She was born in the early 1950's to an ultra-poor family in Kundihar, a remote village of Banaripara of Barisal division in Bangladesh. She was a beautiful baby and her father named her 'Shahndah Rani' which means 'Queen of Evenings'. But in reality her life was far from that of a queen.
Born into acute poverty, there were days when she went without any food. Rani's parents could not afford any schooling and gave her away in marriage at age 16 to relieve some of the pressures on them. She was married off to Monoranjan Dhar, who despite being poor himself, cared for Rani.
Soon after she moved in with her husband, Rani started working to produce lime from snail shells in the traditional way, by hand. Lime is one of the ingredients used in the consumption of betel leaf. Many people in Bangladesh and other South Asian countries are dependent on betel leaf or 'paan' chewing, which also includes other ingredients such as areca nut and often tobacco. It is chewed for its stimulant effects. Historians claim that betel leaf chewing has been part of South Asian culture for hundreds of years.
Rani's struggle for survival began at the time of Bangladesh's independence in 1971. She managed to save a capital fund of just 65 dollars, which she used to buy firewood and for collecting snail shells from ponds, marshland and swampland around her village. On the very first day of her business venture, she produced one kilogram of lime, which she was able to sell in a nearby rural market for about one US dollar.
Rani quickly realized that she was on the right track and understood the market value and demand. She's never looked back.
Her husband Monoranjan proudly says, "Rani is energetic and she can think well. She gives me the courage and confidence to face the challenges of poverty together."
Following four decades of hard work, Shandha Rani is now an icon for rural entrepreneurs in her village and community. Her husband and three adult sons work with her. She has also created jobs for three more people.
Several other women and men are following Rani's footsteps. Dipali Rani is one of them, who also started producing lime. The local people have renamed the village Lime Para (village).
"It is good. Traders are now directly coming to us to buy our product. It also reduces our worries about marketing the product," said Manaranjan.
Rani is eager to expand her network and business into neighbouring districts, so she is negotiating with financial institutions for loans to invest. She has successfully set up a small workshop with an electric moulding machine, a fireplace to burn snail shells and storage space.
Rani is the proud owner of a motorboat for easy transportation of her product and raw materials. Her family home is now a tin-roofed, brick-walled house with a toilet on her own land. At present she has a running capital of about 10,000 dollars, with the capacity to produce 800 kg lime per day. However, lime from snail shells can't be produced year-round because of non-availability of the shells, particularly in dry or winter seasons.
"If initiatives are taken to cultivate snail shells, it will be a big push for lime production. It has a potential market in the country. Snail shells without flesh are the key raw material for lime production. Besides, their flesh has huge demand in fish cultivation farms as feed. Such initiatives will also create more job opportunities in rural areas," said James P. Biswas, Deputy Executive Director of the Bangladesh Development Society (BDS).
Rani's story is one of the success stories of BDS, an NGO based in Barisal working to support development of rural entrepreneurs with assistance from the Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a United Nations specialized agency.
Since 2000, BDS has been supporting Rani. She was able to take loans 16 times and each of these loans was repaid on time. The loan amounts vary between 200 and 6,000 dollars.
"The organization has provided loans for various purposes to dozens of families in this sub-district and there has been remarkable progress.
In most cases, beneficiaries have overcome poverty while at the same time creating jobs. With such success, BDS in partnership with the IFAD and PKSF is planning to increase the loan amount and help expand areas of activities," Biswas added.
Benoit Thierry, Country Program Manager in the Asia and the Pacific Division of IFAD, who recently visited the Kundihar village along with PKSF officials, met up with several beneficiaries including Shahndah Rani to assess the impact of IFAD support in this area. Over four decades, the Fund has been providing grants and loans to Bangladesh, with the aim of enabling poor people in vulnerable areas to adapt the pattern of their livelihoods to climate change; help small producers and entrepreneurs benefit from improved value chains and greater market access and economically and socially empower marginalized groups, especially poor rural women.
Currently, the Government of Bangladesh and IFAD are negotiating to undertake another six-year project, starting in 2018, to increase farmer incomes and livelihood resilience through demand-led productivity growth, diversification and marketing in changing climatic conditions.
The proposed 111-million-dollar programme is expected to directly benefit at least 250,000 rural households in eleven districts of the country's southern divisions of Chittagong and Barisal.PKSF General Manager Akond Md. Rafiqul Islam said, "For many years, access to credit, cooperation, technical support and technology transfer to the poor were limited.
Since its inception in 1990, PKSF has been working exclusively for their development in collaboration with 250 NGOs. In this context IFAD's continuous assistance makes it easier to address effectively the needs of moderate and ultra-poor people. Now you will find thousands of success and trend setting entrepreneurs like Shahndah Rani all over the country."
Things are moving and changing fast in Bangladesh. In a very real sense, these small rural entrepreneurs are strengthening the rural economy and creating huge job opportunities, Islam added. At present, PKSF is supporting more than 10 million poor people in the country, 90 percent of them women.
Israt Jahan, the top government official of Banaripara Upazilla, lauded IFAD, PKSF and NGO initiatives.
"Their activities are supplementing the government programmes, particularly in poverty alleviation, strengthening rural economy, empowerment of women and their participation in socio-economic development and cultural activities," Jahan said.
She added that, "The Bangladesh government has made remarkable progress on poverty alleviation. While connectivity between rural areas and cities are well established, we still need to do more and welcome any support from IFAD and PKSF for programmes undertaken to benefit rural people."