While most other “best of” lists usually hit the press around New Year’s, our calendar here at the Ambassadors Program is a bit different. With 16 new Ambassadors volunteers arriving at our Boston offices this Monday for their orientation training, we thought this week would be the perfect time to look back on some of the best posts from our 2012 Ambassador class.
1.) In ‘A company with a difference’ by Jerry Brady, read how one social enterprise is making a difference for a group of people long excluded from the financial system: people with disabilities.
2.) In ‘To be a woman is to…‘ by Kate McGrath, learn about the work of Génesis Empresarial and one of their most successful groups of women entrepreneurs.
3.) In ‘Inside in the cold’ by Charlene Nemson, see what air conditioning means for development in the country.
4.) In ‘Can we call him a social entrepreneur?‘ by Guila Angi, meet a client of Paraguay’s Financiera El Comercio and learn about his successful dairy business and the additional support he lends to other budding businesses in his community.
5.) In ‘The stuff that doesn’t get lost in translation‘ by Asya Tabdili, find out how Accion is providing financial literacy training to thousands of entrepreneurs in India – by watching a video she created.
We’re about to kick off another great summer of stories from the field from around the world of microfinance – so stay tuned for the best of 2013 from Paraguay, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru and India.
>> The following is a post from guest blogger, Rajul Bharti, an Analyst for Accion’s Dialogue on Business training program based in Gujarat, India.
With the Month of Microfinance upon us, I wanted to share a story about the power that financial education can have on its students.
Last month, the staff of Accion’s Dialogue on Business (DOB) entrepreneurship training program wanted to find a way to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8 with our students. We started our thinking along traditional lines of celebration, like a ceremony to congratulate our entrepreneurial students, maybe accompanied by a traditional dance and a snack, but our initial brainstorming didn’t prepare us for the inspirational events that unfolded…
We ended up asking the women themselves how they wanted to celebrate. After all, this was a day to celebrate their independence, so it seemed only fitting! These women—all microentrepreneurs trained by DOB in stitching, tailoring and embroidery work—typically work from home and earn somewhere between 500 and 1500 rupees a month (just U.S. $10–30) just through their embroidery and tailoring projects.
To our surprise, the women chose to do an exposure visit – a field trip for the women to experience something new to them – an idea that we had only briefly considered. One of the most active women in the group strongly supported the idea, but she needed someone to care for her young baby in order to participate. When all the other women offered to take care of the baby in turns, that settled it—an exposure visit it was!
When the discussion began about where the group would go on their exposure visit, one of the women asked about the big glass buildings in the city. We soon realized that the woman was referring to the many shopping malls that dot the landscape of Ahmadabad City. Many of the others had also noticed the malls before, but had always thought they were exclusively for rich people and that they would not be allowed to enter. We decided that this would be a perfect place to visit: we wanted to show the women that these malls are inclusive urban spaces created for everyone—and that they were welcome just as much as anyone else was.
We picked Alpha One, a mall with special wing called Ranino Hajiro that houses a handicraft and traditional ethnic market. We wanted the women to see how some of the products that they help create now are refined and later sold at an outlet like this one. This would allow the women to see just how far their skills and growing enterprise could potentially take them.
I came to India to document the stories of the women entrepreneurs I would eventually meet; but what I left with was so much more. Despite being lost in translation one too many times throughout my journey, there was one thing that needed no interpretation: the courage, strength, and gratitude that all these women entrepreneurs possess. These women instilled in me the necessity to take action instead of just make excuses.
It is easy to complain about our lot in life, but it is so much more rewarding and exhilarating to shape your own destiny. So let’s stop longing, and start doing. Let’s move forward in this New Year by taking small but steadfast steps in the direction of the life we’ve always wanted. Let’s be trailblazers in our communities just like these women — Bushra, Dilshod, Praveentaj, and Savitha, Manju and Sanguna. And why not? We have more to gain than to lose.
Signing off – Asya Tabdili!
So, what do cashews, lab work and floor mats all have in common, you ask? Well, they all just happen to be the products that three enterprising women in India rely on for their livelihoods. As an Ambassador at Accion’s Dialogue on Business Program based out of their Bangalore office, I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing women from all over Southern India who had taken the customized courses in business skills and self management. Their lives have all been impacted tremendously by what they learned in the powerful program, but each has her own unique story. Here are just three:
Savitha is from Kerala and has a cashew production business. (Did you know that India accounts for over 50% percent of the world’s cashew production, processing and exporting!?)
She already had her business before she enrolled in the Dialogue on Business program, but Savitha says the Self-Management module increased her confidence, and other modules helped her manage her time more efficiently and better measure and manage her expenditures.
Now, not only does Savitha have a more stable income through her stronger cashew enterprise, but she is also helping her community by employing fourteen other women who help her peel and clean the cashews. Below, Savitha enjoys a break with four of her employees. Read More…
Ever heard the example about the enterprising woman who used her small loan to buy a sewing machine and was then able to increase her income exponentially? Well, I had heard it too, but it wasn’t until I met Praveentaj – an entrepreneur from the outskirts of Bangalore, India, who has been embroidering various clothing items for 17 years – that I realized that microfinance can indeed work the way the fairytales say.
Through the Dialogue on Business program at Accion, Praveentaj was encouraged to increase her services and production as a way to increase her revenue and income. So, she decided to invest in a sewing machine as well as implement a tailoring component into her business. Quite a change from how she was working before — all by hand! Read More…
Dilshod is an entrepreneur from the outskirts of Bangalore, in Karnataka, India who makes Agarbatti. Say What? Agarbatti? Yes, Agarbatti, which is the Hindi word for incense.
It was so fascinating to go behind the scenes and see how something is made that I use nearly every day. And the speed of her hands! My camera could barely focus.
When I visited Dilshod, she was working on the first step of making Agarbatti, which is rolling charcoal powder and an adhesive onto bamboo sticks. The last two steps are adding the fragrance (Sandalwood, Star Anise, Cedarwood, Patchouli…can’t you just SMELL India already ?!) and packaging the finished Agarbatti, which will be sold to homes, workplaces, and places or worship, in India and around the world. Read More…
My journey all began last year in a lecture hall at UCLA. While my professor blabbered on and on about some economic theory, I was entertaining the thought of interning in another country (please, I do take my studies seriously, but my mind was wandering!) What a cool idea, I thought to myself: to expand and grow intellectually and spiritually, while experiencing the corporate world in a different culture.
I was also wondering, how much of what he was saying is true? It is easy to criticize from afar. Perhaps microfinance and business development programs are not the solution to eradicating all poverty, but they must be having some positive effect on an individual basis, right? My curiosity and desire to answer the former question and other similar questions led me thousands of miles away from home.
It was then that I decided to become an Ambassador for Accion, and later flew to Bangalore and started working on Accion’s Dialogue on Business Program (DOB) whose mission is to develop the business skills of women micro-entrepreneurs through participatory and engaging modules.
DOB helps women to better manage their personal and household finances, as well as gives them the tools to develop a business initiative or to further enhance their existing business. But I quickly realized that DOB wasn’t just about changing the way these women think about business. By developing successful business, these women positively changed the way they are perceived by their family, community, and most importantly, themselves. I could see this empowerment on their face, and hear it in their story.
My journey led me through Southern India’s lush forests, bustling cities, and swampy rice fields where I used rickshaw, car, bus, and train to reach and interview over sixty women entrepreneurs. Here are some of their stories:
Bushra is an entrepreneur from Thrissur, in Kerala, India, and is the entrepreneurs of all entrepreneurs. She sells poultry, plants, pickled fruit, vegetables, and even goats to her neighbors, shops, and catering companies.
Before the DOB training, Bushra was sitting at home, bored and restless. Aware of her potential, Bushra enrolled in the DOB training and soaked up the knowledge of her teachers. Shortly after, she opened up her own poultry center, and a few months later a pickling production business. What is incredible is the speed in which Bushra has been able to open up all these businesses – just nine months! Read More…
On coming back from a financial literacy training in the Shivaji Nagar slum area, I pay a visit to the Swadhaar Individual Loan branch in Chembur.
It is actually the second time I go to this location, having made a brief visit at the beginning of my stay. On the fourth floor of a school building a classroom has been converted into two Swadhaar branches separated by a wall of metal organizers: one for individual loans, and one for group loans. The two businesses are different in many ways, from the type of clients to the skills required from the loan officers. I had not seen before MFIs actually separating branches – even though in the same location – but I have always seen that it was not the same loan officers, product managers, etc, who were responsible for individual and group loans.
Kavita – my new friend from FinAccess – comes with me to meet the branch manager and translate our conversation. Arjun was one of the first Swadhaar employees. He has been with them for 7 years and made his way to a branch manager position, or “team leader” as they are called here. His team consists of a dozen staff, loan officers and administrative help. Most of the team spends a great deal of time on the field and at 6pm, only a few are back to the office.
Arjun graciously answers my questions about the branch and its almost 2000 clients. I learn that some “upgraded” from group to individual loans, but that is not the majority. Most new clients hear about Swadhaar when the loan officers go “shop to shop” to talk about their loans and give out brochures, or through word of mouth. Swadhaar is in a good position to service small businesses and shops around its branch: no commercial bank offers the adequate financing (there was one but it left), and competition consists of informal money lenders or unregistered, locally – and illegally – operating MFIs. For clients who could access commercial banking, Swadhaar is still attractive because its process is faster and easier. The door to door collection is also very popular. Read More…
On the first floor of the Vindhya office in Bangalore, India, excitement is building on a Friday evening in October. Soon we’ll learn who won the best employee awards for the third quarter.
I’ve staged many of such events myself, but this one buzzes with a higher energy because of who is gathering and the momentum Vindhya has gathered in the last quarter.
Staff has been at work all day, as usual, on 15 projects that demand a high degree of concentration, working side by side in tight quarters. Some have been digitizing documents into master files; some recording data, often translating from one of seven languages into English; others have been making or receiving phone calls. After a full day, you might expect them to be tired. Doesn’t look like it.
To the outsider, the work done by the Vindhya staff may look like the classic, back-office work we’ve come to associate with India, and what one expects to be truly mind-numbing. But closer examination shows skill, judgment and experience are just as important as discipline. For example, one team has been calling people who have just signed up for the first pension they have ever known. ‘Are you in the right investment, are you keeping your money at work (and not withdrawing it for a wedding, for example), can we answer any questions for you?’ they ask, 900 times a day.
Another team is analyzing business expense reimbursements. A third is assessing the qualifications of applicants to become insurance agents. A fourth is handling requests for infant and baby products out of Ireland. And so on through the list of another dozen jobs.
Beneath the veneer of sameness, there is a wealth of discrete and precise undertakings. As a small company, Vindhya has focused on the small, unique needs larger competitors might have overlooked.
On the other hand, Vindhya’s first client was Wipro, one of India’s largest companies, who is still a mainstay. Others are Indian companies in partnership with global insurance giants.
Vindhya’s clients remain loyal because their staff remains loyal – and not for months, which is often not the case in the rapid-turnover BPO (back-office processing) industry, but for years. The reason for this longevity is evident as the first floor fills up for the award ceremony.
A Company with a Difference
To the left of a makeshift stage is a phalanx of staff in wheel chairs.
Some staff walk into the room on their hands, as well as their feet. Having a crippled lower body is not unusual for the people coming down stairs, often with difficulty. Others among the 200 are communicating in Vindhya’s official company language, sign language.The secret of Vindhya’s success is that at least 80 percent its staff is ‘differently abled.’
In the United States we say a person is ‘handicapped’ or ‘disabled.’ What terrible words when compared to the phrase, ‘differently abled.’ At Vindhya, being ‘differently abled’ is the secret formula, the critical difference. The work is conducted in their minds and their ‘differences’ are what makes them tenacious.
At least 20 million Indians are ‘differently abled,’ and yet fewer than five percent are employed in the marketplace. Imagine what a position with dignity and respect – a job which celebrates what others have shunned—means to someone who thought they might never have the opportunity to work. Appreciate the power this brings to bear on the work Vindhya does. Is it any wonder Wipro has remained loyal to Vindhya for six years? Read More…
For my last trip to the field I came back to Chembur, to the first location I visited upon arriving in Mumbai. In a building that essentially was a high school, you could also find two Swadhaar FinServe branches (one for group loans and one for individual loans) and a Swadhaar FinAccess kiosk. That’s where I met Kavita, who was to be my guide.
The first thing on the program was a training on financial education given by Swadhaar FinAccess. It was my first contact with the NGO, after several weeks spent at its for-profit sister, Swadhaar FinServe. You will read extensively about FinAccess and its training program from fellow Ambassador Cho, so I’ll just give my outsider impressions here.
I was curious about the educational work of Swadhaar FinAccess, and wondered how it related to the core microfinance business of lending money, so I sat for a couple of hours in a home of Shivaji Nagar, a Muslim slum area in Chembur. I saw a lot of cloth shops and Kavita confirmed that the neighborhood specialized in embroidery, the women working from home while the men were employed in workshops.
It was the 5th and last day of the training program, and the enthusiasm of the women attending had reached its highest point. Some showed up spontaneously, others had to be reminded of the appointment, and overall the attendance was high. If you wonder how many persons can sit in a 10m² room, the answer is 26. Read More…