Its 11.00 pm in the remote village of Baundispada in Odisha. Twelve women from the Bonda tribe, one of India’s most primitive tribes, are working late into the night arranging power circuits, attaching LED lights and soldering wires. In five days they assemble 750 solar LED lamps, an order received from the government of Odisha to provide light to government-run schools in the area. They earn about US$ 1500, more than six times the average household income of US$ 200 -250 in the village.
The Bonda tribe lives in the remote hills of Odisha’s Malkangiri district. Most members of the primitive tribe are not educated, have little access to the outside world and live in extreme poverty. Life expectancy is so low, the tribe faces the threat of extinction.
Since 2003, the International Fund for Agricultural Development has partnered with the Odisha Tribal Empowerment and Livelihood Programme to improve food and livelihood security for tribal communities in the state. In 2009, with the success of the initiative, the programme was expanded to reach out to particularly vulnerable tribes such as the Bonda in Baundispada.
Twenty-two year old Chhankhi Kirsan is the Secretary of the SHG. A community that lived by nature’s rules seldom forayed late into the darkness after sunset, today works late into the night. As dusk settles she meticulously tests each solar LED lamp to ensure it works perfectly. Chhankhi is amongst 90 women who travelled to the state capital Bhubaneswar where they were trained to assemble solar powered LED lamps, and manage the enterprise. For most women, this was their opportunity to travel out of their village.
“Life for our community has changed” says local leader Monga Trisyani as he carries a solar lantern through the dark by lanes of the village that has been connected to the national grid in 2013 but only receives electricity for a few hours a day. “After working in the fields in the day, we return, children study, women make leaf plates and brooms and we sell them in the market. “
In 2009, when the initiative was expanded to this remote village, a group of women came together to form the Tumbikunda women’s self help group (SHG), the village’s first and only self help group for women. The Group learnt how to assemble and sell solar lanterns and has empowered many in the community to think of a better future for their families.
The income from the enterprise and the availability of light has transformed lives of families. For thirty-nine year old Kirsani nightfall no longer means the end of the day. An LED lamp shines bright in her one room mud hut and allows her to make brooms for sale in the local market.
Fifty year old Adibari Kirsani spent most of her life retiring to bed at dusk. The availability of light for the past three years has enabled her to earn an additional income by selling leaf plates that she makes by lamplight.
Adibari saved up her money to gift a solar lamp to her nine-year old grandson, Arjun so that he could study at night. Literacy rates for the tribal community are amongst the lowest in the country.
Adibari has invested some of the money she has earned in buying household items such as utensils that make it easier for her to cook for the family. Her priority, however, is the education of her grandchildren. “I want light so my grandchildren can study ” she says.
While India has made impressive progress in extending the grid in rural areas, erratic and unreliable supply remains a key challenge. Alternate, clean energy is crucial to bridge the gap. Women entrepreneurs in remote corner of Odisha have been able to show the way to a well lit future.