Made in India – young entrepreneurs in the countryside

Despite its economic boom, India is leaving its rural youth behind. Less than one in ten young Indians had any professional training, unemployment is staggering. A Welthungerhilfe program tries to change this: It builds training centers for thousands of young people who want to start their own businesses – as rabbit breeders, vets or solar technicians.

translation of an article published by the NGO Welthungerhilfe, 2/2016, pp. 17-19 >>

When Ramuni Baske and her friends walk down the village road, two cows lie in their way – deeply relaxed as if nothing could happen to them anyway. But Ramuni does not give in to a slalom; she claps her hands and shouts until they slowly get up, take a few steps and drop back to the ground, giving the woman astonished looks.

One could imagine this self-confident young woman everywhere – in a lecture, at a blogger conference, as a teacher. Ramuni Baske was an excellent student working toward the Indian high school diploma. At least a high school diploma. But when she was in the eighth grade, fate thwarted her plans. Her father got seriously ill. Girls without fathers are at risk of being enslaved by traffickers in West Bengal, one of India’s poorest regions. Hence Ramuni’s father took the 14-year-old from school and married her off. Against her will. To protect her. The day after the wedding he died.

Ramuni moved in with her husband’s family in Naba Jiba Pur, a village named after its former leprosy hospital, “New Life”. Ramuni’s new life was that of a housewife, or rather, a house girl. She had a son, cooked, cleaned. “I helped with the harvest whenever a farmer needed a worker,” recalls the woman who is 32 years old today. Without regular income, the family had little to eat and no money for clothes or school fees.

90 percent unemployment among young Indians

Ramuni was born at the right time in the wrong place. Within the last 25 years, her country has risen to the world’s top ten economies, but only a minority benefits from that boom. Nine out of ten young Indians have no professional training, let alone college education, and therefore no chance on the formal labor market.

“For a long time, the government assumed that agricultural workers would not need any training,” says Subhankar Chatterjee. The Welthungerhilfe program manager is from Eastern India himself; he knows that the local agriculture is complex but has great potential. “The market prices for agricultural and forestry products are constantly rising, especially for processed products,” Chatterjee emphasizes. “The demand is high, now the supply has to keep up.”

Every year, ten million people enter the Indian labor market – by 2022, half a billion Indians will have to earn a living. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his predecessor set the goal to provide professional training to all of them; their “National Skilling Mission” already fundraised several hundred million euros. But a large part of the money has not been withdrawn yet, because the government does not have enough partners in rural areas who could build institutions and curricula.

This is where Welthungerhilfe’s professional training program starts. Since 2010, Welthungerhilfe has been educating thousands of young people between the ages of 15 and 35 in highly-demanded professions, half of whom are women. Most of the students are members of the tribal population (Adivasi) or the lower caste (Dalits); all of them live in the most remote areas of the poor states of West Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa.

Seed capital: one rabbit couple

When Ramuni Baske heard that she could be trained as a rabbit breeder, she was enthusiastic. Her husband and her mother-in-law weren’t. “They said, ‘We’ll never get rid of the rabbits here,'” Ramuni recalls. But there was still another, more powerful reason: They did not want the young woman to travel to the training center on her own. Finally, the family gave in when they heard that Ramuni would receive a rabbit couple as starting capital. This was how Ramuni and nine of her female friends got into cars for the first time in their lives – and drove to Kolkata, where they learned to work with animals on a school farm for two weeks.

Ramuni and her friends Sakuntala Sores and Thakurmani Tudu sit in the yard, each of them holding a giant furry rabbit. The morning sun floods the yard, flowers grow, laundry dries, children run. It is difficult to say where one property ends and another starts. In the middle of the yard there is a stable with dozens of rabbits in cages; the stable is larger than any of the houses around. On a close-by meadow, the women keep pigs, goats and chickens – a total of 80 animals. The three friends care for them together; often there is so much to do that their husbands also step in.

In their first year, however, the women had almost given up. They had applied for a barn at the Rural Development Agency, but at that time the agency was not allowed to promote development projects because elections in West Bengal were coming up. Meanwhile the rabbits lived in the family’s house where they did not get enough air. When the first rabbit died, Ramuni’s family became restless. “What did you learn if you cannot even keep rabbits alive?” they asked her. When Welthungerhilfe heard about their trouble, they offered a second training workshop to deepen their knowledge; finally, the district sponsored a stable with good ventilation. Since then the animals survive.

Sleepy villages see new bustle

Welthungerhilfe also learned its share during the project. “Designing this entirely new program and writing the textbooks was tricky at first,” Chatterjee admits. During the first project cycle, Welthungerhilfe trained students in 32 different professions: silkworm breeders, producers of palm syrup, veterinarians and manufacturers of party leaves to name a few. 4,600 young people have completed their training, including Ramuni and her friends. 70 per cent improved their income as a result. One in ten students became a trainer herself. Some work as employees, but most of them have started their own businesses. Agricultural startups spring up in the poorest areas of the country and even the sleepiest villages experience a new bustle.

“Had we continued with 32 subjects, we would have dissipated our energies in the long run,” says Chatterjee. “That is why we started focusing on the six most promising professions; this allows us to prolong the training from two weeks to half a year.” With the support of the German Ministry of Development (BMZ), Welthungerhilfe is setting up four community colleges and twelve so-called Green Colleges until 2017; all of them shall become financially self-sufficient with the help of the Indian government and private donations. Apprentices pay only small school fees that even the poorest can afford – just enough to motivate them to commit to the class.

Apprentices not only acquire practical skills but also some theory about planning and managing their future companies. Teachers continue to support their graduates for at least one year while they start their employment or their business. The colleges fulfill the prerequisites to become officially accredited at the Indian Agricultural Council – a large advantage for apprentices who now receive state certificates.

Trade with the Taj hotels

In Ramuni’s family the initial skepticism has given way to pride: Ramuni and her two colleagues get more orders than they can fulfill; they even deliver their rabbits to the nation-wide Taj luxury hotels. Even in the poor state of West Bengal more and more people start eating rabbit: Their meat is nutritious, healthy and tasty, they breed quickly and do not need expensive food. The rabbits provide each of the women with 12,000 rupees (150 euros) per year.

“We do not give them names,” says Sakuntala as she strokes the fur of the enormous rabbit on her lab. “If they had names, we would be too sad when they are being slaughtered.” The women fall silent for a moment. Names or no names, they do look sad now. In that moment, a newly-born goat stumbles across the yard, sniffing saris and trousers – and saving the situation.

“Earlier, we were only the wives of -“, says Ramuni. “Now everyone wants to talk to us.” Thakurmani throws in: “’How is your business doing? Can we buy a rabbit? We also want to take such a training!’”

But of the ten women who took the training, only the three friends became successfully business owners. “The others were married and ended up in cities,” says Ramuni. She does not envy them. City dwellers who returned to the village told her stories about slums and homesickness, about illnesses and high medical costs, about exploitation and despair. Ramuni Baske and her friends prefer to stay – and to be their own bosses.