TODAY -

Women plug food supply gaps during pandemic lockdown

Ninglun Hanghal *



When nutrition specialist turned entrepreneur Vedmani Kshetrimayum wears a mask and heads to her farm early morning and collects vegetables, little does she know how significantly her efforts are plugging the food supply gaps in Manipur.

The struggle to contain Coronavirus pandemic has led to shortage of food and essential commodities.In Manipur,which is heavily dependent on supplies from the subcontinent, it is a hard time.

During the national lockdown, both internal and external supply chains were severely impaired as inter-and intra-state transport services stopped. Even as the lockdown eases, food supply chains continue to be affected.

For people in Manipur, it is a common sight to see women selling vegetables and other food products across the state, be it in the tribal hills or, non-tribal areas of the Imphal valley. During the lockdown, the role and contribution of women became even more prominent and visible.

It is in this time of crisis that women, as individuals and collectives, are at the forefront of ensuring food availability in their homes and to the general public at large.

Findings Means to Get Farm Products

Kshetrimayum is now a vegetable supplier in Imphal west. Every morning,Kshetrimayum set out to the farmstead in rural Imphal to collect fresh vegetables and bring them to the city in her car. She also picks up products from farmers and middlemen who are unable to transport the produce to the city, either due to lockdown or unavailability of vehicles. These vegetables were further provided to women vendors and also sold out in the localities by Kshetrimayum herself.

“As a food entrepreneur, I am privileged to get a curfew pass so I can move around,”said Vedmani. She utilized her advantage to the maximum benefit of the general public. Khetrimayum founded Vedam Agro Enterprise, an all-women venture initiated since 2014 dealing in food processing and marketing, mainly fruit products and spices.

Presently Kshetrimayum’s enterprise has temporarily stopped work. She said, “At the moment we discontinued collection and processing as we are not sure of the market”. Since raw material mainly fruits are perishable it is not advisable to stock up, while dry fruit products or pickles were not in much demand, observed Kshetrimayum.

Disruption in Demand- Supply Chain

Food business is not simply about collecting vegetables, crops, fruit from farmers and suppliers, selling it, or processing. It involves a whole network, supply chain, transport, and most of all in a state like Manipur, it largely depends on the vagaries of nature.

About 45km away from Imphal, a group of women at Wangjing under Thoubal district also had to shut down operations during the peak fruit season. They shut down because of labour constraints and absence of transport due to the lockdown.

They work under the brand “Heijing -Eikhoigee Mahao”food processing and production. Nonibala Narengbam who created the brand, said they were unable to stock up raw material. “Right now (May through August) is pineapple and mango season, but it is almost over now so that means we will not have any resources for processing for the next phase”. Narengbam is worried that her team will have no products for sale for a long time.

Another major hindrance in the food chain network is the unavailability of public transport and inter-district communication being cut off. “For instance our mango comes from interior Chandel district. Either our suppliers cannot reach usor we cannot go there,” said Narengbam.

Narengbam and her team somehow manage to sell their previous stock during the few hours of lockdown relaxation. Heijing’sannual income in a normal year is about Rs6 to 8 lakh but 2020 is going to be bad.

Finding an Alternative

As supplies of food and essential items are hard hit, a variety of local processed food products are in huge demand, particularly in urban areas. Several small scale food enterprises, mostly women groups are working hard to ensure food reaches their customers.

At Elangbam Leikai in Imphal a group of about 20 women continue their work even during the lockdown. A unit of Meira Foods– one of the popular food processing and marketing enterprises in Manipur, run and managed by women, staffs were even tighter than before, as demand rose. Coordinator and manager of the unit Sunanda said that three or four staff who hail from far distance stay put at the processing center as movement of people is restricted. “Even during lockdown we work as usual - from 10 am to 5 pm,” she said.

In the first phase of lockdown relaxation, all stock at Meira Foods were sold out. “There is a lot of demand for dry fruit, pickle, bamboo shoot” explained Sunanda. “But the concern is about wholesale, which is yet to pick up,” said Sunanda asserting that they ensure there is no unreasonable price rise of their products. However, Sunanda reasoned that since prices of ingredients such as sugar or spices which are imported have gone up, therefore the need to raise for their products too.

Meira Foods have tied up with several home delivery services in the city, who deliver products to the customers’ doorstep. Moreover, since some of their production units are in the vicinity of the city if offered an advantage. People around the neighborhood and home-based grocery shops and retailers collect their products for sale.

“The first two weeks of the lockdown was a difficult time,”said Subhra Devi founder and proprietor of Meira Foods. Eventually, as lockdown eases farmers from nearby villages came on their bicycles or carrying products in cycle-rickshaws. But not all farmers could reach the towns and cities due to the unavailability of transport and restriction on inter-district movements.

“Since my farmer supplies are from remote hills, there was no way they could bring it down to Imphal. For example,we missed collection of pineapples, which come from interior Churachandpur district, nearly 100km from Imphal” said Subhra. “It will be a loss of about two tons of pineapples or maybe even more in this single season,” estimated Subhra.

This gave rise to seek out more alternatives. Even as some of the product sales are redundant, such as candy or chips, essential food products became a huge hit. Subhra said that they came out with an idea of focused essential food items, like producing foods like gram flour or besan and besan products.

The new product line includes bori (or baree)that has a longer shelf life. “This is dry and lasts longer making it a good idea for the lockdown,”said Subhra, mentioning its nutritional value as well.

Women: The Backbone of Food Security

In rural and semi-urban areas of Manipur, families own a backyard garden or farmsteads that sustained them. This garden or farms are the woman’s domain. In tribal hill areas women work side by side with the men in terrace or Jhum cultivation. They collect forest produce, such as bamboo shoot or varieties of edible leaves for family consumption and to be sold in local markets.

Women in Manipur engage in some form of economic activity. Agriculture and food business is an important engagement. Women are involved in the entire gamut of activities from preparation of fields for cultivation, sowing, weeding, harvesting, preserving seeds, collecting the produce, selling and preparing food for consumption. In the current context, they are part of food processing and marketing as well.

Except ploughing in permanent and terrace fields, or clearing areas for jhum cultivation, the whole process is largely dependent on women. According to Manipur’s Economic Survey 2019-2020 the agriculture sector contributes a major share to the total State Domestic Product (SDP).

In the agriculture sector, more than 80% women are involved directly or indirectly, said Devdutta Sharma, project director of Manipur Organic Mission Agency. Acknowledging the contribution and the role of women in food production Sharma said, “Without women, agriculture and horticulture sector will be a total failure”. The significant role is evident in the success stories created by women and women self-help groups.

Statistics

There is enough evidence that women form the backbone of Manipur’s economic life. According to Manipur Economic Survey 2019-2020, the percentage of female work force is at 43.3 percent. It records a total of 3.59 lakh women as main workers, of which 1,85,617 (51.70%) are cultivators, 21,075 (5.87 %) agricultural labourers whereas the remaining 1,52,347 (42.43%) are engaged in manufacturing, processing, servicing and household industries. A total of 8,52,006 of them are classified as “non-workers”.

Women’s work is mostly categorised in the informal sector. They form a large base of work force that engages in traditional mode of production and means of economy, such as agriculture and allied sector. Food production and food business, which engages the largest number of women still forms the non-formal economy.


The opinions and views expressed are those of the author. Laadli and UNFPA do not necessarily endorse the views.


* Ninglun Hanghal wrote this article for The Sangai Express
Ninglun Hanghal is Laadli Media Fellow 2020
This article was webcasted on August 11 2020.



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