Home Odisha News How Sabai grass production in Odisha evolved

How Sabai grass production in Odisha evolved

The Ormas has been promoting the Sabai grass industry for several years in the Mayurbhanj district. Like other NGOs and self-help groups, After years of hard work, Usharani Nayak and her team currently run a successful business of Sabai grass handicrafts in the heart of Odisha, called the Mayurbhanj Sabai Farmers Producer Company Ltd.

The Sabai grass industry has tremendous potential for export. Artistically designed Sabai products are very popular in foreign countries that earn precious foreign exchange for the country. A higher rate of Sabai grass production can help in trying different new products, which can be exported.

The industry helps in the growth of entrepreneurship among the villagers. This ensures economic development through modernization and innovation of the industrial culture in rural areas.

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What is the Sabai grass industry:

Sabai grass is a natural fibre, which is abundantly grown in the hilly areas like Jadunathpur, Kamakashol, Purnachandrapur, Beladunguri and Astajharan in tribal dominated Badasahi and other blocks.

Practically considered to be the “money plant”, Sabai grass cultivation has brought about a miracle in the economic life of the tribals and poor people of Mayurbhanj district of Orissa.

Also known as bombei in the native Bathudi dialect, Sabai Grass is a tall elephant grass native to Africa and is commonly known as Napier or Uganda grass. This specimen was introduced in eastern parts of India back in the 18th century. With time, rural and tribal communities embraced it in their culture and tradition by using it for rope-making.

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Sabai grass production:

Mayurbhanj district is said to be a land of tribals. Of the 62 tribal communities of Orissa, 45 communities are found in the Mayurbhanj district alone. The per capita income of Orissa as measured by a net state domestic agricultural and forest product per head of population, was about 20 percent lower than the all India per capita income in 2008.

It remained as much as 43 per cent below that of national average in 2007-08.

Thus, it was intended to make all empirical investigation of rural

income in Mayurbhanj district of Orissa and to assess the impact

of agricultural and forest product marketing programmes initiated by the

Government of Orissa over the years.

The Sabai grass business among the indigenous communities of many villages in

Mayurbhanj district is a big one, rivaled only by the business of making ropes and

furniture from Sabai grass.

The Rural Development Centre of Mayurbhanj district is collaborating with the communities in order to diversify the products made from this grass, which has a high tensile strength.

Furniture made from Sabai grass is a marvel of the arts.

Hundreds of women belonging to various self-help groups (SHG) have been benefiting by making sabia grass items.

A group of women of Guhaldihi village in Badajoda panchayat under Baripada block has been making various beautiful crafts and decorative items in the village since 2011. They make small flower baskets, bags, pachhia (baskets) and other domestic items and now their business has started benefiting them on financial grounds too.

The group of 11 women took the initiative in 2011 by taking a loan from the bank. Although initially it posed a problem, in 2013 the Odisha Rural Development and Marketing Society (Ormas) offered them a helping hand by selling their products at a reasonable price.

Not only sales, the Ormas also worked towards garnering their skills through various skill development training programmes for better and skilled weaving. Over the years, the SHG has expanded to 13 groups with 61 women as members in the panchayat.

After years of hard work, Usharani Nayak and her team, currently runs a successful business of sabai grass handicrafts in the heart of Odisha, called the Mayurbhanj Sabai Farmers Producer Company Ltd. 

Usha-Rani-Mayurbhanj-Utkal-Today
Image- Youtube

The rollercoaster journey of Usharani’s SHG:

Usharani Nayak embarked on her entrepreneurial journey with 10 other women belonging to her community.

Unlike many in her community, she believed that financial independence had nothing to do with gender and that women should be empowered to support themselves and their families. It was this idea that led her to initiate SHGs in her village back in 2001.

Speaking about her journey, Nayak shared, “We spent the first few years doing several things for additional income, like poultry, rearing goats, and even cultivating mushrooms. But nothing seemed to work. So, around 2011, we decided to take a loan of Rs 20,000 and try honey farming. Unfortunately, even that tanked and irked the men of the community, especially the elders, who began to voice their dissenting opinions. That’s when our block supervisor, Jyotsna Rani Das, suggested we look to our roots and reinvent our traditional art of sabai rope-making into a prospective business.

Also read : Do you know what are the best places to visit in Mayurbhanj?

“It was no secret that we were struggling financially every single day, as were many families in the village. Be it any personal need or running the household, women would always have to ask for money. I was tired of that and wanted to be independent enough to do it myself. So, I started the SHG,” adds the 40-year-old trailblazer.

With her help and assistance from the District Industrial Centre (DIC), they set up a six-month training programme where 60 women of the village received training in their traditional art of making a variety of consumer products like coasters, baskets, mats, stands, shoes, etc.

This idea to use a traditional and well-versed art form to create useful handicrafts soon gained momentum and more women joined in the venture. However, success was still a faraway goal.

The big blow up:

When the first opportunity to showcase their work in an exhibition surfaced, they invested a huge amount of effort and worked day and night to meet the requirement. Sabai grass production was also not a big issue at that time. They were taken by the DIC to Cuttack, where they sold products worth Rs 20,000.

But soon after the sale, they received feedback that the products were not satisfactory and they will be returned.

It was the second big blow for me, and this time, the elders of the community came down hard on us. Many even began blaming me for swindling the money. In a village-wide meeting set up by the heads, they began to question my character and said that I was misleading women out of their houses onto a dark path. Even my husband believed them at the time.

~Usha Rani

Impacted by the accusations and buried under a debt of Rs 40,000, she decided to take a break. But destiny somehow was not ready to see her give up just yet, and help from Ormas arrived. They encouraged her to continue and convinced the villagers to support her.

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Rising from the grounds:

By 2013, Usha and her producer group not only managed to pay off the debt but also earned significant profits. The higher level of Sabai grass production helped her make more crafts.

In the following years, over 200 women were trained by 60 women working as core team members, with Usha as one of them. And they continued their successful venture while paying off loans worth lakhs of rupees.

Looking at their success and the need for a stable marketing outlet, the state Government of Odisha earmarked a dedicated section in the two handicraft outlets of “Mayurashilpa” in the district headquarters town of Baripada and the state capital city of Bhubaneswar.

Ormas has been promoting the sabai grass industry for several years in the district.

Deputy CEO of Ormas (Mayurbhanj), Biman Malla, said the women of this cluster were provided help since 2013.

“Loan was provided to them while they were given skill development training. These women are earning enough with their items in good demand. They have also created their own identity with this craft,” said Malla.

In 2019, the company received a huge order for weaving products worth Rs 25 lakh, which was to be delivered in three months. It was the highest single order so far. To meet the need, Usha made six more Producer Groups in neighboring villages, training hundreds of women in producing their line of products and production of Sabai grass.

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Image- Youtube

Current status of the group:

Today, women from all backgrounds and other villages, including those who have BEd degrees or more, have been joining the group for work.

Usha’s strong determination and success have traveled echoing throughout the states. Her journey attracted a filmmaker Shankhajeet De, who decided to make a film about their journey.

“She is a remarkable woman with an infinite source of courage and inspiration. She not only convinced her family but the entire village as well as those beyond, the power of determination. Today, people who once mocked and accused her come to her for help. She has not only helped her own family come out of poverty but has also empowered many more. And, even in the Covid-19 situation, she has continued to be a rock, anchoring the community and her company to stability,” says Shankhajeet.

Usharani Nayak said, “After finishing their household chores, women come to the center at 10 am and weave Sabai grass products with machines. Some do it manually.” The women members have claimed to be earning Rs 5,000 while some manage to earn Rs 20,000 per month. “Earning is growing as the demand of the items is increasing,” said one of the members.

Anwesha Banerjee
An enthusiastic Law student from NMIMS School of Law, Mumbai, passionate about feminist lawyering and Indian cultural art forms. She is firm about her opinions and loves to express that through her writing.

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