Lijjat - Empowering women through papads for 50 years

March 14th, 2009 - 5:26 pm ICT by IANS  

By Quaid Najmi
Mumbai, March 14 (IANS) A group of illiterate housewives with lots of time but no resources used to spend the day gossiping in their cramped, lower middle-class Mumbai building till they hit upon the idea of selling papads. Fifty years later, their entrepreneurial effort, Lijjat Papad, is an award-winning company with an annual turnover of Rs.5 billion (Rs.500 crore/$97 million).

“The men would go to work, the children to school. After completing all domestic chores, we had almost the entire day to spare. But, unlike rich women, we could not indulge in luxuries like shopping or kitty parties. So we came up with the idea of making papads,” Jaswantiben Popat told IANS.

Popat is the only surviving member of the team of seven that set up Lijjat on March 15, 1959, armed only with rolling pins.

“We started by pooling in individual resources and managed to roll out 2.5 kg papad. It was sold to a local shopkeeper for cash. The inaugural day’s turnover was Rs.10,” said Jaswantiben, now a sprightly 80.

As Lijjat marks its golden jubilee year with profit in billions of rupees, including Rs.250 million earned via exports, Jaswantiben continues to work in Lohana Nivas in Chira Bazaar - the place where it all began.

“What started with just seven women on a loan of Rs.80 has now grown into an enterprise owned by over 42,000 women, spread across 72 centres around the country,” said a beaming Jyoti Naik, president of the Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad (SMGULP) cooperative.

Jaswantiben said the hallmarks of Lijjat’s success are stringent quality, consistency in taste and hygienic conditions for preparation of the papads, which are traditional Indian meal starters made of lentil, chickpeas, black gram, salt and oil.

Asked about the meaning and significance of the Lijjat brand name, Jaswantiben recalled that originally the product was sold in plain plastic bags. As business grew, people demanded the papad but it had no identity, bankers raised objections and dealers also wanted a name for the product.

“We ran advertisements in local Gujarati and Marathi newspapers, inviting suggestions for a brand name since our papads had already become famous in Mumbai,” she said. Over 100 suggestions came - and the women selected Lijjat.

“The word symbolises the ultimate in taste, quality and also women’s dignity (ijjat) to earn an independent living. It was selected unanimously,” Jaswantiben said.

The seven Lijjat founders got a lot of help from local residents Chhagan Parekh and Purushottam Dattani - guidance regarding the vagaries of business, tips on expansion, creating a strong brand, strategic pricing and correcting their mistakes.

“Today, we worship them alongside our gods. Chhaganbapa and Dattanibapa are equal to gods for all the 42,000 sisters,” Jyoti said.

She said cooperation and ownership, with equal share in resources and the final income, have attracted many women to the enterprise. The members’ domestic responsibilities are kept in mind while running Lijjat.

“Intiially, all new entrants are trained daily at 4.30 am. After they master the art of mixing the dough, garnishing with the variety of spices, rolling papads as per our minute specifications and drying them, they have the options to work from home as per their convenience. We deliver the raw material as per individual requirements and pick up the finished products. Payment is made the next morning,” explained Jyoti.

Encouraged by the popularity of the brand name, SMGULP has diversified into spices, wheat flour, soaps, detergents and khakhras - a Gujarati snack.

Despite the huge turnover, SMGULP continues to remain a cottage industry with no plans of adopting a corporate image although it has done some advertising and brand strengthening exercises.

“This is a business of the women, by the women, for the women, irrespective of caste, creed and religion. Corporatisation and professional management will not work here since women put their hearts and souls into it,” Jyoti said.

Recognised by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC), the SMGULP has won several national and international awards.

The women rush to help others in need - building 40 homes each for earthquake victims in Latur (Maharashtra) and Bhuj (Gujarat), offering relief during the Tsunami devastation in south India.

The 42,000 “sisters” also support each other with medical aid, need-based education loans and scholarships.

They are all excited about the golden jubilee but celebrations at each centre will be low-key.

“Though the current recession has not affected our business, we don’t believe in wasting money on opulence. Simplicity is our trademark,” said Jyoti.

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