The Kudumbashree story: How Kerala women's grassroots scheme grew into a multi-crore project

What makes Kudumbashree relevant even now?
The Kudumbashree story: How Kerala women's grassroots scheme grew into a multi-crore project
The Kudumbashree story: How Kerala women's grassroots scheme grew into a multi-crore project
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Sitting in her three-room terrace house in Palakkad, 41-year old Bhageerathy looked back at the past twelve years that changed her life for the better. 

Bhageerathy is all praise for Kerala’s iconic Kudumbashree programme, as she owes a lot to the scheme including her current social status, the two Masters’ degrees that she earned and her own holistic development. 

The Kudumbashree programme took birth in 1998 in Kerala as a community-driven initiative that aimed at encouraging a woman to ‘save’ for the future. And after nearly two decades, Kudumbashree is considered a lifeline by countless women who have reaped its benefits to carve out an identity of their own in society.

A resident of an agraharam (a Brahmin locality) in Palakkad, Bhageerathy was never encouraged to step out of her home for work, despite being a post-graduate.  

“Not that my family imposed some kind of a ban, but -as a general rule- the womenfolk in agraharams don’t venture out a lot,” she explains. 

In 2004, after years of being a stay-at-home wife and nurturing dreams of starting her own business, Bhageerathy decided it was time. It was pure luck that introduced her to the state’s Kudumbashree project.

At the behest of a bank manager, she convinced other women of her neighbourhood to form an Ayalkoottam (a neighbourhood group), the first step required to join the Kudumbashree programme.

Bhageerathy and her group of ten would make pappadams and snacks at home, and pool these together for sale at their local Kudumbashree outlet. 

Months later, the same group ran a seasonal food products outlet for two years, before they set up a Nutrimix firm that now supplies 135 metric tonnes of powder-mix for babies across Palakkad. The baby-mix is made in a fully-equipped unit with a production time of 14 days.

“Joining Kudumbasree meant that they had to go for weekly meetings, where they had to meet other women and socialize. It made them confident about themselves, and also ensured a steady monthly income,” she smiles. 

Bhageerathy and her family have since moved out of the agraharam and built their own home. She has also managed to acquire another post-graduate degree and hopes to enroll for a PhD soon.

"None of this would have been possible without Kudumbashree. It has improved our financial status too. At Nutrimix, we earn a minimum of Rs.10, 000 per month," she adds. 

Eighteen years after Kerala’s Kudumbashree programme was launched, it got its own official Facebook page on September 1 this year.

Today, the Kudumbashree model of development is emulated in many states and countries. The programme has about 50,000 activities spread across various sectors including production, livelihood and service.

The production sector includes the Nutrimix unit that generates maximum revenue. Livelihood activities include agriculture and animal husbandry, while the service sector includes Kudumbashree travels and canteens.

However even before the organization was formally registered in 1998, Kudumbasree has a history that is unknown to many, a journey that began with a small group of women to having nearly 41.5 lakh members on its rolls. 


The Kudumbashree project started off as a neighbourhood group in 1992 in the Alappuzha municipality. A notification in the regional newspapers was sent out, resulting in the formation of around hundred groups consisting of 20 women each.

The women were imparted training to set up micro-enterprises like cattle-rearing and poultry farming.

After a successful two year-stint in Alappuzha under the guidance of officer Gopinath -a state-government employee- a pilot project was implemented in Malappuram in 1994.

Close to 4000 groups -comprising 20 women each- were formed in the district. Activities included goat-rearing, and setting-up of poultry and dairy units.

A year after the project was implemented in Malappuram, James Varghese IAS took charge as the district collector and the in-charge of the project for his tenure of a year and a half.

A group of 15 women settled themselves in a small two-room house in Perinthalmanna in Malappuram. Some sat on red plastic chairs pooled from the neighbourhood, while others sat on the floor for their first meeting with the district collector before enrolling themselves for the programme.

“The group brought the best chair in the house for me to sit on and they patiently listened to my address for the next half an hour,” recalls Varghese, while speaking to The News Minute. 

The programme was in its nascent stage, and it would be another three years before it would be formally registered. 

“At that time, it was a matter of joy and curiosity to even catch a glimpse of the district collector,” says Varghese, as he fondly remembers the many Kudumbashree meetings that he coordinated.

“It took us a hell lot of effort to convince the womenfolk in Malappuram. There was opposition from family and political parties against women venturing out for work. We were still able to do well in Malappuram, a district that was heavily bound by religious constraints too. News of our success soon spread to other districts,” recollects Varghese.

After the project was formally registered in 1998 by the then Communist government and spread to many districts, James Varghese took over as its first executive director.

“This for me was personally a matter of immense joy, especially since I was associated with the pilot project in Malappuram, and I had seen the women make their way in life, and learning to stand up for themselves.”

Starting with micro-financing and poultry-farming, the project later diversified into organic farming, tailoring units, catering units, household-waste management and Kudumbasree travels.

KB Valsala Kumari who served as its Executive Director from 2012-15 says that more than the fact that the programme has helped eradicate poverty, Kudumbashree has over the years become a household name.

“Unlike the schemes in other states, Kudumbashree is not a self-help group. It is instead a neighbourhood group that drastically differs from the former. The basis of this programme is the idea that, for a woman, other women living in the same neighbourhood is more likely to provide support than any random group of women,” she avers.


38-year old Mini has been a gram panchayat member at Kalliyur in Thiruvanthapuram district for the past four years.

Twelve years ago, when she was a stay-at-home mother of two, she would spend days eagerly waiting to take part in the next neighbourhood meeting:

“I was aware of the neighbourhood groups in the locality and always wanted to be a part of it then.”

Mini was eager to contribute to her husband’s meager income as an electrician, so she joined Kudumbasree in 2004:

“I would save whatever little money I could from the monthly allowance I got for my personal use. Initially, I would contribute Rs 10 every week.”

Six months later, the group formally registered themselves, making them eligible for bank loans. With a subsidy of Rs 50,000 from the Kudumbashree State Mission and an additional Rs 2.5 lakh bank loan, the group of ten set up a paper-bag making unit in Kalliyur. She now heads the unit.

“At that time, Kudumbasree was looking to expand its initiatives and we were trained to make paper bags. The first few months were not easy. There were months when we would earn Rs 10,000 and then there were months when we earned as little as Rs 1000. It took a couple of years for the business to ensure a steady number of orders.”

How has Kudumbasree helped her?

“How has it not helped me….I was what one would call an average Malayali woman who studied till Class X, got married and dutifully looked after my family. Who would have thought I would go on to help many women like me, who have the potential to be a public representative, but lack the means to do so?” she asks.

Kudumbashree has a multi-layered approach, says manager Priya Paul. The primary aim of the programme is to inculcate the ‘savings’ habit in women, particularly those who come from families Below the Poverty Line (BPL). 

“Kudumbashree is a programme that has a uni-directional approach, a single goal in mind. As years passed, the need of the times too changed. When we started off, the main aim was to eradicate poverty through savings. Once this was achieved, the next aim was to provide women with skills to run a business of their choice, one which would ensure a steady income of their own,” she explains.

For the women who were until then engaged in poultry-farming and agricultural activities, the year 2002 posed a challenge. With the advent of internet and the beginning of digitalization of government offices, there was a need for data entry operators.

Kudumbashree was quick to identify the market demand and trained a group of 20 in Thiruvananthapuram for the same.

“Train women in sectors where there is demand- this is the aim. This is what makes Kudumbashree relevant even in 2016. The programme has diversified and ventured into numerous sectors over the years. The idea can never get obsolete, as we constantly re-invent ourselves,” she opines.

The recent wave of organic farming too was utilized by the women to cash in on their previous experience in collective farming. It is currently one of the initiatives that reap a major chunk of their revenue, especially during the Onam season.

The Kudumbashree’s Ernakulam unit alone had a turnover of Rs 8.5 crores from Onam sales, of which more than half came from the sale of organic vegetables and fruits. It raked in a total turnover of Rs 32 crores from Onam fairs organized across the state this year.

(All photographs from Kudumbashree website)

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