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Behind the scenes of a solidarity group

One by one, the women are entering the patio. Some have brought their children who are quiet at first but soon start to run around, playing and laughing innocently. There’s a dog wandering around as well, dragging along its leash, apparently not belonging to anyone. Silvana is grabbing some extra chairs since we’re expecting more guests. There will have to be at least 15 women or else the meeting cannot take place. The sun is shining with brutal force on my pale Dutch skin. The banana I brought as an emergency snack is practically melting. I thought it was supposed to be winter in Paraguay?

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Still without any worries

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Candle Making as a Financial Empowerment Tool?

My first day in the field I learned how to make candles.

 This may come as a bit of a surprise to you, as it did to me, so let me share the story.

First thing last Wednesday morning, I took a tuk tuk out to Jocotenango, a pueblo right outside of Antigua Guatemala, to meet up with one of the training facilitator Ana Lucía (Ana Lu, for short). Facilitators are the on-the-ground staff that facilitate the business training courses designed by SDE (Servicios de Desarrollo Empresarial, or Services for [Micro] Business Development), the department of Génesis Empresarial for which I’m working this summer. Facilitators work closely with loan officers to best support the business growth of their clients. Ana Lu and I hopped on a chicken bus and chatted on our way to meet with the group of women that were going to receive the training that morning. Continue reading

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Client Story: Nagamabanu Sarmukhtyarbhai Bagvan

For the last fifteen years, Nagmaben has lived in the Juhapura area of Ahmedabad  with her family, including her two children. A beautician by profession, she began her business at home, converting her kitchen into a beauty parlor by day, and she built up a regular client base from the local women living in her neighborhood. Her primary method of marketing was through word of mouth from her regular customers.

This year, she decided to attend the Dialogue on Business training, organized in March by SAATH (one of Accion’s partner NGOs in Ahmedabad), and it has made a big impact on her life and business.

She has realized the importance of the right type of effective publicity, has printed business cards and has repaired her old advertising sign (which is fixed to her building outside) by getting it repainted. She has also rented the house opposite to her own property and converted it into a permanent space for her beauty parlor. She has added additional products to her inventory, such as items of clothing for sale and hire (including traditional wedding attire) and jewelry. She has also initiated a savings group, dedicating her new space to hosting meetings and discussions, and she even has plans for the further professional development of her business. She broke even on her additional products within the first four months of their introduction and she is now experiencing good returns on her investments.

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Nagmaben in her new beauty parlour and in her kitchen where she used to conduct business.

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Getting to the Classroom: Let’s get Mobilised!

So we’ve had an insight into the Dialogue on Business training methodology in practice in urban Ahmedabad, Gujarat (Welcome to Gujarat: Lessons from the Field in Ahmedabad); we’ve seen its popularity, its ability to engage the enthusiastic women entrepreneurs and to effectively impart the fundamentals of business training in innovative and adaptable ways. But how do the entrepreneurs get to know about the DoB training in the first place and how do they decide whether they even want to get to the classroom? Time to take a road trip.

Ahmedabad to Surendranagar

Ahmedabad to Surendranagar

The destination: Surendranagar. The bus from Ahmedabad to Surendranagar (which took a little over two hours) marked my first experience of riding a ‘real’ Indian bus and it felt good to leave the tourist trails behind and venture into an area of Gujarat even less familiar with foreigners travelling among locals! The district of Surendranagar is home to a vast array of small and medium enterprises and is renowned for being one of the highest quality producers of cotton in the world. I get a taste of the prominence of this chief agricultural product in a variety of forms throughout my visit and my interaction with the entrepreneurs themselves at a mobilisation meeting – the first stage of the DoB programme in which entrepreneurs are introduced to the training in detail and registered for enrolment. Continue reading

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A (long) Day in the Life of a Compartamos Loan Officer

In my last post, I mentioned that my first introduction to real microfinance through two different client site visits in Toluca left me wanting more. It turns out I was lucky to get what I asked for, and last Tuesday I was given the opportunity to spend my workday in Huixquilucan (pronounced Wick-ski-lew-caan), a town in the state of Mexico about an hour west of the Distrito Federal.

After an unexpected taxi adventure that involved looking for the Compartamos office for nearly 45 minutes in Cuajimalpa, a nearby town whose streets coincidentally shared the names with those in Huixquilucan, I finally arrived at the right office around 8:30am. Upon entering, I saw a large, open reception area with several rows of chairs, many being occupied by prospective clients waiting to file loan applications. A team of welcoming staff greeted me, including the Office Manager, who provided me with a bit of information regarding the Huixquilucan office. The office was much larger than the Toluca office that I visited the prior week, as this one serves 5,000 clients and provides a wider variety of Compartamos’ products, including credit to individuals and microinsurance. Upstairs, loan officers prepared for their days in the field – confirming their routes for that day, finishing their breakfasts, and just chatting amongst themselves.

A smiling face approached me. It was Rosario, the officer I was going to be shadowing, who explained that we would be visiting seven different client sites, all of whom were groups of women, and the majority of them either being a loan collection or a renewal. I tried to contain my excitement to be back in the action of Compartamos’ operations since it had only been seconds since I met her, and before I knew it, we were out the door and flagging a kombi, a small van that would take us about twenty minutes down a windy, one-lane road where brightly colored houses pop out from either side of Mexico’s deep, green valley.

Loan Officer Rosario (in the blue sweater) surrounded by clients from the group Madho, signing a loan renewal.

Loan Officer Rosario (in the blue sweater) surrounded by clients from the group Madho, signing a loan renewal.

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Welcome to Gujarat: Lessons from the Field in Ahmedabad

It’s lunchtime; I jump into a rickshaw with Jaya, a trainer working with one of Accion’s Dialogue on Business (DoB) partner organisations SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) and we head out, workshop materials in hand, into the heat and bustle of Ahmedabad. We pass from the new part of town into the old city, and in between pointing out landmarks of interest, Jaya talks me through her decades of business training experience and what she herself has learnt from her entrepreneurs during the DoB programme here in Gujarat.

We arrive at our training location, what I’m told is a typical urban underprivileged neighbourhood in Parixitlal Nagar, Ahmedabad, and wonder through small, colourful alleyways to reach the family home in which the training will be delivered. The owners of the property graciously usher us in and Jaya begins to prepare the living room walls by hanging her flip chart and related training materials. I notice how the three-roomed house has been cleared of its furniture (stored carefully in the kitchen at the back) to create an open space where the entrepreneurial visitors can sit. The female members of the family owning the property relax together outside with the children, waiting in a courtyard area as their home gradually fills with returning businesswomen, dressed in bright colours and exchanging excited greetings.

Jaya and a full house of entrepreneurial trainees.

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Something’s cooking

I had the pleasure to meet again with the staff of the Swadhaar Meghwadi branch. You may remember that I already reported here how busy they get during collection week. Well this time around, the purpose of the visit was to meet a few clients to get a better idea of their experience with Swadhaar.

After the last logistical details got straightened up – I was initially meant to meet clients who do not speak English with a loan officer who doesn’t either, which would have made for a much less interesting post! – off we went. It was still raining pretty hard, after the worst monsoon episode I had seen happening just the night before, and the alleys of the slum were slippery with, well, all kinds of stuff.

The monsoon is weak this year, or so I am told…

The first stop was at a tiffin caterer, Rupali. Tiffins are prepared meals delivered to office workers by dabbawalas. The idea is simple: if you work far away from home, you can get all your meals delivered directly from your house or from a caterer to your workplace. The system has existed for over a century and remains a fast growing business, expanding as office jobs do in tentacular Mumbai. It relies on an army of dabbawalas commuting around, delivering the meals and collecting the empty boxes. About 200,000 tiffins are delivered every day, several times a day, and a mistake is made for each 6 million deliveries (supposedly).Rupali lives and work in a one-room home, where she prepares 4 meals a day for her 70 clients. As we arrive, lunch is cooking and the room is filled with the heavy smell of spices.

Rupali is now is her third loan cycle with Swadhaar, together with two neighbors. After four years of activity, she is an accomplished businesswoman and has two dabbawallas working for her. The printing of business cards got her new markets, like the 35 employees of a nearby call center. She uses her loans as working capital for her growing trade: every two weeks, she receives delivery of all the ingredients she needs for her cooking. Her small place is packed with onions, tomatoes and ladyfingers. Benefits are reinvested in the business, as her family of four is lucky enough to be able to rely on her husband’s salary for household and school expenses.

Rupali shows off her cooking in tiffin boxes.

We left Rupali and her stewing gobi to go and meet Sunita, the chapati maker. Chapatis are round flat wheat breads that are commonly served with Indian meals. Just like tiffins, they are an institution. Continue reading