Women of the Tsunami Face Business Survival Test

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D. Kalyani, president of the Sea Dot fish pickling unit, December 2014.

Credit: Swapna Majumdar

D. Kalyani, president of the Sea Dot fish pickling unit, December 2014.

CHENNAI, India (WOMENSENEWS)–December is the wedding season in Chennai, when many private establishments close their doors.

But the doors of the all-women fish pickle unit on a busy street in this capital city of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu have been open.

The unit is operated and owned bySea Dot, a self-help group of female fish workers whose communities were shattered by the tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004. For these marginalized women and their families the enterprise has been a way to build back after the destruction of their houses and fishing boats.

"The unit is as sacred as a temple for us," D. Kalyani, president of Sea Dot, said in a recent interview at the pickling unit. "It came at a time when all was lost and gave us the means and confidence to rebuild our lives."

But after many good years, Sea Dot is struggling. As the overall economy slackened this year, so did sales. One government institution did not renew its contract for bulk orders. Phone and electricity bills are now eating into reserve funds. All the income is spread thinly among the 24 co-owners, leaving nothing left to deposit into the general business account.

Under current conditions, the unit can only survive for another couple of months, said Kalyani.

"Bigger players in this field have more resources than us for marketing," she said. "They are shrinking our space. We need to find marketing linkages to pay rent, electricity and phone bills and still make profits. There are a lot of families who are dependent on this fish pickle unit."

‘I Have No Other Skill’

That includes the family of 37-year-old Uma Maheswari. When she joined the unit her fisherman husband was alive. But his death a couple of years ago left her the sole provider for four children. "If this unit closes down, it will be like another tsunami because I don’t know how we will survive," she said in an interview at the pickling unit. "I have no other skill. But I am confident that we can make it profitable again and I am ready to do work harder than before."

To get back on track Sea Dot members are now working with the Chennai-based Community Development Organization Trust, under the aegis of the Forum for Securing Lives and Livelihood Rights of Coastal Communities. The trust, a founding partner of this Chennai-based civil society network, is one of the two non-profits that got the fish pickle unit going.

They have approached the city government about space on government land so that they can save on rent. They have also met with the commissioner of fisheries to see if the Fisheries Department can buy their products and help market them throughout the state. The commissioner expressed interest, buoying hope.

"If we could survive the tsunami, we can certainly overcome all problems," said Kalyani confidently.

The Community Development Organization Trust and the Chennai arm of the anti-poverty group ActionAid came up with the idea for Sea Dot in consultations with the tsunami affected women in 2005.

"Women were living difficult lives and struggling to make two ends meet," said S. Rajendran, executive director of the Community Development Organization Trust, in a recent interview in Chennai. "Many of them faced domestic violence as well. So first we assisted them to form self-help groups so that they could come out of their houses. After several discussions on various livelihood measures, the women identified fish and prawn pickles as a viable economic intervention. The aim was to develop a micro business model for value added fish products, run and managed sustainably by women."

Sea Dot was established in 2006 with the support of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations under the joint United Nations Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery program, as a livelihood enhancement initiative for the fishing community.

The Community Development Organization Trust arranged for the women to receive training in commercial fish and prawn pickling at the government Thoothukudi Fisheries College and Research Institute. ActionAid provided funding for equipment, startup expenses, follow up training and working capital for one month.

In 2008, the women took charge of the unit, overseeing its official registration in the name of their self-help group and bar-coded to identify their products worldwide. They divided responsibilities for purchase of raw materials, managing accounts, marketing, maintenance, quality control and redress grievances.

One thing the women learned was that using the freshest possible fish and prawns enhances the product’s shelf life. So the fish, which is bought according to their business needs, is cleaned, cut and deboned by the women as soon as it arrives at the unit. It is then cooked and bottled to meet rigorous standards set by the trust.

Over the last seven years, the number of bottles manufactured daily rose to 500 from 360, earning its co-owners each a monthly salary of approximately $50. Profits beyond those wages and other costs were deposited in the unit’s bank account. Business was so good that that the unit expanded to include fish noodles and dry fish. The women began exploring export possibilities.

All this was good news for the co-owner workers, especially the seven single women who were the sole breadwinners in their homes. One of them is 44-year-old Mohana Sundari, left to fend for two daughters after her husband abandoned the family. Income from Sea Dot allowed her to pay for the education of her daughters.

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