Monday, August 1, 2011

The rise of India's poppadum queen: Jaswanti Ben Popat

Poppadums: Quality is everything

Jaswanti Ben Popat, nearing 70, hardly looks the type who would be whizzing in and out of boardrooms, or chairing meetings on million-dollar deals which decide the fate of thousands of people.

The fact that Jaswanti Ben comes from a poor family, and has had no formal schooling, might reinforce the impression that heavy-duty business matters are not her thing.

But appearances can be deceptive.

For Jaswanti Ben is this year's recipient of Economic Times magazine's Businesswoman of the Year award.

Rags to riches

Pioneer of one of the most amazing success stories in Indian business, Jaswanti Ben, and seven other out-of-work women, started her poppadum rolling business with a loan of just $2.

The idea was to earn some extra cash to supplement their families' meagre incomes.

That was in 1959.

Now the business employs more than 40,000 women and has an annual turnover of nearly $50m.

Like Jaswanti Ben, most of the women who now work in this poppadum or native crisps business - known as the Shri mahila griha Udyog - come from a humble background.

Only those who have rolled poppadums can be promoted in our business

Jyoti Naik, Lijjat president

Most are illiterate, almost all are poor.

In the 62 workshops across the country where the poppadums - branded Lijjat, or "sumptuous" - are prepared, the working day begins early.

By mid-morning, the dough is kneaded and the spices mixed.

The women then take the dough home, where they can roll the poppadums while attending to household chores, still the preserve of women in most of India.

From the bottom up

But the apparently homely production techniques belie stringent quality control which, according to Jaswanti Ben, is the secret of the company's success.

The firm's products taste exactly the same wherever they are made, "east, west, north or south India", she says.

"We never compromise on quality."

The Lijjat enterprise's success is also down to the way it is run.

Everybody starts at the bottom and works their way up according to a co-operative system which promotes the concept of dignity of labour.

The Lijjat presidency, for instance, rotates amongst the executive committee members, who are elected from the workers.

"Only those who have rolled poppadums can be promoted in our business," says current president Jyoti Naik.

Further afield

The poppadum business is no longer simply a domestic success.

The crisps are also exported, especially to countries which have a substantial Indian diaspora.

The company has also diversified into detergents and bread making.

Some business schools have even commissioned studies to understand this unique venture, run without any professional managers.

Each woman worker earns $2-5 a day, depending on her output, and additional benefits accrue from the fact that each is a partner in the business.

But the driving force is not increased profits, but the empowerment of Indian women by making them literate and financially independent.

This is indeed a rare socialist business model in a world where capitalism seems to have gained dominance.




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