Vat Vrikshya empowers Adivasi women with sustainable livelihoods

Vat Vrikshya empowers marginalised Adivasi women with sustainable livelihood opportunities, leading to broad-based social change.



This section on Social Innovation is made possible with the support of Deshpande Foundation India.


Vikash Das is someone many 20-something, well-educated, urban dwellers could easily identify with. At least he was, till about two years ago when he left his lucrative IT job behind and headed for the isolated tribal hamlets of his hometown Odisha with dreams of bringing meaning to his own life and to those of the marginalised communities there. In 2013, he founded Vat Vrikshya.

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Vat Vrikshya, (banyan tree in Sanskrit), is an Odisha-based self-sustaining social business organisation that works in remote rural areas with marginalised women and Adivasi communities that have traditionally been neglected and exploited by mainstream society. The organisation has operations in four major tribal districts of Odisha, part of India’s ‘starvation corridor’, with among the country’s highest rates of poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, infant and mother mortality and school drop out rates.

Women as agents of change

The organisation was set up primarily to empower marginalised women become active agents of their own change process. Vat Vrikshya creates sustainable and diversified livelihoods opportunities for women so that they earn enough in the lean agricultural periods to meet their costs of living. “The main occupation of tribal communities is agriculture and hunting. However, Odisha is prone to frequent and severe droughts, cyclones or floods almost every alternate year”, explains Das. The vagaries of weather have compounded the woes of poor agricultural communities whose yields are already low due to outdated agricultural techniques.

Alcoholism and gambling are common among male members of these communities because of which the burden of making ends meet falls upon the women. The enterprise provides women with vocational training, soft loans, expert advice and market linkages to help develop supplementary sources of income. It has linked over 200 tribal hamlets which are then connected with larger towns, cities, and various government-led institutions. The enterprise also helps people sell their wares directly in fairs and markets, bypass exploitative middlemen and earn better profits.

Das adds, “We have also helped create spaces where women can meet and exchange information.” These village knowledge centres employ information technology to promote knowledge dissemination among women’s groups that gather on weekends to share knowledge on vegetable cultivation and seed and grain preservation techniques and perform various cultural activities.

Women attend a weekend meeting of the Women's Club where they share knowledge on agriculture, handicrafts, sanitation, seed preservation, and health issues.

Women attend a weekend meeting of the Women’s Club where they share knowledge on agriculture, handicrafts, sanitation, seed preservation, and health issues.

In search of meaning

When asked about the transition from a professional career and the comforts of city to the hardships of village life, he says, “I was always aware of issues that people from tribal communities faced as I was raised in a small town, and had the opportunity to interact with them and see their struggles up close. But, I could not connect with them; it felt like observing their problems through a glass wall. I could analyse their problems but was never able to understand what they were going through. That’s when I decided to live as one of them for two months in their village. The experience was devastating, frustrating and enlightening – all at once and cemented my decision to do something to make a difference in the lives of these people.”

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Vikash Das with a member of Vat Vrikshya.

“Banyan trees are considered sacred in India for they shelter all creatures under them – no matter how little or big”, he says. “Similarly, Vat Vrikshya aims at bringing marginalised, vulnerable tribal groups together, provides them with equal opportunities so that they can contribute to and benefit from India’s growth as well as gain recognition as valuable members of this great democracy. Traditionally, banyan trees form the focal point of village political life and cultural activities. Our enterprise doesn’t have an office yet, so we continue to gather under the old banyans for all our meetings”, he laughs.

A four pronged approach to development

Vat Vrikshya’s work in rural development is guided by its 4-pillar approach:

1. Research and needs assessment

When they enter a new community or a village, they understand its unique culture, problems; make observations, interview community members about their needs; make a SWOT analysis; and figure out their areas of interest and expertise. Then, a pilot project is created, implemented, tested, and systematised before being launched at scale.

2. Networking and partnerships

Tribal women  are connected with role models, such as successful women entrepreneurs from other tribal villages, enabling the creation of a market network between different tribal villages, towns and cities. They are given the initial capital, linkages to women’s social groups, NGOs and financial institutions to help them launch their own arts and crafts enterprises.

Vat Vrikshya makes a seed donation of Rs. 2000 to women of every family in the villages it work in. To this, the women add their own contribution based on their monetary situation. Vat Vrikshya also helps link women with banks for loans. The activities and progress of the new enterprises are monitored closely by Vat Vrikshya staff.

3. Educating and marketing

Vocational training is given to tribal women based on their expertise and areas of interest. The enterprise identifies market needs by interviewing potential customers about the requirements. It also educates urban customers about tribal arts, handicrafts and culture to encourage sales. The products are then branded and packaged attractively. Women are also taught how to market their products effectively.

4. Transparency and involvement

In order to do away with any trust deficits among its members, all members of the tribal communities are included in Vat Vriskhya’s functioning to ensure transparency. Women representatives maintain the records, manage the Vat Vrikshya fund and are responsible for arranging the weekly knowledge sharing and training sessions. They are also involved in business processes after undergoing the required training. “As a self-sustaining social business organisation, we are focused on making profits which are then deployed for increasing community welfare”, says Das. A significant part of Vat Vrikshya’s profit is used to improve health and education in the villages as well as to support women entrepreneurs with interest free loans and modern machinery and equipment.

Handicrafts by the women of Vat Vrikshya.

Handicrafts by the women of Vat Vrikshya.

Measuring impact

Vat Vrikshya has been successful in effecting economic and social change in the communities it works with. Says Das,

“With the improvement in their skills, women are now making three to four times the profit they used to leading to a two to threefold increase in family income. Eliminating middlemen from the retail channel has ensured that women get a fair price for their products.”

With reduced dependence on agriculture and agricultural income, malnutrition and starvation rates due to low yields have reduced. Women are able to access soft loans from SHGs and borrow from seed and grain banks. Communities are no longer at the mercy of money lenders who charge them huge interests and bonded labour has reduced by 60% as the people now have access to self help groups and bank loans. Artisans no longer have to migrate to cities and towns in search of daily wage labour as they get fair prices for their products in the villages.
With increased income and better bargaining power, women are beginning to demand social, economic and reproductive rights and raise their voices against social evils like witch hunting and child marriage. Improvement of education is evidenced by lower school dropout rates and lower instances of child labour. 45% of the women Vat Vrikshya works with attend evening education centres.

Silk sarees handwoven by Vat Vrikshya women.

Silk sarees handwoven by Vat Vrikshya women.

What lies ahead

The products of Vat Vrikshya’s artisans are now marketed in towns and cities across India and they have recently received orders from customers in Ireland and France. “Customers have begun to appreciate our effort and our products, helping preserve India’s rich tribal culture and heritage and create awareness about it in the mainstream.” The enterprise has ambitious goals of scaling to international markets, partnering with government to create research labs to expand the pool of talent among tribal communities.

“India cannot develop if we have 60 per cent of people live on less than $2 a day”, asserts Das.”Our ultimate goal is to create role models among village communities, engage them in eradicating deep-rooted social evils and use them to inspire hundreds of other Indian women. Our vision is of an inclusive India where every person receives a fair opportunity to develop and excel.”

All images courtesy Vat Vrikshya.

The Social Innovation Sandbox is a series chronicling novel solutions across the country that are seeking to transform life quality for the millions at the base of the pyramid in India.

DF LOGO HIGH RESOLUTIONThe series is supported by the Deshpande Foundation India that is based out of Hubli and is building a nurturing ecosystem for entrepreneurship, innovation, and local, grassroots efforts so that young people can transform this growing country.


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