Friday, July 20, 2007

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The projects Im working on right now

I realized that I haven't really been writing anything about the work Im actually doing day to day yet. In the beginning I wanted to, but it was too slow to really remark on anything interesting that was happening in the office. Things have changed since then!! Here are a couple of the major projects I'm working on

Micro Life Insurance
The Government of India has a law that that insurance companies in India have to dedicate 18% of its business to the country's "prioroty" (or economically marginalized) sector. I think its a great law, but i dont know much about its repercussions nationally. Because of this law, major Indian companies that do insurance often partner with small organizations based in rural areas to gain access to bigger markets which they cant get on their own. Mann Deshi is definitely one of the premier microfinance institutions in the state so companies are interested in partnerships with us. On our end, life insurance is another product that we can offer to our clients who otherwise wouldn't have access. Since it's not philanthropy on their part, but an actual requirement they must fill-it creates some interesting dynamics in the negotiations process, where we have more bargaining power than one would initially assume given our size

Right now we are working with a major Indian company to be able to offer various life insurance products to the bank's clients for when they take out a loan. They have the opportunity to choose the best plan. in the case of death, the bank is insured as well. Their reimbursement will go towards paying off their loan and the rest to the family of the deceased. Ive been working closely on this partnership and been responsible for our org's application to be a micro insurance agent of this company--which basically means we are the intermediary between the client and the insurance company and they will pay their monthly premiums through us.

By law, Insurance companies can't offer both life and general insurance. So we are working to find another partner that can offer our clients things like auto and agro-weather insurance.

Micro Pension
We've been partering with another company to provide a pension product to our clients. This partnership is already in place and I am working internally to help the bank devise a more efficient system to manage all of the different pension payment types (i.e. people who come to the bank to pay each month's installment versus those who live far away and come to give a lump sum for the year or so). Currently, the bank isnt using any sort of software and most of the loan clerks don't really know much about computers so there has to be a management process in place to ensure that all of the money gets sent to their pension accounts in a timely manner.

Model Village
This is the most interesting partnership I am working on. Basically, this really rich guy who is interested in doing development projects through the I-bank he currently owns, wants to work with us to design a "model village." I guess its some sort of Jeff Sachs thing, I dont know too much about it. But the basic idea is that we choose a general geographic location and various NGOs--microfinance, green, social, etc. work in accordance to create a holistic sort of development in the village. The idea hinges on each of these issues (microfinance, green, social work) work better when they are interdependent with eachother. Anyway, we would be the microfinance expert who would come in. Its a great opportunity for us to expand our bank operations without dealing with all the regulatory issues of setting up a new branch. They would give us 1 crore (10 million Rs) to lend over the course of a year and everything would be done under their name. As the microfinance experts, we would be running the branch activities and gaining the new clients as equity holders for our bank. The revenue from interest paid back on the loans would be split between us somehow (likely as a form of commision for us), and they really want to split the costs 50/50 (we would rather not!). Anyway, Ive been tasked with coming up with the projections to assess the profitability for us in the project. Assuming different sort of scenarios in how the partnership would work. It's a lot of number crunching, but interesting nonetheless. Ive also been a part of the negotiations which has been fascinating.

In our last meeting he brought up the idea of working with engineering companies on setting up biomass plants to provide electricty to rural areas that can then be used to sell "carbon credit" on the international market. Assuming those discussions go anywhere, expect a future blog entry about "carbon credit!"

Ok, this is really done now.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

I've been in Pune since Wednesday. It'sa pretty big collegetown in Maharashstra, about a 4 hour drive from my village here. Of course, when we came here it took about 7 hours. We caught a ride in the bank's bus which is currently set to become a mobile business school--it will be able to bring the services of the business school to women in more remote areas and do not have access to the branch locations where classes are currently being held.

The van needed to be brought to Pune to get fixed up to be a "mobile classroom." We spent about 2 hours sitting in a big autoshop on the outskirts of the city to figure out how we were going to design the school. It was pretty interesting, but there were some hardcore mosquitoes in the autoshop and i came looking like I had some wierd allergic outbreak.

After that was over the next day we decided to attend some workshop that is happening here. This girl who is a friend of the family to Chetna, the woman who runs our bank has set up a program that brings students from the UK to India and sets them up with various NGOs around the country. Part of the program is a 2 week long "training" in Pune where various left wing activists come and tell these kids who know nothing about India what a horrible, violent and backwards place it is. It was pretty amusing, and also rather infuriating at the same time.

We were lectured on caste and communalism. One guy did a lecture on how the third world is treated in the conventional human rights discourse.That was pretty interesting because the guy pointed to a lot of the misrepresentation of India and other global south countries and how foreigners tend to approach development in a very myopic way when they come to countries like India to do NGO work--it was sort of pissing off these kids because they were like "well, I came here to save India from itself, and youre telling me im an orientalist?" It was pretty funny to watch.
On friday there was a lecture on healthcare in India--this was probably the most fruitful thing I got out of the 2 days here because I didnt know much about public health in India and the man lecturing seemed more rational and objective then the people speaking before him about the other social justice topics.

I head back to Mhaswad tomorrow, probably by bus...hopefully I'll be alive to write another blog entry in the coming weeks.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Lakshmi Shellar

One of the projects I am on right now is to help Mann Deshi make a film about the new business school it has started for rural women here. Part of my assignment has been to interview some of the women that will be in the film. One of these women is named Lakshmi Shellar. At 13, her father pulled her out of 7th grade and married her off to a 65 year old man as his second wife. She gave birth to her first child at 14, and her second child at 16. During her pregnancy, her husband suffered a paralysis attack and died. She was pregnant and widowed at 17, when most girls are only beginning to think about marriage here.

I met her at the bank and she told me to come to her house this evening. Some dude named Ganesh picked me up on his motorcyle and drove me to Lakshmi’s house at around dusk. I thought it would be in Mhaswad, but it was on the outskirts of the village in an even more rural area than I already live in (I find it ironic that I look to Mhaswad as “the city” now).

Lakshmi lived in a very small, markedly poor community amidst lots of potato fields. When I arrived Ganesh, my driver/translator tells me he doesn’t speak English and will translate Marathi to Hindi…great. Even better, I walk inside and realize that I left my notepad at the office and thus had to take notes on my laptop. I embarrassingly take out my bright white apple notebook in the middle of this woman’s little house (of course everyone in the village in standing in the house staring at me at this point).

After some awkward/botched translations and a good 15 minutes of incomprehension on both sides—in true Indian fashion, she offers me chai. She goes into the kitchen to prepare it and the other boys and girls in the village start a conversation with me. At this point I put my laptop away, convinced that this interview isn’t going anywhere. My guard drops a bit and I start a small talk conversation with the random people in the living room (it seems like every house you enter into here there are always random relatives, friends, people off the street just hanging around). Ironically, through this conversation I end up getting the answers I need for the interview—whereas before I felt like no one knew the answers to what I was asking. This is where my dad’s advice came in handy (“In India, you have to ask people the same questions 3-5 times before you get an answer”).

I found out that Lakshmi is currently a farmer by day and walks 2-3 hours everyday to get to Mann Deshi to participate in financial literacy courses at the bank’s business school. While she attends the business school, she returns to her village to teach the women there what she is learning. She has been running a literacy school for the women in her village for quite some time now. Currently, she is implementing financial literacy into the curriculum. She is basically going through a sort of “train the trainer” program where she is a student at the business school and dispersing her knowledge to the adult women farmers in her village.

I found her back story quite depressing when I read it, but she quite a woman in person. She is very authoritative and all of the young men who were hanging about seemed to have a great deal of respect for her. They were commenting on how intelligent she is despite her life hurdles and lack of education. After the interview and the best cup of chai I have had in India thus far, we went out into their yard and they showed me their cows and buffalo. On the way back, Ganesha showed me some of the farms and talked a little about life in that area.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Vanita Pise

I had the pleasure of meeting Vanita Pise, who is one of the bank’s success stories yesterday. She came by the office, and I didn’t have much to do so she offered to show me and some of the other not-so-busy volunteers her home and her businesses. (Side note: so far work has been slow, and I haven’t really had the chance to work on anything interesting, hopefully that will change!) We walked through some of the backstreets of Mhaswad until we finally arrived at her place, which looked like it was part of a small community of houses that collectively raised farm animals and such.

In 1997, her husband’s state driven poultry business had failed, leaving the family $1,225 in debt. Vanita, despite her husband’s protests, took a loan from Mann Deshi for a buffalo and began rearing buffalos and goats and selling the milk from house to house. Since then she has taken on a variety of business ventures from her home. She still struggles to retain savings because she is currently responsible for supporting her 18 person extended family!

Vanita doesn’t speak English—only Marathi and Hindi—therefore I was deemed the “Hindi translator” of our little tour group (for those of you who have witnessed my Hindi skills, you are probably very amused by this). I was impressed by how many businesses she was able to run simultaneously. She produced paper cups that were sold to Mumbai for use in weddings, and temple offerings. Additionally, she also produces flour—and is about to start a clothing line! (no joke). All completely different trades, meant to take advantage of the various “high profit” seasons. So for the next three months she is doing the paper cups biz—that will phase out into flour, which will then phase out into clothing.

She will be attending Mann Deshi Business School courses to help her transition into the bag and clothing business because this is green turf for her and she has no experience in the field. Additionally, she will be taking English classes through the bank to help her as her businesses expand and she can enhance the interaction that she has with her buyers and clients.

On a side note, it was rather strange to read her back story immediately before meeting her and being taken to her home to see her “factory.” Also, I got the sense that her husband was the mean, unsupportive deadbeat sort of a guy—and then meet the man in the flesh. He didn’t seem too happy to see us, and probably felt threatened (as he usually seems to, according the story) by the attention that his successful wife is receiving. When you meet this woman, and you see how far she has come—you just want to see an entirely happy ending, with all doubt in her abilities eradicated and complete support coming from her loved ones. But I guess that’s life.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007


Mhaswad is that little dot slightly west of the Solapur border (click on the pic for a larger image, also on the map its spelled "Mhasvad"). I tried to Google Earth it and all I got was some blurriness (I guess I'm in for a treat!). It is located in the Satara District, within the state of Maharashtra. Maharashtra is also home to two of India's biggest cities--Mumbai (Bombay) and Pune. I will be a good 6 hour bus ride from both of those places it sounds like.

From, I found this description:
"Our area has always faced the problem of emigration, particularly among male farmers. An annual rainfall of only 5 inches has slowed local agriculture (GDP growth in this area is less than 4% annually), driving many into urban centers in search of work. Consequently, nearly 50% of students leave school before the 10th standard in search of service sector jobs. Early in life, women become primary caregivers in the household and are forced out of schooling - for local women, the illiteracy rate is as high as 65%. Many who remain in the area are those who have no opportunities elsewhere, thus, the area is primarily comprised of scheduled caste, backward caste, and OBC members of whom over 75% are below the poverty line."

When I get there, I will have more to say about the local environment and the people there. I think that for now, this is the best introduction to life in Mhaswad I can find.

About Mann Deshi

According to the Bank's official Profile:

"The Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank (Mann Deshi) is a
regulated cooperative bank run by and for women. Located
in western Maharashtra, its mission is to provide women in
these drought-prone areas with the tools necessary for achieving
financial independence and self-sufficiency. Founded in 1997,
it is India’s first rural financial institution to receive a cooperative
license from the Reserve Bank of India."

An interesting fact I just learned while researching them is that RBI or the Reserve Bank of India has a law that all commercial banks operating within national borders must designate at least 15% of it's lending to people who constitute "the weaker sector." Naturally, these banks are encouraged to partner with MFIs (Microfinance Institutions), who can serve as "business facilitators." This sector constitutes 80% of MD's clients. Currently, Mann Deshi is partnering with HSBC Bank, and HDFC, as well as pursuing partnerships with other commercial banks in India.

Beyond its microfinance initiatives, MD has taken on some incredible new projects. Most notably, is the Mann Deshi Micro Business School for Rural Women:

"On December 2, 2006, Mann Deshi launched a Business School through a partnership with HSBC Bank. This school provides more than just vocational training for women; it teaches rural women the financial literacy and confidence building they need to successfully open or expand their micro-businesses. Designed for women without formal education and girls who drop out of high school, this Business School fills a capacity gap in the microfinance community by offering the vocational and financial training to rural women. Offering diverse courses from tailoring to computer kiosk operator to driving, These courses will be the first time for many rural women to be in an academic setting and receive a comprehensive professional training.
Since opening, the Mann Deshi Micro Business School has experienced high demand for the courses. In 2007, the Business School will open in 2 locations, with plans to expand operations to all of Mann Desihi’s branch and extension locations, including New Bombay. Also, a “Business School on Wheels” will become operational, bringing a mobile classroom to the remote areas of Maharashtra."

In my time there, I hope to see first hand how this business school is enriching the lives of the women of Satara. I have heard amazing things from people who are familiar with Mann Deshi, but I am excited to see for myself how this innovative idea is being put into practice.