After a weekend of continuous rain and hearing stories of people wading in knee deep water, I went to sleep praying it wouldn’t rain on Monday. Fortunately, that came true.
I set out on Monday to see what can easily be characterized as the busiest week of the month in Swadhaar branches. Swadhaar collects monthly, making it different than many MFIs collecting on a weekly basis. They dedicate an entire week to collections, putting on hold promotions because most loan officers have quite a hefty portfolio to collect from. Sakharam, the loan officer I was supposed to follow, had two days of collections to do that Monday. He had about 200 clients to collect from during the week. That is a daunting number seeing that, for most, he would have to go door-to-door and collect. The process is lengthy and cumbersome, especially when the clients do not have their money ready.
Therefore Neelima, a loan analyst, helped out Sakharam. Now this is unusual on a couple of levels. First, there’s little crossover in terms of positions in branches; so a loan analyst doing the work of a loan officer is not usual. Second, Neelima, a woman, doesn’t fit the bill of a typical Indian loan officer. There are very few women loan officers, not because they are not qualified, but because most women chose not to apply for a position that requires them to go to strangers houses and collect, even if most are women clients. So I was pleasantly surprised when I found out I’d be shadowing Neelima. She was incredibly warm, friendly, and easy to talk to – always explaining anything I didn’t quite understand. We set out around 10:15am with the list of clients she targeted to collect from.
The first client we went to was a woman who was in her 3rd cycle and had a local shop. I decided to stay at a distance because I didn’t want to take up too much time, but I watched the interaction carefully. Even though the week would be harrowing, tiring, long, and difficult, Neelima was nothing but nice, courteous, and patient through the process. She patiently walked away as the woman said she couldn’t pay right now, and twenty seconds later called us back as she suddenly brought out the money. Neelima asked for the payment schedule, breaking down the monthly installment payments to double check against her list, collected her installment, and cut a receipt for her acknowledging the client had paid in full. I asked later why the woman claimed to not have the money before and Neelima mentioned that her husband usually takes away her money when he knows that she has some at home. Therefore she has to be very discreet. As a result, the woman’s co-signer was her daughter, not her husband. Upon inquiring if her husband even knew that she had a loan out, Neelima couldn’t come up with a clear answer, giving a sad twist to the kind of environment the client lives in. However, the silver lining is that her business over the past 3 years has grown tremendously, enough to the extent that she could afford a cooler for cold drinks and ice cream making her shelf life for her goods much longer.
One after another, we visited approximately 20 clients in the next 5 hours. That may not seem like a lot, and in all probability we were going slower than what a typical loan officer’s pace is during this week (and I’m incredibly thankful for that!), but it was a intense process in the summer heat. Often I found us going back to the same client when they weren’t there. At first I thought I was hearing excuses, but by large, that was the real reason for when we came back, they were there with the full amount. Swadhaar has a great system where each client knows their collection day, amount, and usually has an understanding as to about what time the loan officer will drop by. If for any reason they choose to pay early, they can always come by the office and make the payment. I was pleasantly surprised to see that almost all of the 20 clients paid on time with very few skipping a beat in their installments. It only went to reassure me that these services were not charity, and that this market segment was just as good at paying back a loan, if not better, than the segment that commercial banks choose to serve.
As I sat down after a long day gulping down my 4th bottle of water, I looked back on all that I had experienced that day. One story stood out. Manjula Gujarati runs one of the thousands of famed ‘tiffin’ services in Mumbai. The business aims to deliver hot home made food to people working who want a hot, fresh, home cooked meal. It’s an incredible service as Mumbai ‘tiffinwallas’ carry approximately a quarter million tiffins to their destination each day. The most amazing thing? They have managed to do this with an efficiency most Fortune 500 companies cannot boast of – they operate at a six-sigma efficiency level. However, I digress. Manjula Gujarati manages this family business along with her beautiful daughter. She’s lively, constantly on the move, offered us food, as her daughter searched for the installment schedule sheet. In the meanwhile, I ask about business and how it’s going. I find out that Krupa, Manjula’s daughter, delivers the tiffins to a particular office building and they charge approximately Rs.50 for each, covering transportation costs. But since schools are starting again and Krupa’s daughter will be acting again, Krupa will not be available. Seeing that, Manjula will reduce the price to Rs. 35 and the clients’ can pick up the tiffins on their own. Hearing this I immediately got more interested – acting? What I found out was amazing – Krupa’s 7 year old daughter works in some of the most popular soap operas in India. They proudly showed me her picture and I even recognized her! As we walked out, I asked Neelima how is it that they’re taking out a loan? They would have a great income as a result of Krupa’s daughter acting. However, Manjula doesn’t take a dime from her daughter who was recently entrenched in paying back her ex-husband’s debts as he absconded. I was thoroughly impressed. Not only were these ladies successful, but also managed their personal turmoil’s with a humility and respect that I have rarely seen. However, I’ve been witnessing the likes of these stories on a regular basis, making the time spent on the field that much more enjoyable and humbling. I’m learning as much from the clients as I am from the organizations.