On a mission to ‘eco’ the voice of marginalised

It all began with an initiative to feed nutritious food to marginalised communities. Universal Eco Foundation, based in Villupuram district, is dedicated to providing opportunities to women.
Members of Universal Eco Foundation engaged in the production of food items at their Live Long unit in Villupuram | Sriram R
Members of Universal Eco Foundation engaged in the production of food items at their Live Long unit in Villupuram | Sriram R

VILLUPURAM: When S Ramya was asked to tag along with her mother, a domestic help, to look for potential jobs at places near Marakkanam three years ago, the 12th pass was put in a tight spot. Although she understood her mother’s desperation as a widow from the socially downtrodden Irula community with two other mouths to feed, Ramya was not ready to settle for less. In her mind, her attempt was not to reach for the stars, but to hold her head high enough to embrace the sun’s warmth.

Cut to 2023. The now 21-year-old is working with the Koonimedu-based Universal Eco Foundation. Once a shy girl who was forced to halt her education after Class 12, Ramya has completed her training and is being groomed into an entrepreneur. Founded by M Bubesh Gupta, Universal Eco Foundation, based in Marakkanam of Villupuram district, is dedicated to providing opportunities to women like Ramya. It all began with an initiative to feed nutritious food to marginalised communities.

“In 2017, we launched an initiative to offer nutritious food to those in need, and named our brand ‘Long Live’. Little did we know that the brand would not only expand its horizons, but the name would become it,” K Vijayavalli, secretary, tells TNIE.

“Having begun with only two women, we now boast a workforce of nearly 15 people and aspire to expand in future,” she says. The women workers produce juice, syrups, pickles, and jams, made of not only fruits and vegetables like mango, papaya, lemon, and ginger, but also from herbs like Mudakathan (balloon vine), Thoothuvalai (solanum trilobatum), Vallarai (centella), and Vathanarayani (delonix elata).

S Praba, who is tasked with training these women, tells TNIE that they experiment with various combinations, and go into production if it tastes good and healthy. Sharing insights into their unique offerings, Praba says the team churns out pickles of vazhaithandu (banana stem), vazhaipoo (banana flower), juice syrup of sangupoo (clitoria), and mixed jams combining papaya and guava, mango and guava, and ginger and papaya. “With the exception of fruits like apples, strawberries, grapes, all our raw materials are sourced locally, especially from individual households. This ensures that our products are naturally grown, which add value to health,” quips Vijayavalli.

Expressing her gratitude to the foundation, Ramya said, “I not only learned producing items here, but also acquired communication skills. I am a reserved person, but I can now explain product details and gather customer opinions – a skill I developed over the past couple of years.” Ramya is among the few Irula women associated with the team.

B Maheshwari, also from the same community, was among the first to forge a connection with the organisation. While on her way to farm work, she had spotted staff of the foundation. On inquiring with them, she got to know about their work and expressed her keenness to join them. “My husband is a wage labourer, and I used to work as a domestic help. Two years ago, I joined the foundation. I not only know about flowers like hibiscus and clitoria but also understand their value as potential sources of income.”

In addition to producing edible items, these women also contribute in planting, with six lakh saplings to their credit. Vijayavalli says, “We collaborated with the Grow Trees organisation to send saplings to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.” In Tamil Nadu, the saplings have been planted in districts like Villupuram, Chengalpattu, Thiruvallur, Kancheepuram, and Tiruvannamalai.

The foundation is in talks with the rural development department to train people and market their products. They are also ready to train interested self-help groups. Bubesh, who is also a wildlife conservationist, states, “Beyond conservation, our foundation aims to provide employment opportunities to women in the Kaliveli wetland and Marakkanam, particularly Irulas. More than a business venture, this initiative is aimed at providing healthy food to people.”

Thanks to Universal Eco Foundation, Ramya has not only transitioned into a reliable support system for both her mother and her younger brother, whose education, she says, will not hit brakes in any given situation.

(Edited by Shrija Ganguly)

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