Sisterhood of startups: From food stall to full-fledged eatery, Karnataka women take inspiring turn

Unnati Sakhis of Karnataka are not just setting up their own businesses, but also hand-holding other women with an enterprising spark

Published: 29th January 2023 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 29th January 2023 10:51 AM   |  A+A-

Jayashree Hiremath (right); J Sasikala

It is a small step for the entrepreneurs, but a giant leap of faith for the women of Kandavara Gram Panchayat in Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka. What started as a 250 sqft ‘fish podi, pickles and snacks stall’ at the Mura Junction, Mangaluru, last December, has now evolved into a full-fledged eatery called Sri Sangam Canteen, all set to open at Mangaluru’s Zilla Panchayat Office, come February. 

With Shashikala Shetty leading a group of four women entrepreneurs—or, mahila udhyemaru—the facility can cater up to 300 meals a day. “The 10-minute group exercise we did in October 2022 as part of project Code Unnati encouraged us to come up with a business idea together,” she says.

Shetty is one of the 125 women, or ‘Unnati Sakhis’, across three districts of Karnataka—Bengaluru Rural, Dakshina Kannada and Raichur—who were chosen for project Code Unnati, a programme started by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and SAP Labs India in 2021 to identify and hone rural women entrepreneurs.

In March 2021, UNDP India and SAP Labs India began looking for local women who have an entrepreneurial spark. They would impart free training to help start a business or scale up an existing one to earn livelihoods. After an orientation class to identify promising candidates, the project picked women in phases to train them intensely for a week. Although the project does not fund the startups, it facilitates women to access financial linkages through government schemes, banks and microfinance institutions.

“By the end of March, this year, UNDP will start a business development service in the rural districts to help more newbie entrepreneurs with registration, market linkages, product branding, packaging, labelling, etc.,” says Govindaraj Jeya Chandran, State Project Head (Karnataka), UNDP India.

The women of Kandavara Gram Panchayat packaging pickles

In Raichur, 580 km away from Mangaluru, another entrepreneurial story is unfolding. “I want to fly high, rather zip across the Ashapur Road fast and furiously to make a living,” quips J Sasikala, who works with a network of driving schools where she teaches gearless two-wheeler riding to women.

She has trained over 300 women in the last two years. Sasikala confesses to being a tomboy who learnt to ride a bike as a teenager. The programme taught this 40-plus mom of two to use this skill to earn a living by not only being a trainer, but also as a delivery executive for her fledgling masala and pickle business. Her dream is now to earn enough to be able to run an ambulance while also teaching motor driving to women.

It’s not until you see the pace at which Jayashree Hiremath makes jowar rotis on a busy weekday morning that you realise why residents of Manvi town in Raichur gave her the moniker, the Swiggy of Raichur. Hiremath can flip 200 rotis in five hours at her eight-month-old Roti Kendra, a homestyle catering unit. “Had I started the kitchen five years ago, I would not have had to sell my two-acre farm and borrow `10 lakh on an exorbitant interest to treat my ailing husband,” she says.

Buoyed by the pace and profits of the business, she recently named her business Sri Chinmaya Roti Kendra and even got 300 business cards printed with the words mahila udyami (women entrepreneur) under her name.

At the five-day intensive training session as part of the project in Raichur—with follow-up classes scattered across six months—Hiremath learnt that she could earn 10 times more if she hired just one help—or, sakhi—and directly catered food to the locals. “The programme taught me how to price the product, work out the packaging, get orders, link it to a UPI payment gateway, etc.,” she says.

February is peak wedding season in her town and she hopes to hire many more sakhis for her catering unit and make them shepreneurs too. Looks like sisterhood has a new definition in 2023.


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