Women’s self-help group makes magic out of mahua cookies

Sangwari Mahila Swasahayta Samuh, a self-help group based in Chhattisgarh, is revisiting the traditional use of mahua to make alcohol by creating value-added products
beside himself, writes Deepanwita Gita Niyogi

When summer comes, the lands of the villages of Bastar are dotted with small pale yellow flowers that fall from the trees. Known as mahua, these are collected by tribal communities during the months of March-April in small baskets. After picking, the flowers are exposed to the sun for a few days during which they turn brown and taste like raisins. It is at this time that the dried flowers are sold on the market where they fetch a good price, sometimes up to Rs 50-60 per kg.

Mahua, an important minor forest product in Chhattisgarh, provides a stable source of income to rural communities, especially the Adivasis. Besides the sale of the dried flowers, part of it is kept for future use by collectors to make mahua liquor for daily consumption. In fact, drinking mahua liquor is the quintessence of the culture of the Bastar region. It is served to guests on almost all occasions and also sold in bottles in rural markets. But mahua is also nutritious and can be used to make value-added food products.

And that’s where Bastar Food Firm’s Raziya Shaikh came in two years ago. Shaikh researched tribal foods and came up with various interesting recipes made from mahua. She had technical knowledge related to product shelf life, safety measures and quality parameters. Armed with a degree in microbiology, of which food technology is part of the curriculum, Shaikh trained members of a women’s self-help group based in Dantewada district of Bastar region to bake mahua cookies that have a distinct black color and a sweet taste.

The forest department approached Shaikh and arranged a month-long training two years ago. Its members have been trained in the processing of important minor forest products such as mahua. Primary level processing is important for value addition and dedicated centers have been set up across Chhattisgarh.

According to Shaikh, making products is easy, but turning them into a business model is difficult. “It took me a year to understand the whole mahua cycle and make people aware that it can be used in many different ways besides alcohol,” she said.

Shaikh’s idea became a success and the women of the Sangwari Mahila Swasahayta Samuh started making mahua laddoo, mahua halwa, tamarind sauce, masala gur or jaggery and kodo and kutki cookies. These last two are small millets.

For this initiative, it is important that only clean, food-grade mahua flowers are used. The flowers which are traditionally harvested from the ground are full of dust, said K Raju, the deputy ranger of the Dantewada Range Forest. To harvest the flowers used in the manufacture of food, nets are used. The nets are attached to the trees which ensure the fall of the flowers. Later, the collection is carried out twice a day in clean plastic trays, and the flowers are dried using dryers.

One flower, many uses

Besides cookies, mahua laddoos and mahua halwa are in great demand. There are 20 women associated with the Sangwari group formed on November 27, 2020.

Commenting on the formation of her group, leader Malti Kunjam said that all members who are currently part of Sangwari originally belonged to other self-help groups but came together for the mahua initiative. Many of them come to work daily from remote villages. For their convenience, an e-rickshaw has been made available by the Forest Service

The products, a good option for health conscious people, are made from whole wheat flour and jaggery. These are sent to Raipur and from there to every district of the state. Initially, the women sold the products at the village market.

“The women make up to five kg of laddoos and four kg of mahua biscuits a day. Several ingredients are needed like chocolate, milk, spices, ghee, butter and cashew nuts. Initially, the forest department provided the raw materials, but now we are buying them with the loan amount of Rs 10 lakh received under Van Dhan Yojana,” Kunjam added. Van Dhan is a central government program aimed at increasing livelihood opportunities in the tribal areas of India.

So far, the women’s group has made a profit of Rs 3 lakh from the sale of various products. A 100g box of mahua biscuits costs 70 rupees. The same goes for those made from millet. The laddoo costs Rs 750 per kg. It is in great demand at the Danteshwari temple where it is offered as an offering to the faithful. Another unique product is the tamarind sauce sold in bottles. It costs Rs 60.

There are three rooms in the center where the women’s self-help group works. One is stacked with finished products. Another has raw materials and a microwave oven for baking cookies. The third room has a deseeding machine for removing tamarind seeds, a solar dryer for drying mahua flowers and other machines. There is also a sauce filler to fill tamarind sauce into bottles.

A new direction

Kunjam added that no one in the group had any previous knowledge of baking cookies, but now that everyone has learned, it’s good to work together. She is looking forward to expanding the business. Cookies sell out fast. The center operates every day except Wednesday when it is closed for the local rural market. “Women are paid around Rs 100-150 a day for their work and work from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.,” Kunjam said.

Although mahua cookies are in great demand, women try to obtain raw materials according to orders. Dried mahua flowers are kept in cold storage for future use. When used in cookies, it is ground into a powder. Finished laddoos can be stored for six months and consumed. Kunjam wants to bring the products out of Chhattisgarh. Orders will be placed via TRIFED in the future.

Besides Sangwari, the forest department has many self-help groups that deal in buying mahua and tamarind from adivasi families. This measure was introduced to remove intermediaries who pay less than the minimum support price for minor forest products. The department transfers the money as an advance to the women’s groups so that they can make the purchase.

Dantewada Divisional Forest Officer Sundeep Balaga said the intervention is aimed at young people living in cities, who will enjoy mahua in the form of biscuits and laddoos rather than the traditional consumption patterns popular in villages. The machines, given to women for use, are worth Rs 12 lakh and were purchased using DMF funds.

Mahua 16: Members of the Sangwari Mahila Swasahayta Samuh display the products made by them. These include mahua laddoo, mahua halwa, masala gur, and millet cookies.

Mahua 17: Freshly baked cookies made from millet and mahua are popular with customers.

Mahua 18: Sun-dried mahua is stored like this. The flowers are ground into a powder form for cookies.

About Bradley J. Bridges

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