December 2021

The path to alternative livelihoods

Authored by Thomas Paul, Program Manager, CARE India

CARE India’s goal in the Saamuhika Shakti project is to ensure “waste pickers, especially women, are empowered to pursue dignified and gainful alternative livelihoods within an enabling environment.” 

This goal is achieved through four interconnected sub-goals - improving employability readiness and entrepreneurial skills,  strengthening effective and efficient collectives formed by  women waste pickers, better access of waste pickers to government schemes and entitlements, and improved engagement with key ecosystem actors who facilitate alternative livelihoods of waste pickers. 

Reaching these goals has been slow, but steady despite the disruption caused by the pandemic. Many strategies have been employed in consultation with waste pickers. As we make progress, here’s a brief on how we worked, what we learned, how we adapted and what we plan to do next . 

CARE India’s Entrepreneurship Development Programme:

Soft-skill training to promote entrepreneurship:

Opportunities to find alternative livelihoods rest on waste pickers learning soft skills. CARE India’s soft skill training consists of Life Skill, Life Skill Plus (for digital and financial literacy) and the Entrepreneurship Development Programme (EDP). 

The aim? To equip  waste pickers with essential skills and knowledge, while also building an aptitude and appetite  for entrepreneurship.

CARE India’s Life Skill training programme began in October 2020. The training sessions took a while to get going, as people were still recovering from the effects of lockdowns imposed during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Initially, the project team gathered waste pickers for hour-long training sessions spanning 12 days. However, this was not ideal,  as it became difficult to get the same set of waste pickers to attend subsequent sessions. With training sessions being held within the same community, the women were often called away by their families. To solve this, the team tried to bring the women to the Sustainable Employability and Entrepreneurship Development Centre (SEED) - away from the community -  for 12 consecutive days, which also did not work. 

The lesson learned? To condense the Life Skill training into a compact two-day session, an approach that has enabled CARE India to train more than 900 waste pickers under the Life Skill programme so far. 

The second wave of coronavirus infections impacted this significant breakthrough, but what worked in the team’s favour was the rapport it had built with the communities of waste pickers. As a result, the team was able to start online hybrid courses for the Life Skill and Life Skill Plus programmes during the second lockdown, using the help of Community Resource Persons (CRPs) who were trained to facilitate the sessions. 

Currently, all sessions are organised either at SEED Centers or in community facilities. Sessions for all three programmes - Life Skill, Life Skill Plus and EDP are conducted over two days each, and are all activity based and relate to the day-to-day life of the waste pickers.

Entrepreneurship, collectively:

Equipped with life skills, the next step on the path to entrepreneurship for the community is  collectivisation - a concept particularly focused on the women of the community who are taught how to form groups that grow into collectives. Each collective’s main goal is to start saving money, with individual collectives deciding the amount they want to save every week, as well as the day and time of their weekly meetings. 

CARE India staff provides support to maintain account books -  the most important document for the collective while availing bank loans. CARE India has so far helped form 36 community collectives in 9 communities. 

This, however, was not easy as it required building trust in the community. In the past, many women had bitter experiences being part of collectives where some members absconded with the savings. It took our team time to build trust among the women, and then train them to manage the collective’s books. 

Today, of the 36 collectives, nine have saved about one lakh rupees and have started lending internally to their members. Some members have used the savings to start small entrepreneurship activities such as vegetable vending, petty shops and snack parlours.

“We never had the concept of saving. Through the training, we learned ways to save money, and are now able to think about planning for the future with our savings.”
                                                                 — Meena, a collective leader who took a 5,000-rupee loan to expand her petty shop

Registration under National Urban Livelihood Mission (NULM):

India’s NULM has several schemes for three vulnerable groups of society -  manual scavengers, the physically-challenged and waste pickers. A key goal of the collectivisation initiative was to register the collectives under NULM in order to access the many schemes available to the waste pickers, including opening bank accounts with nationalised banks and availing individual as well as group loans.  

This is a huge boost, as any collective registered under NULM is entitled to receive Rs 10,000 as handholding support immediately after opening the bank account. After six months of operations, the members are eligible to get loans of up to Rs 50,000 each. 

CARE India’s project team has worked closely with NULM Project Development Officer and the BBMP/NULM Community Development Officer for over four months to register the first four  collectives, which have linked their accounts with a bank, and will soon receive the handholding support amount from NULM. 

Getting down to business:

Bank linkages and NULM registrations in place, the next step is to help the collectives start their enterprises. For the CARE India team, the most satisfying part of the programme is seeing several women starting small businesses, either individually or as a group. 

In August this year, eight waste-picking women from the Rajeshwari Slum in Banashankari started the first group enterprise -  a small set-up to make and sell wire baskets. CARE India provided the seed money for the women to buy raw materials, and also helped them identify shops and opportunities to sell their products. 

The collective has now standardised their product and are selling baskets on their own. 

Wire baskets made by a collective.

“Weaving wire baskets has given us an opportunity to spend our free time productively and earn extra income that can support us in many ways,” said Shivagami, the group leader. 

Three women from Bhavaninagar have come together to   make and sell silk thread bangles and earrings. They are currently figuring out target markets, price points and ways to standardise their products. 

Many individual enterprises, too, have come up with collective members taking internal loans.

From petty shops, snack parlours and vegetable vending, to a herbal soap business, tailoring service, and upcycled floor mats, dozens of women have used their soft skills training to notch up their earnings - and several more women are raring to go. 

The common thread being women gaining independence from microfinance institutions and money lenders, and instead falling back on their own collectives for support to start a business, educate their children or for emergency medical expenses. 

“My income has increased from 60 rupees a day to 500 rupees,  and I have high hopes and am confident of repaying my loans.”
                                                            – Sumathi, a collective member who received an instant wet grinder from CARE India

What we learned:

Working with waste pickers over the past two years has been a tremendous learning experience for the CARE India team, which had to adapt its strategies to address various issues effectively, without dampening the enthusiasm of the waste pickers. 

Women who once hesitated to even attend training sessions or form collectives, are today thriving. They now motivate other waste pickers to follow in their paths - and motivate us to keep going. 


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