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Humble agarbatti helping 30,000 women make a living
DNA - 02 Feb 2012

Despite an early marriage at 12 and irregular education till class 7, Manjamma B R feels fortunate to have a job that fetches her enough income to sustain her two kids through school.

Like any other working woman, the 28-year-old starts work at 10 in the morning after completing household chores and sending kids to school.

By 6 in the evening, Manjamma, who lives in a village near Bangalore, winds up her work and is back to cater to the needs of her family.

Unlike the scores who have to travel to work and put in fixed hours, she has the liberty to choose the time and place for the work, which is also not too strenuous.

Her job entails pasting charcoal powder and adhesive on bamboo sticks which have been hand-slit into thin strips and drying them in the sun for an hour or two.

The payment depends on the number of sticks prepared. On an average, she is able to roll 10-12 kg of bamboo sticks daily, earning Rs3,500-4,000 a month. She has come a long way since September when her daily capacity could not exceed 4-5 kg.

From this income, Rs 2,000 goes towards repaying a loan her husband took from a local moneylender and the rest in paying her kids’ fees and running the house. Manjamma says the Rs 200-300 her husband earns inconsistently as a mason was inadequate for the family of four; more so as her husband would spend on vices like tobacco, alcohol and gambling. “Now I am a lot relieved,” she says, adding that the bamboo sticks have come to her rescue.

She explains that once rolled into charcoal powder and adhesive, the bamboo sticks get transformed into raw agarbattis, which are then collected by her employers, taken to factories where fragrance is added and packaging is done.

Once Manjamma got accustomed to this job, she informed her neighbor, 60-year-old Geetha S, who was in dire need of a non-strenuous job as her masonry work forced her to carry heavy load and walk miles. Being landless, she had to do this rigorous job at her old age due to her pitiful financial situation.

Today, Geetha earns about Rs 180 per day rolling agarbattis under a tree in her courtyard, much more than the Rs 120 she earned a day by stressing herself in the sun.

Like Manjamma and Geetha, over 30,000 women from the hinterlands in Karnataka, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Assam, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh are earning a living by rolling raw agarbattis, which then find their way into places of worship, homes and offices across the world as incense sticks.

The Mysore-based NR Group and Kolkata-based ITC, which are the leading players in the roughly Rs 2,000 crore organised agarbatti market in India, have outsourced the process of rolling agarbattis to rural women.

The raw material is supplied by us and the women are trained to craft raw agarbattis, says Arjun Ranga, partner, NR Group, which sells the Cycle brand of agarbattis.

“Sometimes the women might come to a common centre to roll the agarbattis, while often they work from the confines of their homes,” says V M Rajasekharan, chief executive, ITC agarbatti business, which sells the Mangaldeep brand.

A weeklong training is given to the women along with counselling and family support is gathered to encourage them to participate. Once a woman begins the work, regular monitoring is done to ensure she is crafting correctly.

Srinivas Rao, training head, NR Group’s women empowerment initiative, says when they start, the women might earn abut Rs1,500 a month, which gradually increases to Rs 3,000-3,500 in three months. “A woman with more experience might even roll 18 kg per day.”

The number of agarbattis rolled depends on individual capacity and the amount of time a woman can allocate, says Rao.

The agarbatti players, which export to countries in Latin America, Asia, Europe, North America and Africa, are looking at more than doubling the number of women they employ for rolling agarbattis in a few years.

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