It would not be wrong to say that Naga women are chiefly responsible for keeping the state's agrarian economy going, since the menfolk migrate in large number to nearby towns and cities in search of better paying works. Yet, they do not have any ownership rights over the land till date. Female members invest a lot of time, energy and money into the jhumland farms that dot the countryside. From selecting the right seasonal crops to cultivation to sourcing inputs 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 millet and maize besides varieties of soya bean, rice bean and kidney beans. Today, they have gone a step further and transformed themselves into successful entrepreneurs by forming Self Help Groups (SHG).
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. They have jointly been working tirelessly in their fields and later going all out to sell the harvest in the local market.
Lotha, a mother of four, says, "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. According to Akokla, "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."
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 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. 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 takes 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. "All of them practice either terrace or jhum farming and we do not use any chemicals to boost production. Of course, the hardships we 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."
After this, the women branch out to sell the fresh produce 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 famous Raja Mirchi, as part of a special organic food festival. "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," Lotha shares her experience.
Assisting women SGHs in the state to overcome the various challenges and expand their work is the State Women Resource Centre (SWRC). Ajabu Tungoe, Coordinator at SWRC, remarks, "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.