Rural B-School Empowers Indian Women

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

For less than three cents a day, largely uneducated women are learning how to invest their money and run their own profitable businesses On the first day of a 10-day business course, 15 women are gathered in an 8-by-10-foot classroom in western India, absorbing the nuances of finance. Teaching in the local Marathi language, the female instructor peppers her talk with examples to explain investments, credit, profit and loss, and market accessibility. The advanced finance course also will cover such topics as how to start a business, marketing techniques, loan options for seed capital, and determining selling prices for products. And then there’s a mandatory session on building confidence.

It’s B-school, with a difference. Those who have enrolled are a far cry from typical management students anywhere else in the world. There’s a sheep and goat herder, a bangle vendor, a tea seller, a daily wage laborer, and even a homemaker. And the cost is not the thousands of dollars that a standard B-school charges?but the equivalent of $2.50 for the entire course.
A Vehicle for Independence

The Maan Deshi Udyogini Business School for rural women, founded by economist and farmer Chetna Gala Sinha last December, is gradually becoming a symbol of empowerment for women at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Situated in the dry region enveloping Mhaswad and Vaduj villages, 270 miles (430 kilometers) from Mumbai, the school is targeted at school dropouts and women without formal education.

For Gala, 48, the B-school is a logical extension of her nongovernment organization, Mann Vikas Samajik Sanstha and the associated Maan Deshi Mahila Sarkari Bank, set up a decade ago to give microloans to women. Apart from offering weekly and fortnightly credit and savings schemes to predominantly daily wage-earning customers, the bank, run by women, provides daily loans to purchase fruits and vegetables for resale. With a local microfinance community in place, Gala expects the B-school, which is spawning entrepreneurs, to boost the bank’s loans (see, 5/2/06, “Microfinance: Services the Poor Can Count On”).

“The school is a vehicle which equips poor women to achieve financial independence and self-sufficiency,” says Gala, who is known in the village by such affectionate terms as Chetnabhabhi, or Chetnadidi, which means “older sister.”
Putting Women’s Savings to Work

A once-prosperous village with cotton fields and a robust handloom weaving industry, erratic rainfall has reduced Mhaswad to a land of daily-wage laborers and shepherds. With most of the men migrating to Mumbai or other villages for better opportunities, the women are left to fend for the families. Gala, who moved to Mhaswad from Mumbai after marrying a local farmer activist, began working with local women.

Gala noticed that the poor women were not only repaying their microloans, they were also saving 1.5 cents to 60 cents a week from their daily wages, which typically range from 75 cents to $2. With no institutional saving products available, the women, who worked as daily laborers or vegetable vendors, put the surplus money in tin boxes they quietly buried in the sand around their dwellings to shield them from avaricious or drunken husbands. Or the women deposited their savings with the neighborhood grocer, who often cheated them, according to Sakhubai Lokhande, who weaves thread for brooms.

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Source: Business Week (link opens in a new window)