Two years ago, when I first came to Madhya Pradesh, I happened to visit the village of Banjari located at the outskirts of Seoni district. I and my colleagues visited this village to interact with few self-help groups (SHGs) engaged in collection and packaging of rural forest produce supported by Seoni district administration. The terrain of this region is rich in bamboo, teak, several deciduous trees, herbs and plants with medicinal properties.
It was during this visit that I figured how local people inhabiting villages in and around the Satpura forest, specialise in procuring traditional herbs, fruits and other forest produce for their livelihoods. Realising a close association of communities with forests, the district administration here supports the concept of self-help groups to inculcate self-reliance among people, while also contributing to livelihood diversification.
In Banjari, many such groups are supported by National Rural Livelihoods Mission and the district forest department. The government programmes provide marketing and managerial support to people specializing in minor forest produce collection, while subsequently identifying potential markets for rural products.
One such initiative of the administration is the community platform made available to these groups called the ‘Banjari Herbal Garden’, a little nursery of herbs where saplings of Arjuna, Kevati and Anantamul trees are cultivated with the help of SHG members. Since the nursery is located on NH-7, tourists, travellers and villagers stop by at this scenic spot. Utilizing the market potential this area generates owing to its geographical location and in order to establish a customer base for SHG packaged forest produce, ‘Banjari herbal tea stall’ managed by locals, has also been set up.
The idea is based upon the advantages of ‘4Ps of marketing’ to farmers and villagers constrained by a credit and market deficit. Inputs on correct pricing, product packaging and promotions have been provided to these groups by district forest department and trainers. Some very popular products that are available for sale here are lemongrass tea, forest tea and herbal mixtures of medicinal value. The little garden situated next to a serene lake with lotus flowers also houses a tree Machan painted with indigenous tribal art in red and white surrounded with Bamboo trees. This provides with a locational advantage to the concept thereby, providing visibility to the hidden entrepreneurial talents of villagers and farmers.
Lemongrass and Herbal Tea concoctions
Freshly brewed forest teas especially, the famous Satpura Herbal tea is available for Rs 5. This tea is primarily made of dried barks of Arjuna, Kevati and Anantamul trees along with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and clove mixtures thereby, making it an ideal beverage for monsoons and winter. This ‘herbal chai’ is believed to have healing properties according to locals, and the ingredients such as tree barks are hand-picked, and packaged by villagers inhabiting forests in and around. Forest dwellers and groups engaged in herb collection, their packaging and marketing reveal that it acts as a natural remedy for body aches and helps cutting cholesterol. It is also rich in antioxidants and villagers recommend drinking it sans milk. A pack of 50 gm is available for Rs 100 and a small pack of lemongrass tea is usually available for Rs 10. Alongside there is raw Arjuna powder, Trifala, and plant saplings which many purchase owing to their therapeutic benefits.
Bamboo and other produce
This nursery because of its location and natural beauty offers an increased market visibility of rural and forest produce to urban buyers. The region being rich in Bamboo also has several forest groups practicing bamboo art and craft. Taking note of their skills, the administration has also focused on capacity building and skill development of bamboo artists making bamboo handicrafts. Trainings on bamboo art are organized on a regular basis here for artisans. Realizing the success of such community cohesion where groups unleash their entrepreneurial talents collectively, several new initiatives have been undertaken at the garden such as making and packaging of Agarbatti and ice cream sticks. These programmes not only provide these groups with different economic opportunities but also provide visibility to indigenous products originating from rural peripheries.