Lijjat Papad – The Indigenous Unicorn of India

Lijjat Papad – The Indigenous Unicorn of India

What happens when some women come together to run a business wielding the most ordinary weapon in their arsenal, the humble rolling pin, with the sole aim of making a living?

Would you believe it if we said that they went on to create history with their rolling pins and transformed their modest venture over time into one of the most resounding business successes in India, one that is recognized as a role model by the whole world?

jaswantiben_lijjat_Lijjat Papad – The Indigenous Unicorn of India on www.Founders500.com

Presenting Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad, ladies and gentlemen, a women’s organization that was born out of the determination of seven women and an initial capital of mere Rs. 80! This is a one-of-its-kind rags to riches story where a women-only organization has made its mark with the simplest offering – the Papad.

Papad, or crispy flat bread, is a common Indian condiment and makes for a zesty addition to any meal. No feast is complete without spicy, crispy, crunchy Papads! Lijjat is a household name, and is synonymous with Papad in the present times.

Humble beginnings

Mahila means woman, Griha means home, Udyog means business and Lijjat means delicious. So the name Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad speaks for itself! It defines itself as a business, run by women, from home, making delicious Papads! It was 1959 in Mumbai when some women, the founders of the organization, decided that they would roll Papads and earn a living. All they had was their cooking skills, and a loan of Rs. 80 that they took from one Mr. Chhaganlal Karamsi Parekh. Taking over a Papad-making unit that was in loss, they bought the necessary ingredients they would need to make some Papads. They had plans to make this venture bigger with time, but this kind of growth was certainly beyond their imagination! Sending products to UK, USA, Australia and Europe and exports crossing Rs 170 billion, the organization has certainly become a phenomenon in its own right.

Back in the day, a woman taking such a courageous step was unheard of. But these gritty women not just took this one step, but kept moving ahead, a little every day, and they covered miles together. These women stuck by each other, and their hard work led to Shree Mahila Griha Udyog, which now rolls in annual revenues to the tune of Rs. 6.5 billion!

They had not planned it, but went on to create an organization that is huge, and yet simple and inspiring. While it is categorized as cottage industry, registered under The Khadi & Village Industries Commission Act, it is a mammoth organization that thrives on simplicity and the bonds of sisterhood. At Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad, men are employed as accountants, security guards and drivers, but cannot be owners (members of the organization).

The “Lijjat Sisterhood”

What started with just 7 Gujarati women, good at rolling Papads and khakhras, gathering on the terrace of a building to make 4 packets of Papad to sell to a local merchant, is now a source of dignified livelihood for thousands of women across India. Women working with this organization address each other as sisters, and these sisters have been able to send their children to the most premier institutes for higher education, thanks to their work here.

Any woman can become a member of the organization by pledging to adopt its values. They must also ensure that their house is clean and they have some space where they can dry the Papads they roll daily. Women who don’t have space can knead dough or work in the packaging or quality testing department. Women join here as Papad rollers and can gradually keep progressing through different departments to the rank of branch head, and then member of the managing committee. The founders of Lijjat, the simple but strong women who took a chance on their skills and set the ball rolling for many other women like them in the decades to follow deserve special mention here –

  • Parvatiben Ramdas Thodani
  • Banuben N Tanna
  • Jayaben Vithlani
  • Jaswantiben Jamnadas Popat
  • Ujamben Narandas Kundalia
  • Laguben Amritlal Gokani
  • Diwaliben Lukka

Rightful expansion of a noble cause

Right in the beginning, within 3 months, the Lijjat Papad team expanded to 25 women, when they also started buying equipments like cupboards and utensils. And today, the workforce comprises in excess of 43,000 women, or “member-sisters.” Special Lijjat Papad Company buses are deployed in many cities to provide easy conveyance to and from the workplace for the Lijjat sisters. It was on Chhaganlal Parekh’s (lovingly called “Chhaganbapa”) advice that the venture was made into a cooperative, to ensure that every member got paid their share in the profit equally and fairly. He was also the one, who advised them to make one standard Papad instead of the two different qualities of Papads they began with (they had plans to sell both qualities – superior and inferior – at different rates). He also emphasized the importance of maintaining accounts properly.

In the first year, rains played spoilsport and Papad production had to be kept on hold during the rainy months. All year round production started only in the second year when they could save some money and buy a stove and a cot. The Papads were kept to dry on the cot and the stove was placed under the cot to continue drying the Papads in rainy season. What is laudable about the organization is that they have never sought or accepted any charity, gift, grant or donation of any kind from anyone or anywhere.

After producing huge quantities of tasty Papads successfully, Lijjat ventured into other products like khakhra in 1974, spices in 1976, and then vadi, wheat atta, and bakery products in 1979. Lijjat also set up flour mills, it own printing division, and its own polypropylene packing division during the 70s. Besides, some unsuccessful ventures like cottage leather, matches, incense sticks and the setting up of a cooperative bank also happened during the same decade.

Equality and prosperity for all

Today, Shri Mahila Griha Udyog produces not only the lip-smacking Lijjat Papad, but also products like wheat flour, detergent products (powder, liquid and cake, under the Sasa brand), khakhra, bakery items and spices. The stupendous success of Lijjat Papad can be credited to the fact that the makers have never deviated from their core values, with every process running the same way every day, profit shared with every employee, and quality products always offered to consumers for affordable prices.

The Sarvodaya philosophy of the organization is based on the fundamentals of equal ownership of all employees, equal profit or loss sharing, and power and authority vested in every member to decide about their own initiative. Also, Shri Mahila Griha Udyog never takes supplies on credit or sells goods on credit. Payments to Lijjat sisters are done on a daily basis.

The rules of the Lijjat Papad business house are very simple

  • Only members have all the rights of the institution
  • The Lijjat quality cannot be compromised ever
  • The accounting system is always time bound and transparent
The founders of Lijjat Papad travelled far and wide to expand work, recruiting women from places all over the country to roll the yummy Lijjat Papads. Owned by women, run by women, and empowering women to earn a livelihood and contribute to their family income without working outside their homes, this organization also extends support to multiple girl and women empowerment programs in the country. The impact of the Lijjat Papad story was such that it caught the attention of Ugandan president Dr. Speciosa Wandira-Kazibwe who took some tips from the organization when promoting a similar venture in her country.

A mammoth organisation

Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad has 81 branches across the country, and its central office is in Mumbai. Every branch is supervised by the branch head Lijjat sister called the Sanchalika. The branches are present in 17 states of India – Bihar, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, Maharashtra, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Weekly and monthly review meetings are held by the managing committee to monitor all branches, departments, divisions and products. There is also a quality control team, whose members keep visiting the Lijjat sisters’ homes to check if all quality parameters are adhered to during the Papad making process.

Power in the hands of all

The decentralized power model of Shri Mahila Griha Udyog has withstood all tests. In fact it can be said for a fact that the organization would have never been such a success if it had centralized production. All decisions in all branches depend on consensus among the members. When it comes to profit sharing, the 21 member managing committee decides about the profit distribution. Generally, gold coins (of equal weight) are distributed amongst all Lijjat sisters, irrespective of their role or seniority.

The Papad making process has remained the same in all branches, through all these years. A group of women reaches the place of work to knead the dough in the morning. Another group of women comes to collect this dough from the collection window, while also handing over their previous day’s Papads at the deposit window. They take the dough to roll more Papads during the day, while the Papads of the previous day are sent for quality checks. The tested Papads are then packed by another team.

There are machines in the current times to roll and make Papads, but Lijjat Papad stays true to its vision of empowering women to earn a living. While related activities like accounts, etc. are done using modern computers, there is no machinery involved in the production, everything is manual.
The sourcing of raw materials follows a very stringent policy, and the heeng (asafoetida), kali mirch (black pepper) and urad daal are all procured from specified sources. The specific raw material and the standardized process of making Papads ensure that the quality, size, shapes and taste of Papads made in all branches is the same.

Trust Lijjat to be not just a business organization, but an organization that promotes and practices a certain way of life! Every day, members of Lijjat Papad in all branches first recite an all-religion prayer before they begin their daily activities. They are free to choose their activities in the organization and leaving the organization is voluntary.

There is no caste or religion prejudice here and no member is asked to leave unless she does something that is against the organizational principles. Besides, there is no retirement age specified here. Once, Jyoti Naik, the former president of Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad, was questioned about this, and she replied that at Lijjat, the emphasis was only on earning a livelihood through daily work, and that did not require any provision for retirement age.

This organization, besides being the homegrown unicorn of India, is also one of the oldest cooperatives in India that supports women. The profit sharing model of Lijjad Papads also fosters unity and accountability among the Lijjat sisters.

There is even an in-house magazine, Lijjat Patrika, which is published and circulated amongst those interested in the activities of Lijjat, at a nominal rate. The magazine is published in Hindi, English, Marathi, and Gujarati. Besides carrying articles about women, the magazine is also an excellent mode of communicating about events and initiatives at Lijjat. 

Think Papad, and the first and probably the only name that springs up in your mind is Lijjat! Whether it is TV commercials, trade fairs, exhibitions, grocery stores or swanky malls- you will find Lijjat Papad everywhere! The ‘kurram kurram’ jingle is timeless, and the muppet bunny of the 1990s ad campaign of Lijjat Papad is still fresh in the memory of many.

Consistent good quality has been the USP of Lijjat Papad. If there is something that can bring the entire country to an uncontested agreement, it is the fact that Lijjat Papads are as tasty as they always were, and the quality of Lijjat Papads remains the same. The cooperative that announces boldly “Symbol of Woman’s Strength” is truly a baton bearer of a movement of women’s empowerment.

Wishing the indigenous unicorn of our country many more decades and centuries of success and may it continue to be an inspiring role model for many such unicorns.

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