Creativity and Courage: Sudhaben’s Journey to Becoming an Entrepreneur with RUDI, an Initiative of the Self-Employed Women’s Association

This year, CITE is embarking on an evaluation of food packaging technologies with its partners at the RUDI Multi Trading Company, an initiative of Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). The RUDI initiative aims to provide economic opportunities to women across seven districts in Gujarat, India by training them to become “RUDIbens,” micro entrepreneurs who sell food products such as cereals, spices, and pulses to customers in their local villages. 

Because spoilage and improper storage are often major challenges for the RUDIbens, CITE and SEWA will study user needs and preferences around the different food packaging technologies offered to the RUDIbens. Recently, the evaluation team met Sudhaben Maheshhai Solanki, a RUDIben and unique micro entrepreneur whose story illustrates many of the challenges that RUDIbens face. Let us travel through her journey.

When Sudhaben Maheshbhai Solanki first shared her desire to become an entrepreneur, her family was unsure and unsupportive of her decision. But Sudhaben’s gathered her courage to face the circumstances and to swim against the flow. She connected with the Self Employed Women’s Association and became a RUDIben in 2011. 

Things weren’t easy. After becoming RUDIben, Sudhaben struggled for years to sell her grains and spice packets. First, she struggled to keep her products safe at home. Her products were getting damaged by rats, cats, and humidity. Due to financial challenges, it was not possible for her to buy a cupboard to storage the products properly. Finally, she sold her golden earrings and bought a cupboard. 

Still, Sudhaben was walking long distances to makes sales visits to scattered homes on the outskirts of her home, Bamroli village in Gujarat, India. Every day, Sudhaben would walk up to six kilometers carrying heavy loads of spice packets. The walk was challenging, as Sudhaben needed to cover her face in keeping with the local culture, and the weather was often treacherous, either very muddy or with temperatures reaching dangerous levels. In addition, many times Sudhaben’s customers wouldn’t be home during her visits as they leave home to work during the day. And because many of Sudhaben’s customers paid on credit, she needed to make repeat visits to collect payments. 

Sudhaben thought to herself, “I am spending plenty of time and effort in walking. How to come out from this terrible situation?” 

She lived this life for five years, and kept thinking of how to improve her situation.

One day, she came up with an idea to open her own shop. As the Greek philosopher Plato said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”This way, Sudhaben’s customers could come to her in one central location, saving her the energy and time of walking from house to house. This time, her family supported her to open a small shop in front of her house. 

Over time, Sudhaben’s wisdom helped here to expand her business further by tailoring her products to her customers’ needs. She knows her customers live below the poverty line, so to make her product more accessible for daily wage earners; she reduced the size of the packets. As they earn only INR100 to INR150 in a day, Sudhaben knew that every second or third day they need to spend on food. Sudhaben made 30 grams and 50 grams packets for them and started selling in INR2 and INR4 ($0.03 and $0.06). With this adjustment, she was successful in maintaining regular customers and increasing her sales. 

In addition, Sudhaben sells kits of food items that cost INR300 ($4.63) and INR500 ($7.72). She prepares each kit to meet the needs of her customers. For preparing eggs, a kit that costsINR300 kit includes 50-100 grams of each spice and about 200 grams of cereals and pulses. She also makes it easy for her shoppers to choose the products they need as she arranges the spices and grains beautifully in a rack.

Her customers prefer to buy from Sudhaben because she pays special attention to fulfill their needs. She doesn’t hesitate to open her shop at midnight if some one needs something in an emergency. This is a common phenomenon, especially in marriage season and during celebrations of common local festivals. 

Along with the spices and food products, Sudhaben also keeps seasonal items like kite, Rakhi, Crackers, toys, simple ornaments, and more in her shop. She has products for all age groups including children, women, men, and the elderly.

She has even employed her husband in the shop to help procure her stock from the processing center on her behalf. 

With a smiling face awaiting customers, Sudhaben’s business is progressing very well. Today, Sudhaben has doubled her sales, ranging from INR 12000($185) to 15000($230)/month. Not only this, she has also learned the respect of others and set an example to provide encouragement to many RUDIbens throughout Gujarat.

Our evaluation is just beginning. CITE and SEWA will continue to interview customers, RUDIbens, suppliers, manufacturers, and other supply chain actors over the next few months to learn more about food packaging technologies that can best meet the needs of RUDIbens and their customers. Still, the insights one can glean from just one individual’s story are powerful and clear.

What can we learn from Sudhaben’s story to inform our evaluation? First, RUDIbens are in need of proper storage technologies. Rats, humidity, and other dangers threaten RUDIbens’ valuable stock, and many women, like Sudhaben have to make tough economic choices to afford a solution that provides protection. Second, RUDIbens are in need of a carrier technology that makes the trek from door-to-door selling spices and pulses much less strenuous. Finally, the RUDI initiative may consider helping more women like Sudhaben establish their own local storefronts, making it easier for customers to travel to them, instead of making tiring and often unproductive journeys from home to home each day. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017
Vandana Pandya

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