Anuradha Krishnamoorthy and Namrata Sundaresan, founders, Kase are the recipients of Nari Shakti Purasakar 2017. Their cheese-making unit employs women with disabilities, teaches them the skill, and makes them independent.
CHENNAI: It’s 3 pm on a weekday, and we are at Kase, an artisanal cheese-making unit in Alwarpet. It is a treat to look at — the sun rays find its way inside the room through the blinds, a variety of freshly made cheese stacked inside the refrigerator, a terrace with homegrown herbs and congenial, happy workers.
As we walk towards a group of women, who are meticulously working, Ramya, (25) a BCom graduate, is busy cutting a fresh batch of feta. “I love everything about cheese making and I have learnt to do everything! It’s such an enjoyable process,” she says using sign language, as her co-worker translates it for us.
Ramya is among the many women with disabilities, who manage the unit at Kase, a social enterprise, founded by Anuradha Krishnamoorthy and Namrata Sundaresan. The duo was recently awarded the Nari Shakti Puraskar 2017 for providing livelihood to women with disabilities and empowering them. “We initially thought that the call was a scam. It was only after an official mail that we convinced ourselves that this was real,” says Anuradha. “We met so many women with such inspiring stories and it’s a memory we will cherish forever,” shares Namrata.
Ramya moves to a table across the room and begins cooking the mozzarella. “A positive work atmosphere is important, and we are happy that we are able to provide these women just that — learning skills on-the-go and lots of cheese, of course!” says Anuradha, founder, CAN DO, a BPO that focuses on training individuals with disabilities and employing them.
When Anuradha was thinking of how to train women, Namrata, her best friend and now business partner stepped in. Namrata recalls, “During a brief stay in Coonoor, I learnt to make basic varieties of cheese like feta, mozzarella, and halloumi. When Anuradha discussed her idea with me, I thought why not teach them to make cheese?” That’s how the plan began and it was fuelled when they received a call from Karen Anand, to be part of her first Farmer’s Market in Chennai.
Kase, meaning cheese in German, took shape in 2016. They have over 20 varieties of cheese which are infused with lip-smacking flavours including mustard, chilli, mango and cumin seed, thyme and whatnot!
I had my inhibitions when Namrata told us about their famous pickled feta cheese and molaga-podi rubbed cheddar. But, a tasting was all it took to convince us about the versatility of the good ol’ cheese. “There’s a lack of awareness about artisanal cheese in the city. It’s one of the richest sources of proteins and is made from pure milk, sourced from farms in and around Chennai,” share the duo.
Fresh cheese varieties, spice rubs, dips and work module makes Kase different from others, but their USP is their effort in enabling the differently-abled with a skill as novel as cheese making. “Everyone has a designated job and they enjoy doing it. Some have disabilities that the society acknowledges while some have a stigma attached to it. We want their work to be noticed, rather than their disability,” asserts Anuradha.
A typical day at Kase starts at 11 am where eight cheese makers start production. “We usually wrap up production by 3 pm, as cheese needs to be made at a certain temperature. Our work unit is always busy...but never chaotic,” she shares. The idea is to not have these women spend their whole life in the cheese making unit. They are open to the women starting their own enterprise too.
It’s almost closing time and as they begin to cloth bind the cheese for aging and stack it inside the refrigerator, Anuradha tells us their future plans. “It’s not about expansion. Our vision is different. We are exploring partnerships with rural NGOs where we can set small cooperatives. Since dairy is an integral part of the rural economy, a simple basic training in cheese making will be an added value to what they can give to their society. It’s about bringing about a change,” she says.
Leading by example
“To touch and transform the life of so many people, adds a new meaning to life every day,” says Sheela Balaji, chairperson and managing trustee, AIM for Seva and Swami Dayananda Educational Trust. The social worker was another Chennaiite who received the Nari Shakti Puraskar 2017 for her contribution towards women’s empowerment, rural education and reviving traditional grains.
“It is the highest civilian award for women, and I was surprised. But, now it seems extremely fulfilling,” she shares. Since 2001 she has been actively working to create opportunities for people from disadvantaged communities. “I believe that each of us who have got the talent, and resource, need to focus it on helping and creating a better environment for others,” she asserts. Sheela, the brain behind Spirits of Earth adds, “This award not only validates the work done by women in different fields but also inspires other women to find their identity. I hope they do.”