"Healthy Diets for Tea Communities" is an initiative to address nutritional challenges in the tea supply chain. Presently active in Assam, India the program is empowering local women working in tea estates as 'changemakers'. Known as the 'Dharmalife Entrepreneurs', these women drive community awareness activities and provide access to nutritious foods through door-to-door sales.
As the clock strikes five in the morning, Lakhinayak begins her day with a cup of freshly brewed tea. While she completes her household chores and responsibilities towards her family, now it is time to transform her role from being a mother, wife, and daughter-in-law to a Dharmalife Entrepreneur (DLE. As she walks down the lane, people fondly greet her as "Baideo" (a colloquial term used to address someone as sister), reminding her of the responsibilities which give her a sense of purpose and immense pride.
"When I was 13 years old, I used to give tuition to children in my village. My father then realized my inclination towards social work," beams Lakhinayak. Her qualifications do not define her, although she has studied till Class 10th, working for society naturally comes to her. Following her passion to bring change in her community, she has previously worked as a Panchayat committee member and is now a DLE.
"I leave the house when I have to conduct a home visit, organise events or sell products. I like going out to work. I like organising these events," mentions Lakhinayak with enthusiasm and zeal. Donning different roles throughout the day, she is a friend while conducting home visits, an entertaining host during cooking competitions and an enterprising saleswoman, who provides nutritious food products at the doorstep of tea workers’ house. Playing these varied roles has helped her gain confidence, enhance her communication skills, build empathetic relationships with people, and becoming a role model for her community.
The activities conducted by her are focused to spread awareness on four key areas: Promoting consumption of a balanced diet use of vitamin and mineral- fortified food items, consumption of local seasonal fruits and vegetables, and adoption of handwashing practices.
"I don’t even have to call people whenever I organize an event. They join me on their own." She narrates how people are excited to learn about nutrition and more participants turn up for her workshops. This positive and overwhelming response from the community keeps her motivated to do good work.
With continuous efforts and building of strong interpersonal relationships among the community members, Lakhinayak has formed a loyal customer base to sell her products. "I can sell products easily in my division. Whenever I procure the [vitamin A]-fortified oil, the stock lasts for only one to two days", she explains as a sense of achievement shines through her eyes.
The program led by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and implemented by Dharmalife selects and provides intensive training to local women aged 18-45 years in each of the tea estate to drive the program activities. For improving awareness and behaviors towards good nutrition and healthy diets the DLE conducts multiple activities that include street plays, cooking demonstrations, competitions, and door-to-door visits. Access to nutritious foods and various other socially relevant products are ensured through DLEs via door-to-door sales.
Just like Lakhinayak, 36 other DLEs are working tirelessly to bring a shift in the nutritional status of tea workers in Assam. It is observed that tea workers remain nutritionally vulnerable due to poor diets that consist largely of staple foods such as rice, wheat and potato that lack essential micronutrients needed for maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
In the baseline study conducted by GAIN in 15 tea estates in 2021 only on third of women consume minimally diverse diets. Although 77% of the community members were aware of the benefits of having a balanced diet, only 14% regularly consumed fruits and 32% consume dark leafy vegetables respectively, both locally available and affordable nutrient rich foods. In addition, only 17% of the tea workers were aware of fortified oil, oil fortified with vitamin-A as per government standards and an important contribution to a vitamin lacking in most diets in Assam
Realising the need of the hour, "Healthy Diets for Tea Communities", a sector-wide nutrition program was started in Asia and Africa by GAIN and the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) aiming to reach 750,000 people in Kenya, Malawi and India. The project is funded by Unilever, Taylors of Harrogate, Republic of Tea, Jacob Douwe Egberts, Ringtons Foundation, Wollenhaupt, Reginald Ames, and Bigelow along with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In India, the program aims to cover 110 tea estates reaching approximately 110,000 workers and their families in Assam. With the help of more women like Lakhinayak, the program is setting an example among tea estates, empowering women to gain an important voice in the community not only to bring healthy behaviour change in the community but to create a sustainable livelihood by providing access to nutritious food products.