Custard-apples (or sugar-apples) have a long history in India, though no one is certain when exactly they were introduced to the country. The sweet fruit is now a popular, and valuable crop that plays an important role in the economy of the villages we work in, especially during October and November when they're ripe for picking.
Access to knowledge and fair markets
Many of the rural families in Madhya Pradesh state have been harvesting custard apples for as long as they can remember. It is a job usually carried out by women who pick them in the forests before taking them to market to sell. Staff in our partner organization, SRIJAN, saw how women were spending entire days walking to market, losing out on time to pick more fruit, and then only being offered exploitative prices. The old system simply wasn't fair; it was time for change.
In 2014 SRIJAN began a custard-apple project focusing on three things; access to market, fair prices and knowledge.
Most of the women involved in the project missed out on an education but all of them are smart, adaptable and keen to throw themselves into their work. What they needed more than anything was access to knowledge.They had no way of knowing, for example, that local buyers offered them exploitative prices, how to access fairer markets or how to start a collective. SRIJAN realized that the women needed a system that gave them the tools and training to organize themselves effectively.
Like all SRIJAN work, women were at the heart of the project from the word go. Through community groups women were able to get involved with the planning and design stages and had their say on decisions that would affect them.
With SRIJAN's support the community groups have ensured fair market prices for their produce and reliant transport so that the custard-apples can also be sent to market in the city where they sell for a higher price. SRIJAN helped to provide women already working in the trade with the bigger picture; knowledge that they had no other way of accessing.
Having their say
When I was first introduced to Savita Pawar I thought she was another SRIJAN staff member, she was just as at home in their office as they were and eager to talk. With the help of translators, she told me about her role in the project and its impact on her and her family.
Savita joined her local village credit and savings organization seven years ago and has since become a crucial member, providing a bridge between SRIJAN staff and her community. She is widely respected for her commitment and everything she does for them. I was almost right – her husband even says her role has become a job!
Once the custard-apples are harvested they are taken to collection points and then on to the cetralized sorting center. The center is open 24/7 during harvest season, and with 100 women working on each shift it’s been a huge boost to the local economy.
Savita was a shift worker this season. She explains that the center itself is divided into rooms according to the production line. At every stage of the process there is something different to do and new machines to master. From grading and peeling the fruit to processing and packing pulp, the women have built up their skills and their confidence. Thanks to the scale of the process (the center processed 90 tons of custard apples this season alone!) the women are given the opportunity to operate machinery and learn new skills that they will be able to apply outside of the project, hopefully in other local businesses.
Unskilled laborers in the region are usually forced to migrate to the city to find work and send money home. Although the season is over for now Savita is thankful for the opportunity the center gives to women in her rural region every year. For her, the income from the short custard-apple season is life changing; she won't be forced to leave her children and head to the city.
Find out more about SRIJAN.