Hyderabad: When COVID-19 hit and lives turned bitter for the women of Narayanpet, custard apples brought some sweetness. The custard apple processing unit in Narayanpet employs around 1,500 women of a self-help group at three centres across the district - Dammaragidda, Maddur, and Narayanpet. They work tirelessly throughout the day to tide over the difficult phase.

"Hum chotte chotte business karte the. Jab Covid aaya, humein koi upadhi nahi thi, tab ye seethaphal ka kaam aaya (We used to do small jobs but once COVID-19 hit we had no way of making a living. Then the custard apples came to our rescue)," says Sreedevi Sumathi who works at the custard apple processing unit in Narayanpet.

The processing unit started as a local government initiative in 2019 under the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty with the primary objective of promoting the wild fruits of Narayanpet. It not only ensured a better market for the wild custard apples of the region but also a livelihood for the women belonging to the Lambada community of the district.

Unfortunately, the production has been dropping in the last two years. In 2019, the unit produced a total of 12055kgs (12 tonnes) of fruit pulp and earned a revenue of Rs.23,91,180. In 2020, this plummeted to 3000kgs of pulp production and a revenue of Rs.2,50,000. And in 2021, the unit has been unable to procure enough raw materials for processing. So the year's work remains stalled.

Once the raw fruits are collected, they are processed into pulp manually or using machines. The pulp is later sold to companies like Scoops Ice creams and Kwality Wall's.

In the first year, the unit produced a whopping 12 tonnes of pulp and collected 80 tonnes of custard apple. The women earn a weekly wage of Rs. 250. "Earlier, the raw fruits were sold in villages at a minimum price. But after implementing this initiative, the annual profit has been around Rs. 10-12 lakhs," notes Mudavath Ramu, the district programme manager, DRDA Narayanpet.

The initiative has been a big boost for female empowerment and in making them self-sufficient. "It has been an additional source of income for women involved in the process," adds Mr. Ramu.

Considering the seasonal nature of the occupation and the seasonal availability of the fruit, the local administration has been rolling out several other initiatives to support these women during the off-season. "We will soon implement a similar initiative for tamarind procurement and sales," says Hari Chandana Dasari, the Narayanpet district collector.

Meanwhile, other jobs like weaving, for which Narayanpet is known, keep these women engaged throughout the year.

Nimisha S Pradeep

Hailing from Palakkad, Kerala, Nimisha completed her MA in Communication (with a specialization in Print and New Media) from the University of Hyderabad. She has interned with The Hindu Metroplus, Chennai and The Sentinel, Assam. She was a fellow of the NFI Fellowship for Independent Journalists in 2021. In 2015, she attended the Jenesys Student Exchange Programme in Japan. She firmly believes in the power of words and the impact it can make on society. She looks forward to using her career in journalism to voice the issues of minorities. Her interest areas include gender, women and society. She pursues travel, photography, and music in her leisure time.

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