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Kovel Foundation: A Journey towards Sustainable Tribal Livelihoods



Women tribal gum pickers. Photo courtesy of Kovel Foundation

By Krishna Rao, Kovel Foundation

A large group of poor tribal gum pickers, specifically interested in the economics and characteristics of Gum Karaya (Sterculia urens), has organized themselves to enhance their quality of life through socio-economic empowerment. In 1994, they formed Kovel Foundation - a Trust by the indigenous people for research on sustainable technologies.  Their headquarters is at Visakhapatnam (Andhra Pradesh) India.

An apex organization of 250 Girijan Gum Pickers Associations (GGPA) spread across 15 tribal-concentrated Districts of Andhra Pradesh State, Kovel has a strong clientele of 8,500 tribal gum pickers. Faith in the capacity of indigenous community, ecological integrity, as well as accountability and transparency in governance are among its core values.

By 2012, Kovel envisions that: (a) 15,000 NTFP-dependent tribal families have been organized into self sustaining institutions, (b) technical know-how on sustainable harvesting practices of NTFP and other livelihoods have been extended enabling each tribal family to earn at least an additional annual income of Rs. 8000 (US$168), (c) women in Andhra Pradesh have been empowered; (d) the Foundation have been identified as a national training agency on sustainable harvesting of NTFP with a special focus on gums and resins; and (e) have extended comprehensive training on its specialization to at least 100,000 tribal families.

The Foundation is one of the few NGOs in India owned and headed by NTFP-dependent tribal/client communities who form the Board.  GGPAs have contributed seed capital, and community ownership and participation has always been a high priority in planning, implementation, monitoring, review and evaluation of programs.

Its Trust Board is composed of 6 elected tribal Trustees from the 6 zones across the State: one is woman belonging to a Primitive Tribal Group (PTG), 3 are nominated Trustees who are committed to tribal development, and 2 are standing invitees. The Board meets quarterly to plan and review the activities of the Foundation.  The Managing Trustee through the Chief Executive Officer manages the affairs of the Trust.

Making a difference in the lives of tribal families

By helping NTFP collectors improve their socio-economic condition and by giving special focus on women in collaboration with Government and donors, Kovel Foundation has been able to positively impact the lives of the tribals in many ways.  Over a period of one and a half decade, it has empowered the tribals through these interventions: institutional building, livelihood promotion, research and capacity building, and regeneration – a core strategy in promoting Gum Karaya nurseries and plantations in the tribal-owned lands.

Notably, these interventions on Gum Karaya value chain management helped increase the quality and quantity of gum as amply reflected in the current price of the produce. In 1990s, the price for first grade gum was only Rs. 30 per kilo, now it’s roughly Rs.170. Similarly, the prices of second grade gum increased significantly from Rs. 26 to Rs. 125, and third grade gum from Rs.22 to Rs.100.  By promoting value addition model of Amla (Indian gooseberry), i.e., processing wild Amla fruits into dry Amla through steam boiling method, the tribals are able to realize a 100 percent increase in their additional income. Kovel can also boast that the Gum Karaya intervention model has been successfully replicated in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharastra States.

The Success of Amla Value Addition Model: A Testimony

Living in the most natural resource rich forest, tribals struggle for their survival day and night.  They trade their value resource for peanuts due to lack of awareness.  

Tribals used to carry headloads of wild amla fruits to a shandy place, about 5-15kms from the village.  They would sell the fruits for only Rs. 1.5-2 (USD 4.5) per kilo, including cost of labor.

Baka Indramma, a 45-year old resident of Valasi Village of Ananthagiri Mandal, Visakhapatnam District in Andhra Pradesh had experienced such difficulty.  She said, “I used to carry headloads of wild amla fruits to a distant market with the help of my son.  I would get Rs. 80 for 40 kgs of raw amla fruits.  Sometimes there would be no buyer so I had to throw away the unsold items at the market place itself. It would be useless and more miserable to bring the highly-perishable fruits back to the village.”

Then Kovel Foundation came in with its value addition model of amla, i.e., steam boiled, de-seeded by separating the fruit into 6 equal pieces then dried in sunlight for about 3 days.  Through this process, tribals could make one kg of dry amla out of 5 kgs of fresh fruits, enabling them to carry the produce very easily to the market place.  Instead of getting only Rs. 7.5-10 from 5 kgs of fresh fruits, the tribals amazingly got Rs 20-26 per kg of dry amla!

Indramma was the person who came forward to initiate the activity when none of the villagers had shown interest. She keenly followed the process demonstrated by a representative of Kovel. She said, “I could now easily carry 8 kgs of dry amla to the market and earn Rs. 200 for selling the fruits at Rs. 25/kg.” With this intervention, the value of the fruits increased with almost no investment at the household level according to Indramma.

Being a natural leader, Indramma started trying to motivate the others to join the activity.  She did not give up.  She bought raw fruits from fellow members and earned an additional Rs. 1,000 by using the value addition model.  It was like a boom for all 18 families who started the activity.  This was a testimony from the field for the awesome success of Kovel’s value addition intervention. The positive result had spread across the area.