One for all; all for one

004A group of semi-literate housewives who started by rolling out papads from their terraces would never have dreamed that their venture would one day employ thousands. What started as a humble attempt to buy out a loss-making business is a thriving Rs. 650 crore-plus cooperative today. Its success has defied the notion that a Gandhian approach to enterprise would never work, and shown that cooperatives can in fact prosper. This group of women has given us a household name that will perhaps flourish for decades, not to mention, tremendous inspiration; proving that where there is a will, there really is a way.

In 1959, Girgaum-based Jaswantiben Jamnadas Popat (who survives today), Parvatiben Ramdas Thodani, Ujamben Narandas Kundalia, Banuben. N. Tanna, Laguben Amritlar Gokani and Jayaben V. Vithalani, started Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad (as it came to be known later) with an ambition to earn some supplementary income. With a loan of Rs. 80, they started producing two grades of papad for sale in Bhuleshwar, Mumbai, before they realised that it made more business-sense to produce just one high-quality, standardised product. So stringent were their quality standards that substandard produce was thrown in the sea, and broken papads were distributed amongst neighbours.

They had nothing much to boast of to start out with. Apart from the meagre capital that they so resourcefully ploughed into business, they had the invaluable support of folks like Chaganlal Karamsi Parekh, popularly known as Chaganbapa, who steered the business in the right direction and introduced essential basics like book-keeping. Soon, the women developed the real asset bases of the company; its core value system that has hitherto remained unchanged. The sisterhood continues to offer a strong sense of dignity, self-respect and solidarity to its members. It does not accept donations, and ensures that every ben receives the rightful dividend of her efforts.

At first, the purchase of every small asset – a cot, a cupboard and utensils – was a milestone. Then, word of their efforts spread far and wide through regional media, and drew not only many more customers, but also several new members. The rest, as they say, is history.

Covered by regional media, Lijjat (meaning ‘tasty’ in Gujarati,) captured the imagination of Mumbai’s employable housewives and within its first three months, it already had 25 women making papads, and annual sales of Rs. 6196 in the first year itself. Gradually, the company expanded its branches, and added new products in its basket, including khakhra, masalas, vadi, wheat atta and bakery products. It even went on to add flour mills, printing division, a polypropylene packing division, and ventures in cottage leather, matches, agarbattis and detergents (the brand Sasa) to its name.

Lijjat’s annual turnover was reported at around Rs. 650 crore in 2010, with Rs. 29 crore in exports. But that isn’t the goal its founders worked towards in 1959. Today, a dream venture established by a handful of housewives empowers 42,000 Indian women through 67 branches and 35 divisions, by providing them with an opportunity to earn their fair living. The cooperative’s success displays how large-scale employment can be provided to women that are illiterate to semi-literate, but skilled; and still thrive successfully.

We consider this propensity of the Lijjat initiative to change lives truly super. For its members, Lijjat is more than just an opportunity for employment. It elevates their aspirations for upliftment. Stories abound on how mothers have counted on the income from Lijjat to raise their children on good education, enabling them to build better lives for themselves. More importantly, it provides an incomparable sense of financial independence to its members. It helps develop self-esteem and financial security among women, who know that they would not need to borrow or beg from their husbands and families for their monetary needs.

What a handful of superwomen started in a bid to earn some extra cash has snowballed into a movement, large and magnanimous, enabling wide empowerment and a better life for thousands. Indeed, these superwomen continue to remind us how money and education are nothing to determination; and that is the kind of success we wish our SmartQ Superwomen.