In 2011, Viluthu joined the BEES Network to enhance women’s economic empowerment and aims to improve governance and strengthen civil society by building the capacity of youth, vulnerable women, local government, the private sector and the media in those areas of Sri Lanka most significantly affected by war. As a member of BEES, Viluthu came together with two other CSOs—Manusher Jonno Foundation in Bangladesh and Tarayana Foundation in Bhutan—seeking funding from the South Asia Food and Nutrition Security Initiative (SAFANSI), to explore the role of women in boosting the food and nutrition security within their communities.
Before SAFANSI-funding, Viluthu’s advocacy only extended to empowering women through counseling and training, leading democracy-building initiatives with the media, and performing street theatre to promote social accountability. Promotion of nutrition was not a part of that program even though it was desperately needed. However, within six months of receiving the SAFANSI grant, Viluthu not only provided nutrition training for Tamil war widows, but also established a nutrition enterprise called Sanjeevi.
Sanjeevi Mobile Nutrition Training
After conducting a nutrition survey in late 2013 to answer questions about basic food and nutrition needs in Mutur, a small town in the Northeast part of Sri Lanka, results highlighted a clear need for intervention: these women needed to address nutrition for their families, and provide a livelihood for themselves.
The survey revealed food insecurity to be as high as 57% within this community as a whole, and statistics are believed to be even higher for women-headed households.
Viluthu has addressed these needs through creating the Sanjeevi brand, which provides a one-dish, nutritionally-balanced meal that a woman can cook and either feed to her family, or sell to a local consumer. The concept required training and the right group of motivated women entrepreneurs.
Mobile nutrition training, through the Sanjeevi enterprise, started in April 2014. Eight women were identified as the core mobile support team who function as “group leaders.” An additional 29 women have been trained in the one-dish meal concept across the Mutur community. Viluthu’s Mobile Nutrition Trainer can train up to 10 women at a time from her small home kitchen. Ten recipes have been taught and reviewed, and practical training is given through the preparation of these dishes in small groups using a hands-on approach. One-dish meals focus on 3 pillars:
- Low cost. The meals should use locally available ingredients and each meal is below SLR 50 (approximately USD 0.38).
- Fast. All one-dish meals should take under 30 minutes to prepare.
- Nutritionally balanced. The meals should provide a healthy ratio of fats, calories, proteins, and vitamins/minerals to keep blood sugars balanced and digestion at maximum efficiency for optimal nutrient absorption and retention.
The women participated in fun group activities during a follow-up workshop whichincluded going to the market, purchasing grains and vegetables, and cooking a healthy “one-dish” meal. The training focuses on utilizing locally available foods, reinforcing the logic—why buy it when you can grow it?
The nutrition training also reinforced the nutritive value of foods. Because they understood the importance ofhaving a balance of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and calcium, making the meals in one dish and the new combinations of food now madesense. The nutrition training helps guide the women to cook healthier meals.
Sanjeevi Food Stalls
After the women completed their nutrition training, Viluthu gave the groups rawmaterials in the form of a single pot, and the palm-leaf roof and wooden structure. Two Sanjeevi food stalls were established and operational in early July 2014, and each food stall employs ten women. Food preparation for the day begins at each woman’s home, and five specific recipes of meals are prepared daily, on arotating basis. Farming, foraging, and contributing raw materials (i.e., ingredients) as well as meal planning aredone in a group setting, reinforcing the importance of teamwork. Demand for the meals is high: the Sanjeevi stall sells out of meals every day. Now that these women from Mutur are making steady earnings, they have each agreed to save SLR 20 a day, and are planning to invest in improving their stalls (e.g., display cases for the meals).
Prior to working in the food stalls, these women worked as agricultural laborers and received little, if any, consistent work in a given month. Conditions were very hard, and often they weren’t paid in full for the work they performed. A “good” month provided them with ten12-hour days of back-breaking work (e.g., harvesting and carrying heavy baskets of produce, exposed to harsh weather conditions without any protective cover). The daily rate was SLR 500, on a monthlybasis, this is equivalent to a salary of SLR 5,000 (approximately USD 38). This places these families in the lowest income decile in the country, compared to the average monthly salary of SLR 6,499 (nationally).
Now at the food stalls, women work an average of 22 consistent days a month, cuttingin half their work hours. An average day is 6 hours with light labor (cooking, transporting food, protected under the coverof the food stall). They take home approximately SLR 450 a day, which is a monthly salary of SLR 9,900 (approximately USD 75). This is a 98% increase in earnings in just 4 months,and it moves them closer to the next income decile where the income range is SLR 10,750 – 16,162.
Viluthu has successfully created and leveraged the Sanjeevi brand by providing nutritiontraining, as well as creating the one-dish meal enterprise. Mutur is fast becoming a community that is not only aware of, but also accepting of good, healthy eating habits as they adapt behaviors to reflect better food choices. This is reinforced by colorful Sanjeevi murals on the external Muturhospital walls that encourage healthy habits such as the reduction of sweets, theincrease of vegetable and water intake, and the increase of exercise. The same murals and signage are displayed at the food stalls to reinforce good eating practices and make it easier for people to accept the one-dish meals as a better choice as well as a more delicious choice than the fried snacks people are used to eating. Perhaps one of the best impacts of this SAFANSI-funded activity is that it has started the conversation about how the food that people eat is linked to their health.
Thanks to the SAFANSI grant and through the BEES Network, in an unprecedented 6-month timeframe, Viluthu has been able to survey and identify the needs of a community, train a network of committed implementers, open and establish twofood stalls, and increase employee income by a consistent 98%. The success of the project is evident. The community also recognizes that Sanjeevi is an important business to support because it provides good, wholesome food for the community. Sanjeevi plans to open a third food stall in February 2015 leveraging the determination and drive of its employees and scaling across the Eastern region of the country, and hopefully, someday, across the entire country.