Empowering rural women entrepreneurs in India

Chetna Gala Sinha is Founder and Chair of Mann Deshi Foundation and Mann Deshi Bank. This International Women’s Day, we spoke to her to find out about her decades-long experience working with rural women in India and hear how COVID-19 has changed their entrepreneurial landscape.

Mann Deshi is working with YBI through our COVID-19 Rapid Response & Recovery Programme funded by Google.org.

What is the situation currently at Mann Deshi? Are you back in the office?

Yes, we’re back in the office. We’re maintaining hygiene very strictly with hand sanitisers and social distancing because we have been running a COVID hospital at Mann Deshi for the past six months. We are located in such a remote location that there’s no hospital for 150 kilometers and we used to have many cases of COVID. We decided we needed to do something and agreed with the government that we would set up a hospital and they would run it.

Can you tell me about the area where Mann Deshi is located?

The location is called Mhaswad. It’s a very small town in a very remote location often affected by drought. We are in the state of Maharashtra, seven hours from Mumbai.

Could you talk about your role in founding Mann Deshi Foundation and Mann Deshi Bank?

I was born and raised in Mumbai, and as a student I joined the youth movement of the Gandhian leader Jayaprakash Narayan. At that time, I was not even 20 years old, but in Gandhian organisations, you always have to work in the villages. So I traveled around rural India championing land rights and social issues. In Mhaswad, I met my husband, who is a farmer, and we got married and I moved here in 1987. I began working with local women here to empower them. I set up the Mann Deshi Foundation in 1996 and in 1997 I set up the Mann Deshi Bank.

In your early days working in Mhaswad, what you were focusing on?

In India, around 1993-94, there was a constitutional amendment that said village councils needed to be composed of 30% women. Women were being put into these positions, but men would really have the control. There was also a great deal of migration at that time as nearly 80% of the men would migrate for work. So the majority of the households were female-led but there was no place where they could save their money. We set up Mann Deshi Bank to help solve this problem, and by 2000 the bank became a profitable institution. However, women still needed lots of information, training, and knowledge about business, which the bank couldn’t provide by itself. So we set up Mann Deshi’s first business school in 2006. 

What are the specific problems faced by women in Mhaswad?

Firstly, there was the issue of them wanting to control their finances but not having the opportunity. At that time, literacy education was very low due to the remoteness, and because of the drought, women used to get married off by the parents at a very young age. Women were aware that if they had control of their finances, the decision-making would definitely go to them. 

How has the situation for women changed since you first started Mann Deshi?

Yesterday, we had a meeting of all our women, and I was surprised to see that we have two generations. Mann Deshi Bank has existed for 24 years, and the second generation is now educated and working in agricultural group businesses, or they have very good jobs. Before, women used to work on construction sites carrying heavy materials or go to Mumbai and steal on the street. That is no longer happening.

How has COVID-19 impacted women in the area?

From 24th March 2020, we had the strictest lockdown in the world. That made life very difficult for our women because many of them are street vendors who grow vegetables and sell outside. Many of their husbands also lost their jobs. Immediately, Mann Deshi Foundation and Bank began relief work providing them with emergency 15-day kits to survive, to keep their stomach fed.

We saw that the women-led small businesses that survived were the ones with high savings. So we also immediately designed some credit programmes to sustain these women’s livelihoods. One thing which was unexpected was that because of the lockdown some products became very important, like groceries, masks, and gloves. So many women shifted to producing these.

So we started delivering virtual training for women on how to pick a new business venture, like how to prepare masks. We were amazed at how quickly they adapted. We saw that men often didn’t have many ideas about how to do economic activity from home, whereas women did because they are used to running a business from home while also taking care of the housework.

You’re working with YBI through the Rapid Response and Recovery programme funded by Google.org. Can you tell me about some of the work that you’ve implemented?

Everything digitalisation became very important and immediate, so the first thing was that we digitised our business school for women. Within four months we had trained nearly 8,000 women in things like digital and financial literacy and group businesses. We started digital advisory clinics on Zoom to help women get licensed for grocery businesses. We encouraged women to use whatever digital platforms were available, like Instagram or WhatsApp for Business, to help their business thrive.

The second thing we did was to create a digital platform ourselves. So we set up www.MannDeshieBazaar.com to sell women’s products online. We did the whole Diwali festival on this website.

The Google.org support meant households could continue getting income, even when schools were shut and many women’s husbands lost their jobs.

“Within four months we had trained nearly 8,000 women in things like digital and financial literacy and group businesses.”

What is women’s digital connectivity like in Mhaswad?

Almost every household here has a mobile phone, though it may not be a smartphone, so it was very easy for us to send them messages. We prepared audio tutorials on topics like marketing from a studio and sent them via text message. But some things you do need a smartphone for, like to see images, so we also created a credit product to give loans for smartphones. Now, more than 60% of the households here have smartphones.

“The Google.org support meant households could continue getting income, even when schools were shut and many women’s husbands lost their jobs.”

What support have you received from Google volunteers through the Rapid Response and Recovery programme?

Google volunteers have run training sessions on digital strategy, planning, and branding. One volunteer did digital marketing training for entrepreneurs in July and August, just before Diwali. These workshops really helped women a lot because during the festival most of the shops were not open, so they got lots of market opportunity to sell food, drink, and traditional candles online.

What do you think the effects of this intense digital transition will be for women long-term?

The first thing I realise when I meet women is that the strong businesses have not stopped. Not only that, but yesterday in one of our meetings, one of our women spoke up – her name is Manisha Jiman. She said she never thought that her life would change so drastically because she got married at the age of 14, after she had just completed the 10th grade. Since then she has worked on the family farm and in the pandemic she started selling milk. She downloaded an accounting app on her mobile and started collecting digital payments. She was the first woman and first person in her village to do that. Men started saying to her: “Why don’t you teach us?”

Manisha told us: “I was always thinking about how I couldn’t complete my undergraduate programme. I wanted to study, I couldn’t do it, but now I have become a teacher here.”

Learn more about Mann Deshi’s work at www.manndeshifoundation.org.

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