Is the Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty? Taking Heart in a Trivandrum Tragedy
TRIVANDRUM — After reporting last week from arid rural Maharashtra, I am spending this week at the bottom of the (inverted) pyramid that is India, in tropical tantalizing Trivandrum. The official tourist slogan for Kerala state is, “God’s Own Country” and the phrase is quite near the truth. The teal Arabian Sea laps upon silken sand and shady palm trees wave in the cool ocean breezes and mixes with the smell of jasmine; this is probably is as close to God’s country as you can get.
I love how diverse India is, in terrain, and food, and language; and each of its billion citizens has their own unique story. Especially now in this rapidly developing economy, it seems everybody wants to share in the prosperity. I have reported in an earlier post how the Indian government and other NGOs offer skills training in rural and underdeveloped areas, such as mushroom cultivation, handbag making, or wine fermenting (Yes, wine fermenting). However, the complaint I heard most often from the women who participated in these trainings were, “What am I supposed to do with my new skills? I have no market and no advertising abilities.”
Yesterday I met with Sobhana, an energetic group leader, and the five other women who started a laundry soap enterprise. A local agency, called Child and Women’s Society, advertised free courses in the newspaper on how to make soap. However what sold the women on the soap-making training was the agency assured the women they would buy back the finished of bars laundry soap.
The gang of six attended the day-long training several months ago and decided to pool their Muthoot loans to purchase the raw materials from the agency to make laundry soap (they purchased enough raw materials to hand-make over 3200 bars). Returning to the agency with their bars in tow, the Child and Women’s Society reneged on their promise of the buy-back scheme. Inexperienced in marketing and with sacs and sacs of unwrapped laundry soap, the women feel disappointed with the agency. I personally would have been outraged (perhaps they were too but did an excellent job in concealing their raw emotions). Adding insult to injury, the group was left in the predicament they wanted to avoid in the first place: being forced to sell the soap themselves, and the filled sacs represent daily reminders of how they were wronged.
Despite this setback, they remain optimistic with the Muthoot-ACCION partnership. They have completed Personal Management and Idea-2-Business modules and are looking forward to learn marketing skills to promote their soap and skills to enhance their entrepreneurship. They especially want to learn how to determine a business’s feasibility before starting. I saw that the market for soap is very elastic with tight margins, and is only worthwhile if they operate on a massive scale. But would they have known this before getting into the business or Shreejyoti? Perhaps not, but this is, in essence, the driving mission behind Dialogue on Business — equipping women with the business training they need to work their way out of poverty.
The women clearly have skills and desire to work and are looking to move in a new direction together. They cleared the small table of the excess soap and showed me their other skills they want to promote, such as catering or print making (you would be amazed what you can create with a little paint, potatoes, onions, and okra). They feel that ACCION’s Dialogue on Business is a genuine program where the trainers are “knowledgeable and courteous and not imposing a dubious agenda.” What the women really hope for in their relationship with ACCION goes beyond the mission of Sthreejyoti, and perhaps ACCION, itself. They crave marketing linkages and a buy-back scheme. Perhaps, ACCION and Muthoot can leverage their new linkage with Rope International (as mentioned in another previous post) to help these vibrant and skilled women to expand their businesses.
ACCION’s mission clearly points to providing financial tools like microloans, business training, and other financial services. I am not sure where developing buy-back networks for clients of private financial institutions fits anywhere in this mission statement. But ACCION has a tendency to prove the naysayers wrong and to color outside the mission statement: think waterways in Caracas, or providing microloans in Recife, and even achieving self-sufficiency. So is developing market linkages for our women entrepreneurs within ACCION’s scope? I have a hunch it is.