Smart Power India Empowers Seamstresses to Earn a Living Amid the Lockdown


Bihar, July 2020: Nine months ago, solar-powered mini-grids arrived at Ruby Kumari’s village of 400 households in Bihar, allowing her to transform her considerable sewing skills into a viable business. Before COVID-19, 38-year-old Ruby was running a home-based sewing school with 80 students in two classes. Each student paid Rs 650 for six months of lessons.

The onset of COVID-19 gutted her earnings, but electric power allowed her to launch a new venture; making masks for her neighbours while simultaneously supporting her two children.

Smart Power India, a subsidiary of the Rockefeller Foundation that works in the space of rural electrification, collaborates with Mini-Grid Developers to ensure access to quality and reliable electricity in rural India. SPI believes electricity access is a basic requirement for all economic progress.

With the start of COVID-19, mini-grid expansion slowed, but SPI had a new role to play in supporting its current customers. SPI carried out a telephone survey to discover what hardships and shortages their customers were facing and then launched several initiatives. It set up an awareness campaign and arranged for the distribution of soaps and hand sanitisers as well as masks. Discovering a mask shortage, SPI introduced a programme to help fund 25 entrepreneurs, all using electric sewing machines that the mini-grids helped power. The seamstresses have to deliver 1,25,000 masks during the lockdown. SPI shared a how-to video and helped the seamstresses locate the needed supplies. Each entrepreneur receives Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000, depending on how many masks they produce.

The onset of COVID-19 had gutted people’s earnings but the initiative of making masks by SPI has helped them sustain their lives. Ruby is one of 25 seamstresses being paid by Smart Power India (SPI) under a plan to supply five masks per household to various districts around Bihar for a combined total of 1,25,000 masks over a two-month period.

“We were managing our lives before without power,” Ruby says. “But it’s a comfort to have constant electricity when everything else is so unreliable.”

Even more, when night darkens the village of Parsa, dependable electricity has proven to be a source of comfort for the recently-widowed Ruby. Her husband, diagnosed with cancer last summer, passed away in June in the midst of the pandemic. She lives with her 15-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. Her children sleep while she works to the sound of crickets gathered in nearby wheat and cornfields.

For Ruby, the work is intense, but also a relief. She rarely leaves home. A nearby shopkeeper drops groceries at her door. Her bustling village falls eerily quiet each night at about 7 p.m.

Ruby hired ten young women for her mask-making venture. To handle her new business and household chores, she rises at 5 a.m. daily and works until about midnight.

Now she sews 50 masks a day with help from her daughter Shalini and also cuts the cloth for her employees to sew. Each one returns 50 finished masks to her every two to three days.