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A dash of rural experience

Sunil Raghu in Ahmedabad Feb 4 2018, 2:13 IST

Women were given training in hospitality management

Guest at Mehsana's

Guest at Mehsana's

Circa December 2016. Reema Nanavati was visiting the US for her work where she ran into co-founder of one of the world's biggest bed-and-breakfast facility aggregator–AirBNB. So what? It is this meeting that set off a brainwave that could well be the next big opportunity for economically poor women, especially in rural India, to make their lives better.

As soon as she came back to India, Reema Nanavati, Head of SEWA (Self-Employed Women's Association of India), summoned women she has closely been working with for over two-and-a-half decades. She knew that many of her women members had sizeable houses in their villages and could earn extra bucks if they exploit the opportunity and offer citizens from across the world a peep into rural households through 'homestays'.

"At SEWA, our constant attempt is to explore new earning options for rural women members and so the initiative 'Hum Sab Ek Hain' was born," Reema Nanavati said. "This programme is not just a tourism venture but a step which elevates social service to global level." Reemaben and SEWA prepared a proposal and sent it to AirBNB. Under the proposal women would offer their homes for stay to visiting guests.

Most of these women and their families depend on agriculture or small menial enterprises for survival. When Reemaben called the first meeting, about two dozen of them came and nine properties across three districts of Patan, Mehsana and Surendranagar were shortlisted for a pilot project.

"There were initial hiccups. It was mandatory to have a western toilet. A bit too much to expect from a households in rural areas. But we convinced AirBNB to overlook that part as it would help guests experience village life! Moreover, our members did not have enough resources left to install western toilets, especially after spending money on sprucing up their homes with fresh coat of paint and new furniture. Thankfully, it worked," Tejas Raval of SEWA adds.

These nine women were then put through the drill of hospitality management, including how to welcome guests in to their homes. How to serve. Be it water, snacks or dinner. How to respect privacy of their guests. What toiletries they should keep handy for their guests and even notes on cleanliness. SEWA brought in experienced hands with over 25 years in business to train these women. They were even sent to Rajasthan for first-hand experience of staying in a similar facility. It was interaction with their hosts in Rajasthan that motivated them that they too could make an earning via this route.

"However, they were in for a shock. Initially, for first three months, we did not get even one booking. Come June, things changed. There was a steady flow of inquiries and bookings. We have not looked back since," he adds.

The most in demand since has been the home of 60-year-old Gauriben in arid Bakutra village, some 5 km off NH-27 from Santalpur in Patan. Her home borders Little Rann of Kutch and is about 100 km from ruins of Dhola Vira, part of one the oldest civilisations – the Indus Valley Civilisation. It is also enroute to 'Desert Festival' in Kutch, making it an ideal spot for travellers to stay for a night and taste the life of rural India, before moving on.

An humble abode, Gauriben's home has a thatched roof, three-room property with neatly lined cots covered in hand-embroidered bed spreads, housing metallic almirahs and shiny copper and aluminum vessels showcased neatly atop a wooden plank. Its guest kit contains toiletries and tissues for daily use.

The food served here is cooked on wooden chullahs, be it bajra rotlo (a type of chapati), fafda, dhokla, garlic paste et al. They make it in less oil and are low on spices so as not to irritate taste buds.

And to make evenings special, women and menfolk in the village treat visitors to traditional songs and urge them to join them in the revelry of raas-garba, donning chaniya-cholis and kediyas.

In Mehsana, a relatively rurban area, 40-year-old Mayaben joined in the endeavour with her relatively pucca house. "Initially, she saw that most of her bookings got cancelled as she offered only two cots, while the demand was for groups to check in. She tried to rope in other women in the village but looking at her experience, they were wary of joining her. So she rented a neighbouring house and business started pouring in. The lady who was struggling to make two ends meet, today welcomes hordes of guests to her abode and even hires women from the village to cook for her guests," Raval said.

Other than guests, what is pouring in is money. "Gauriben's family earned not more than Rs 36,000 annually from their farming, while she earned more than Rs 55,000 in month of December alone. So is the case with Mayaben, a class 7 pass out, who made a cool Rs 84,000 same month," Raval adds.

This has seen them inspire other women in SEWA to be part of the venture. Today over 50 homestays, across four districts are run by members of SEWA. As for Gauri and Mayaben, they are now joined by their family members, who are now taking time off their petty jobs, farming and factory work to lend a helping hand.

But as true Gujaratis, these women are not satisfied with one stream of income. They always find a way to earn the extra buck. Gauriben, an artisan with good embroidery skills, Shobhnaben from Surendranagar good in making pots and Gauriben's sister good at cooking pat rotlas with hands, are more than willing to teach guests their skills for a token fee.

Men arrange for transport, act as guides and use college students to act as translators to make lives of guests tad easier. The womenfolk have picked up basic English conversational words.

As SEWA seeks to take its experiment pan India, exploring options of joining hands with several AirBNB-like institutions, visitors can just drive down straight to heart of rural India at these homestays. Relax. And as the famous tagline Megastar of the Millennium – Amitabh Bachchan – recite - 'Kuchh Din to Gujaro Gujarat mein".

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