Although the story of King Midas is but a fable but it is a reality that there are people who actually do have a golden touch and can change ordinary into extraordinary and dust to gold. In my career as a researcher I have had the good fortune to have met many such people.
Recently I was invited by SRSP to see the impacts of their Women Economic Empowerment project in some villages of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. I travelled to some of the remote border villages in rural KP with the project team and what I discovered was that they too had the Midas touch.
The project objective was the economic uplift of the poorest of the poor. The target communities selected were mostly illiterate and glued to centuries-old customs.
One component of the project was to establish women centers in villages and impart skill development training to participants, provide interest free loans and develop their linkages with main markets. Another was the value chain component designed to help improve selected existing businesses.
In both these components the results produced in just two were nothing short of remarkable.
I would only mention the value chain component here, to show, how the simple interventions were able to bring an enormous change. However, it is important to understand the achievements of the women in the context of their limitations, area and exposure.
KP has still a long way it go in terms of women empowerment and gender equality. The rural areas are underdeveloped with low literacy rate. The society is extremely patriarchal and the male dominance is well established. The women are shackled in the old customs and are completely dominated by men. They do have not have the right to make any decisions about their own lives, marriage, family size, inheritance or income generation. They have limited mobility and observe strict ‘purdah’.
When we keep this background in mind as the context, their progress and achievements are truly appreciable.
During my travels, I met Shahida, a 50-year-old woman, who lives in a village in UC Kheshgi Bala in Nowshera. As I entered her house I saw a big courtyard swept immaculately clean and barns with white washed walls build on one side for the cattle. In the middle of the courtyard was a long manger and stalls where several huge cows and buffaloes were happily feeding.
This seemed to be a picture postcard perfect scene of a prosperous village life but actually what I saw was a transformation that had occurred only about a year ago.
Shahida was one of the participants and she had come a long way from the days of poverty and distress to actually being quite well to do.
Her family had been selling fresh milk for a long time but that was never enough to sustain them. “We were always hand to mouth. The milk was never enough and there were days when the milk vendor just told us that the milk had gone bad and he would not pay us anything at all”, said Shahida. “The cows were often falling sick and stopped giving milk altogether. “ After doing everything we knew about raising cattle, we were still very poor”, she said.
When the WEEMD project chose to work on fresh milk value chain, they were quick to identify all the problems. The women had no training whatsoever on livestock rearing, feeding, health and hygiene, vaccination or breeding. The cattle were just left standing in the unclean barns and kept falling sick, having ticks and they usually died without any medical treatment. There were no livestock veterinary or livestock extension services available in the village. The farmers had no idea of better feed or regular vaccination and that is was the reason that they never saw any profit from the business.
The project designed interventions for the whole fresh milk value chain which were simple, doable and low cost and that, within months, changed everything. The participants were given trainings on health, hygiene and proper vaccination of the cattle. They were trained in keeping the barns clean and white washed with limestone so that the animals were not infested and were kept safe from disease.
The women were provided with both organic and formulated feed and trained in the quantities and time of feed and milking of the cows and buffaloes. The bags of feed were initially provided free of cost to all participants.
With better feed and being free of ticks and worms the milk production remarkably increased to more than double within the first few months.
Traditionally a vendor collected milk from all households in the morning in a single utensil and put ice in before transporting it to the nearby town but the process took a long time and often the milk went bad as well as diluted and could not fetch a good price in the market.
The solution found by SRSP was to install an industrial size, 1000 litre capacity milk chiller, along with a power generator in the village. Then the milk from the whole village was brought to the chiller, collected there, cooled to near freezing and then transported without any need for adding ice to the town. The probability of milk getting bad was reduced to zero. The quality improved and up went the price to almost double.
Airtight hygienic plastic bags were provided to the retailers for selling this milk to the customers to improve marketing. The milk that was hardly sold for Rs60 per litre went up to Rs100 per litre.
Cattle feed was made available at the village to ensure that its use was continued without any disruption. Women extension workers from the livestock department were engaged to train the women participants.
In just a short time the project was able to demonstrate remarkable results and the monthly income of the beneficiaries increased from Rs40,000 to Rs70,000 per month.