The humble soap nut helps tribal women turn the tide
September 26, 2017

The forests in Odisha are rich in several fruits, berries and flowers but many times rural tribal communities do not harvest the produce due to lack of market access. For the first time, however, tribal women of different blocks in Nayagarh District have started harvesting soap nuts and are receiving much better prices from traders than what they might have bargained for

BubbleNut Wash, a social enterprise backed by support from the state-based NGO, Vasundhara, has taken up a step to provide the tribal communities in Odisha a livelihood opportunity. Now, by harvesting soap nuts (a sustainable plant-based cleaning product locally known as ritha), tribal women are earning a little more to support their family income during the lean period in summer when there is very little agriculture work available for them.

Mallika Jani, a tribal woman in her early 50s who lives in Mardakot Village in Darpanarayanpur Panchayat, seems happy that she does not have to borrow money from the local moneylender anymore during the lean agriculture season. Now, she can earn by selling soap nuts to the social enterprise, which assures her regular income.

Mallika drying soap nuts outside her home.

Mallika is dependent on forest produce for her livelihood apart from working as agriculture labourer. “During cultivation and harvest season we have work in hand but other days we sit idle at home without any work. So, to feed our family we collect forest produce like tubers, spinach, fruits, and sell them in the local market,” she says while drying up soap nuts in her backyard.

Mallika and the other women in her village regularly venture into the forest to collect firewood, tuber, spinach and other forest produce. They keep some for domestic use and sell the rest to local traders. The latter cheat the tribal women by offering low prices.

“As we do not have bargaining capacity we take whatever is given for our collected produce from the forest. Only during the month of May we collect kendu leaves and earn nearly Rs 4000 to 5000. We also sell sal leaf plates to local traders who give us Rs 80 for 100 plates. This is the only income we are depended on for the entire year besides seasonal agriculture labourer,” says Kusuma, a woman from the village.

BubbleNut Wash aims at creating a market for non-timber forest products such as soap nuts so that rural communities can have a supple-mentary source of income. The soap nuts are regularly collected from the farmers of Odisha and Uttaranchal. They are then processed and shipped to Bengaluru where they are packed.

The soap nut tree in Sulei’s backyard.

“We could order soap nuts from traders, but we decided to collect them from the marginalised farmers directly, who collect, store and sell them to the local trader for a minimal price. When we buy directly from the farmers, they get a good price for their produces,” says Manas Nanda, who founded BubbleNut Wash in 2015. “Each soap nut tree can provide an income of Rs 1500-2000 to a farmer. Farmers with a few soap nut trees in their backyard can earn Rs 8000-Rs 10000 a year without much effort; this is as same as what a farmer makes from an acre of land in Odisha,” he points out.

Having positioned itself close to urban consumers in Bengaluru, BubbleNut Wash works with communities directly for harvesting soap nuts and procuring them at premium prices. It relies on partnerships with NGOs having a strong grassroots presence, who can mobilise the communities and convince them to harvest soap nuts as an additional source of income. “Here in Odisha, we have taken up the important role of mobilising local women to collect and supply semi-processed soap nuts,” says Chitta Ranjan Pani, project manager, Vasundhara, who is passionate about such issues.

Sixty-year-old Sulei Bewahas has sold 36 kg of soap nuts and earned Rs 900. “Earlier, the local traders used to give us very little price for this forest produce. Local goldsmiths who used to collect soap nuts from us to clean their gold ornaments, were paying only Rs 10 per kg soap nut, while now we are getting Rs 25 per kg,” says Sulei, who has two soap nut trees in her backyard.

“Soap nut trees existed in the backyards and periphery of this area for several decades, yet they (tribal people) had never harvested them for an income. Now these tribal women have started harvesting soap nut regularly and taking care of these trees that can help to increase their income significantly,” says Bhagyalaxmi Biswal of Vasundhara who has been working with the tribal women for years. “We are also promoting them to plant more soap nut trees in their backyard and periphery.”

The tribal women who have never stepped into schools understand that education is important, also that it is important to protect the forest. From a young age, the women are engaged in collection of forest produce. Today, their daughters are attending school and also helping their mothers in collecting forest produce only on holidays.

“We want our girls should get education which we were deprived of. Most of us are thumb-print and so the traders often cheat us by giving minimal prices to our forest produces. If our daughters get education they will have better bargaining capacity with the traders,” says forty-year-old Sauri Dei.

“Soap nuts are good for cleaning but for us it is earning some extra money without much effort. Now we are taking care of soap nut trees available in our backyard and periphery and protecting the trees in the forest from the clutches of timber thieves,” says Sauri with a smile.

August 2017