Despite all odds, this group of dreamers has finally given shape to their agri-business aspirations
Two years ago, Tendrel Zangmo, and many other women like her, mostly single mothers, and those struggling to make ends meet, had no avenue to earn a decent income. The daily grind of endless household chores and hustling money was tiresome.
However, their lives took a pleasant u-turn after they joined the “Amtsu Detshen” under Bjabchhog Gewog in Chukha. Though it was just a micro village firm that focused on oyster mushroom farming, it managed to bring in a macro change and meaning to their lives.
The founder of Amtsu Detshen, Chimi Pem, who has been in mushroom cultivation for the past 12 years, shared her experience as an entrepreneur, and her quest to be an independent woman and help change the lives of the womenfolk in her tiny hamlet.
Chimi soon realized that mushroom cultivation was a very sustainable source of income, therefore, she wanted to share her spawning thoughts with the families in her village.
She shared that most members are unemployed, single mothers and struggling women. So her quest to bring a meaningful change in their lives gave birth to the mushroom farming business, which has today blossomed into a booming venture, and aptly named “the women’s group”.
Chimi said cultivation of oyster mushrooms does not require a huge budget to start, while the spawns and hay, critical components, are readily available. In addition, mushrooms thrive well in Chukha due to the hot and humid weather conditions.
According to her experience in farming, she said that no matter what work women do in the field of farming, they are always paid less compared to men. Therefore, it was only apt that they ventured into something, which was equally rewarding.
However, the venture did not come without challenges. As most members were women, they had to balance their family lives with their daily household chores and mushroom farming activities, which often involved taking their kids along with them to work.
She also shared that many women in her community were interested to work in mushroom cultivation, and joined Amtsu Detshen, but were forced to quit due to their spouses’ unwillingness to support them in their venture.
Many women who quit said they were unable to continue as they had the added pressure to look after their children while also attending to their everyday domestic chores. In addition, they said their husbands did not like the idea of them working outdoors.
The new idea of bold women breaking the conventional norms of the usual kitchen-and-household duties didn’t bode with the community either.
Many in the community still had the atypical norm of women just taking care of the household chores, and not venture outdoors to earn a livelihood. It also created some rifts among families, hence a few had to quit despite wanting to venture into the business.
Most said, initially, they did not get any support from their family and it was difficult.
“Most think that when men go out for work, they at least bring home some money, but women are meant to stay home and do house chores. Men think it is women’s responsibility to do house chores and stay home. It is very important to change the mindset of the people in this current generation,” Chimi said.
To add salt to the wound, none in the community encouraged them.
Nonetheless, the group today has 14 women and most of them are in their 40s while a few of them are in their 20s. The remaining had to quit as the burgeoning family pressures grew.
The members also comprise of class X and XII graduates who were earlier unemployed, and hence joined the venture. However, a majority of the group members belong to the financially weak stratum of society.
On the other end, Chimi Pem and her group members are provided with several training. They are also pretty satisfied and proud of their standing and their mushroom venture.
And apart from mushroom cultivation, these women have also started bakeries to keep themselves busy, and for extra income, as it takes about 20 days to grow mushrooms in a single cycle.
“I must say their lives have been transformed for good after they joined the Amtsu Detshen group. At least women do not have to financially dependent on their husbands anymore,” a proud Chimi Pem said.
Although Chimi and her members are satisfied with their venture, they still have bigger challenges at hand. She says the group is in dire need of support, especially in training and marketing, as they are located in a remote location.
“There is nothing women cannot do, and women can equally take part in any work like men. It is just that we lack support from the family and our spouses,” Chimi said.
Chimi added that in the beginning, it was difficult for her as well. After her graduation, even her parents were skeptical about her starting a farming business. However, today, she has beaten the odds, and has proven that being an agri-entrepreneur isn’t as bad as it was espoused.
She also said the demand for oyster mushroom is very high, and they have plans to export their produce in the coming years. For now, it is hardly enough to meet the local demand. Therefore, Amtsu Detshen is encouraging more women and entrepreneurs to come up with mushroom cultivation in their villages.
Members shared that their living standard has really changed after joining the group. They are confident that women can equally take part in any work that men can do.
Tendrel Zangmo, 45, is a divorcee and has faced many challenges before joining Amtsu Detshen. Today, she proudly said how her life has changed for the better after joining the group.
Two years ago, she was just idling away at home and doing some small farming work solely for self-consumption, and now, with several training sessions on mushroom cultivation and bakery, it has brought a great difference in her life.
Today, she can bring home money and is financially independent, and can also look after her children well. Known as a shy and timid lady, today she is more confident, and her smile says it all.
A venture, which began with numerous hiccups and envy from the menfolk, is today a roaring success story.
Kazom, 40, another member said she heard about the group through an agriculture extension officer and instantly joined it. Today, she is not only adept in mushroom farming but is an expert baker too.
Although her family is very supportive of what she is doing, sometimes it becomes difficult to manage both house chores and farming work. However, her quest to be financially independent keeps her rolling.
“It is so good to be part of Amtsu Detshen. We get to learn and gain so much knowledge and ideas from each other,” Kazom said.
However, there are still a few in her village who still believe that women working outdoors are signs of degenerating times, and that it is bad for the family and the community. Nonetheless, the women remain focused on their venture.
Sangay Zangmo, 44, said that in the past, women from the same community hardly met each other, but after joining Amtsu Detshen, they can meet and share ideas on how to go about and tackle all the challenges together.
They learn from each other, and even in the village, they can work together, not just for mushroom cultivation but also to partake in other community works.
“We are making small income, but this group will also benefit our children in the future, and bring in huge impacts in our lives and communities,” Sangay said.
She shared that a few women had to face challenges, such as husband not allowing them to work.
Many left the group due to social and personal issues. However, in her case, her family was really supportive.
In the past, many women were dependent on their husbands, and even abused by their spouses as they were totally dependent. However, after joining Amtsu Detshen, she knows about gender equality, and she can stand up for herself and also knows her rights.
She said the government has been helping them, and she wished to have more training opportunities for women entrepreneurs since there are many women who did not get the opportunity to attend in the past due to personal issues.
Similarly, members of Amtsu Detshen shared that mushroom cultivation is far better than other farming-related works. The women-led mushroom cultivation group has benefitted them, and also given them a sense of pride at home that they can at least bring home money and support their family as well. Earlier they were just confined to the four walls and doing the same routine of house chores every day.
“If a woman is an office goer and earns a decent salary, their husband and in-laws wouldn’t say anything, but farming works are looked down upon. There is a need to change the mindset of people that any work is work,” she said.
Nothing seems to deter the resolve of this women’s group as they venture forth.
This story was funded by the Journalists’ Association of Bhutan for Rural Reporting Grant supported by the Canada Fund for Local Initiative.