is an attempt to give the completely unorganised sector of rural businesswomen a collective voice,” said Vandana Bhansali of the foundation.

While many of its activities were on for the last four to five years, in recent months, the non-profit foundation has begun to plan and organise its chamber of commerce activities — ranging from training programmes and legal assistance to factory visits and peer networks. “It was after getting training in food quality, packaging and branding through the Mann Deshi Chamber of Commerce that I got the confidence to think about expanding my business. I then visited exhibitions on machinery for the food and hotel industries and finalised what machinery will be suitable for me,” said Swapnali, a mother of two girls. She eventually purchased the equipment from Kota.

“The chamber offers three main activities — information dissemination on tax laws, licencing, government schemes, etc; exposure visits including to factories and expert advisory services including legal help, financial advice and marketing/branding,” she added. The annual exhibition in Mumbai is an important element of the market linkage programme under the chamber of commerce initiative. Swapnali was a novice businesswoman when she participated in the 2019 exhibition, but sold 650 packets of her sherbet powder, and also gained hundreds of loyal customers who placed repeat orders. Over four years of the Mumbai festival, the foundation has a database of 40,000 customers who offer a ready marketplace for the women’s products.

Also attending the festival on Saturday was a team from the Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI), keen to learn more about working with micro enterprises. The Mann Deshi team introduced them to several women entrepreneurs whose start-ups needed working capital and cash-flow, not large loans.

Chetna Sinha Gala, founder of the foundation, said these women entrepreneurs seek no subsidy or freebies from the government — they merely want better market access and some assistance when they are beginning or expanding. Ranjita Chalke from Satara, who attended several Mann Deshi Chamber of Commerce workshops and training events, now runs a successful business selling healthy food products made from amla or Indian gooseberry. Also from Satara is Seema Gavali, who in 2015 used her training in marketing and sales to start manufacturing steel utensils. Her start-up Kamal Industries now makes a specially-designed electric steel lamp to burn camphor tablets.

Bhansali said the chamber of commerce initiative is now trying to respond to queries regarding equipment and machinery from various sectors, a key element in expanding their women’s start-ups. Also available are peer purchase networks — women entrepreneurs requiring an agricultural item simply connect with the foundation’s farmer members or farmer-producer company, the women share their client networks and more. “Ultimately, these women are able to bridge the rural-urban divide through the activities of the chamber of commerce,” she added.