The most striking aspect of working with impoverished women is how much they can teach you. Listen to them carefully and they will show you how to take uneducated, illiterate women and create entrepreneurs.
I discovered this when it was decided to set up a cooperative microfinance bank for women in the village of Mhaswad, in the Satara district of India. Women wanted to save, but no bank would accept the tiny sums they could deposit.
Today, the Mann Deshi Mahila Bank, run by and for women, has over 2,000,000 clients in many districts of Maharashtra state. But launching it in 1997 was far from straightforward.
Applying for a bank licence revealed how many societal barriers there are for impoverished women. Yet it also showed that it is often the women themselves who have answers to the problems they face.
Officials from the Reserve Bank of India turned down the licence because the women were illiterate. So these women went away for six months and studied. They returned and told the bank that, although they hadn’t been to school, they knew how to calculate and manage finances. They challenged officials to put away their calculators and compete with the women to work out the interest on a principal.
That time they were granted their licence.
That was a huge lesson for me and the start of a learning journey.
The women now had a microbank, but they had no time to come to it during their working day. So we decided to take the bank to the home and began doorstep banking. Next we found that the women all wanted to leave their passbooks with the bank ‒ if they took them home, their husbands would take the money.
We realized then it was not enough merely to provide banking. Women needed control over their finances and their decisions. This is how we became, in 1999, the first bank in India to introduce doorstep banking with e-card wireless technology (an electronic passbook) to securely store personal financial information.
There are still many challenges, agendas and biases in the household that women entrepreneurs have to confront. They need mentoring and a support network because so often there is little or no support within the family.
A woman who raised sheep and goats came to the bank wanting a loan to buy a mobile phone so she could talk to her children when she was away working. She also asked us to show her how to operate the phone. This led to the launch of a business school programme to teach women in a day-long workshop how to operate mobile phones, how to buy minutes and other basic skills like using calculators.
Mann Deshi also introduced a Deshi MBA programme for these rural entrepreneurs to provide training in such areas as cash management, self-management and mentorship.
And because the women cannot travel, we established a business school bus that travels to them.
It is so important to change attitudes towards these impoverished women. This is why we set up a community radio station, so women can share experiences; some become quite famous and the result is that families often become more supportive.
Microcredit is good, but it is not enough for entrepreneurs; they need larger amounts of capital. Microcredit works by pooling resources, it depends on the group. But entrepreneurs need to develop individual credit credibility. This is why we focus our efforts on individuals.
Often a solution to a challenge is not only simple, it has far-reaching consequences.
A young girl came to the bank asking to work for two months through her school holidays. She wanted to go to high school, but as there was no transport she wanted to save to buy a bicycle. I was humbled by this girl’s determination and the insight she offered.
The best way to create a woman entrepreneur is to help her stay in education, through high school and beyond. She receives an education and she delays getting married and having a family, giving her greater control over her life.
All this from a bicycle.
So we started a programme to help girls own bicycles to get to school. Since 2003, when the programme began,10,000 girls have bought bicycles.
A simple idea, inspired by one girl; and yet such a powerful solution.
Author: Chetna Vijay Sinha, Founder of Mann Deshi Foundation, India
Image: A school girl walks on a road covered with oil and soot at an industrial area in Mumbai. REUTERS/Arko Datta.