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17 Sep 2020 | covid-19

Coping with crisis: Home-based workers adapt during the lockdown

Anu Joshi Shrestha

7 mins Read

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A SABAH employee works on a sewing machine, stitching protective gear during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For a country like Nepal, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic – particularly the lockdown implemented to contain it – have been harsh. Health issues are a secondary concern for the many informal sector workers and daily wagers who have had to struggle for their very livelihoods, often facing hunger and extreme uncertainty. Nepal’s nationwide lockdown triggered unprecedented levels of unemployment, mainly affecting the informal and unorganized sectors – daily wage earners, self-employed individuals, and small business owners.

During this period, the SAARC Business Association for Home Based Workers (SABAH), a partner of our Resilient Mountain Solutions (RMS) Initiative, has been supporting its 3500 women members from all over the country. The livelihoods of most SABAH members depend on the skills they possess, which provide them their daily earnings. As Nepal went into lockdown, the organization had to think quick and big to ensure its members wouldn’t suffer even as the government was forced to lock down to save lives.

Over the past decade, SABAH has worked to bring women working from home into the formal, commercial value chain. It has been providing skills enhancement opportunities, developing markets and market linkages, as well as extending financial support to build commercial products and services around traditional skills in both farm and off-farm sectors.

SABAH’s organizational structure facilitates work from home, and its management explored options early on to best see how articles that have high demand during the present situation might be produced by its members working safely from home. Robin Amatya, its CEO, says, “We have hundreds of families looking up to SABAH with hope, and they trust us to help them find solutions.”

As most members of SABAH are engaged in agriculture and work with textile, the organization diversified its product line to cater to the needs of the crisis market as well as strengthen the morale of its group members to make them feel secure and taken care of.

SABAH Nepal is known for the use of natural fibres
SABAH Nepal is known for the use of natural fibres such as allo and cotton in its products.


From textiles to personal protective equipment

The global pandemic has created huge demand for protective gear. Due to the unavailability of imported disposable medical masks, people in Nepal have relied on locally produced protective gear. Since most SABAH members are skilled seamstresses, the organization developed a mask design and provided copies of it along with fabric for its members to sew. In the meantime, the marketing team procured orders from various distributors to make reusable masks, coveralls, and other personal protective items. They received bulk orders from municipalities around Kathmandu Valley, and institutions such as the Nick Simons Institute and Kathmandu Medical College. SABAH is also in the process of getting approval from provinces around the country to try and get other municipalities to procure their reusable protective gear.

SABAH Nepal officials acquire the raw materials used – special fabrics, elastic, zippers, and medical grade pads, among other items – through various channels and bring them to their central unit, the Trade Facilitation Center (TFC).  At the TFC, the members cut, measure, and trim the fabric, following the spec sheets created by the design team based in Kathmandu, for whom SABAH have procured a special pass. Next, they bundle the materials required to make the safety gear accordingly. These are then disseminated to designated centers at local units all over Nepal through SABAH’s Common Facilitation Center (CFC) to their clusters or members’ homes. The members, upon receiving the bundles, sew and stitch the materials to create the finished products, which are then picked up and brought back to the TFC for quality check, and packaged and labeled as per SABAH guidelines to maintain quality and brand standards. Finally, these products are disseminated to the market as ordered or based on demand.

Homemade food products

SABAH members in locations such as Nala, Banepa, Dhulikhel, Bungamati and Khokana are using locally grown ingredients to prepare ready-to-cook as well as ready-to-eat items. SABAH has tied up with food delivery service providers Foodmandu and Sastodeal to create linkages and deliver food items safely to customers around Kathmandu Valley.

Similarly, members in Karve’s Khawa CFC have been using locally sourced milk to prepare yogurt, khuwa, and lassi, which are collected and sold in the local market in Kavre. The surplus is transported to the central unit in Jhamsikhel for proper packaging and labeling, and then delivered to customers’ homes.

SABAH members are offering varieties of food items to their customers – ready-to-cook items: frozen dumplings, samosas, bara, and sel-roti batter; ready-to-eat items such as lalmohan and yomaree; and, dry items and legumes such as kidney beans, black-eyed peas, soyabean, and horse gram.

Women prepare vegetables for packaging and sale at one of SABAH
Women prepare vegetables for packaging and sale at one of SABAH’s Common Facilitation Centres.


Bouncing back better

We know that small and medium enterprise are the most vulnerable to disruptive market shocks. However, as SABAH’s actions have proven, they can also be the most resilient when it comes to recovery and revival. The lessons from SABAH’s efforts can be summarized as follows:

Absorb: During the first week, the focus was on absorbing shocks. SABAH made a few changes to their system and focused on bolstering their social safety net by establishing information flow channels and strengthening community cohesion. They established contact points so that members could communicate and share information during emergencies. They appointed area coordinators and leaders to support team members, and provided emergency relief supplies to the most vulnerable. SABAH realized that the most vulnerable were not its members living in rural areas as they owned farm land and had better food security, but were the urban poor subsisting on daily wages. The organization therefore provided some money and food to support those members who were most in need to help them absorb the first shock of the pandemic.

Adapt: There was an urgency to adapt to the “new normal”. The existing textile value chain was built around the production of woven fabric, knitted products, and stitched apparel. Therefore, SABAH decided to adapt by building on the existing skills of its members. It disseminated designs and patterns – for masks, coveralls, shoe covers, and aprons – vertically through Viber and Messenger, which most members could access. In Kavre, where members work mostly with produce, fresh vegetables and dairy products were transformed into to value-added ready-to-eat and cook items – cleaned and chopped vegetable, dried vegetables, pickles, jams, ground pulse, momo mix – collected at the CFC for delivery to Kathmandu. The training provided by RMS helped farmers adapt to this unprecedented situation.

Transform: SABAH changed their business model by going digital. They trained their members in the use of digital media and started an online payment system in collaboration with Khalti, a digital payment gateway. They also launched their own online marketing portal, SABAH Bazar/Mero Pasal, to collect online orders from consumers and communicate information concerning finished products to them. They established links with various logistics support organizations such as Foodmandu and Sastodeal to deliver their products to customer.

The SABAH team has stood tall and resilient, bouncing back and offering hope to over 2000 families. Women whose daily earnings amounted to just around USD 3 before SABAH’s interventions are now earning close to USD 10 a day from stitching masks and PPE suits, and selling vegetables and milk products from their homes. This has been a significant help at a time when the menfolk and other earning members of the family have had no work and therefore no wages. The Covid-19 crisis presents significant challenges to the Government of Nepal – as it does governments in other HKH countries – in ensuring effective economic recovery. SABAH is amongst the numerous micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) that provide a significant livelihood option to two million Nepalis and contribute 22% of the country’s GDP. The decisive action taken by its management have meant that while many MSMEs across the country closed due to lockdown – forcing many informal sector workers out of jobs and incomes – SABAH members have not had to bear the brunt of the pandemic as harshly as many other self- and informally employed individuals have. Its efforts have embodied some of the key principles outlined in our policy paper “COVID-19 impact and policy responses in the Hindu Kush Himalaya” for building back better.

Our partner with RMS for the past two years, SABAH has clearly worked to embed the concept of resilience amongst its members. Its recent successes show that planning and preparedness for disasters – both climatic and non-climatic – can greatly benefit communities. Their preparation and foresight have paid dividends during difficult times.

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