International Women's Day: How self-help group — and a phone — gave Kuntala new lease of life

Non-profit Trickle Up’s pilot project put smartphones in the hands of poor women and helped change their lives

By Atreyee Kar
Published: Friday 06 March 2020

The president of Malati self-help group (SHG) in Khampur village of Odisha’s Sudergarh district, Kuntala, is an unassuming woman.  

As Malati’s award for best self-help group award is mentioned, she smiles admiringly. She is 30 and quiet. But her eyes speak of a steely resolve — her life has been an uphill struggle. 

Today, Kuntala sends her 11-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son to school in the hope of ending the cycle of inter-generational poverty.

About a decade ago, Kuntala lost her husband to tuberculosis. She was pregnant with her second child then.

Her husband’s demise pushed Kuntala to the wall. In 2015, as she was struggling to make ends meet, non-profit Trickle Up in collaboration with Tata Communications piloted a project that put smartphones in the hands of women living in poverty. It was through this intervention that Malati was formed.

In 2016, Kuntala was chosen as a participant for the M-Powered project. As part of it, she was handed a seed grant of Rs 3,000 and a mobile phone.

The phone had Package of Practices (PoP) — an application developed by Trickle Up — which helped her understand land cultivation and farming. The app instructed her on when to fertilise, sow, water, weed, and harvest her crops.

She started growing rice and onions and is now a vegetable vendor.  

“I was always a shy person. I did not speak much and was upset at how life treated me. I had no knowledge of the services and schemes I was entitled to. It was through the self-help group that my bank account was created and I started to understand money transactions. I found support for myself and my young children in the group. I was not alone anymore,” said Kuntala. 

The project instilled fresh confidence in her.

 “Last year, I bought one kilogram of seeds and with the help of PoP, I produced 250 kg of onions. Imagine the kind of profit I made! The regular trainings are also helpful. But PoP is like a regular reference. Now that I can use my phone, I refer to PoP whenever I want, in case I am stuck.”

Now, Kuntala doesn’t have to wait for anybody’s help. The app has helped her save a lot of time.

“I can give enough time to cultivation, my children and my duties as the president of the SHG,” she said. 

Having a phone helps Kuntala network and hone her communication skills. “I coordinate meetings and trainings. I also like that I can discuss my problems over phone. Many women in my group call me up asking for my help. My communication skills have improved so much that I am not a shy person anymore. To be honest, I love my phone. Listening to music or watching videos has become a hobby and my free time is much more entertaining now,” she said.

Today, Kuntala owns two bullocks and two goats and is trying her hand at livestock rearing as well. She goes by the instructions on the livestock rearing section of PoP and vaccinates her livestock.

“Rains are erratic and I do not want to be dependent only on agriculture. Livestock gives me an option to stay afloat even when the monsoon is late and my crops are affected. My children are dependent on me. I am not that educated, but I do want my children to grow into good and successful human beings. Today, I can say I am trying my best to ensure they have every opportunity to turn their lives around,” she added.   

The theme for International Women's Day this year is women's rights. And Kuntala has come a long way in understanding them. It is time we ensure that in doing it, women in similar situations not face as many challenges as she had to.  

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