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The Secret is Out: Dialogue in Demand

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Mhaswad, MAHARASHTRA – This week I am reporting from probably the remotest village an ACCION Ambassador will venture. I may even put money on that one. Eighteen hours by train north and then two hours by car east of Bangalore on the banks of the Mann River (currently a dry gravel gully) is sleepy Mhaswad; where the terrain is strikingly reminiscent of Wyoming or eastern Colorado but the variegated livestock roaming the bazaar quickly reminds me I am still in India. On the same unnamed street (which the locals call it Bank Street) there are town’s three banks all next to each other. On the corner, Mann Deshi Mahila Bank stands the beacon of Bank Street.

 

Mann Deshi founder and CEO Chetna Madam (in blue sari with forehead bindi) at an entrepreneurs awards ceremony in Bombay

Upon walking in the office, I could not help but notice the wall of awards, plaques, and certificates Mann Deshi has received for their commitment to financially empowering rural women.  I had the privilege of staying with Mann Deshi founder and CEO Chetna Sinha and (besides enjoying Maharashtran home cooking) discussed her vision for the bank and new relationship with ACCION. Founded in 1997 as a cooperative bank of 500 women and 6000/USD, Mann Deshi has been a safe place for the women in Mhaswad to save their wages and has since grown to be the largest MFI in the state of Maharashtra with more than 100,000 clients offering savings accounts, loans, pensions, and insurance.

 

In addition to the gamut of financial services, Mann Deshi has an extensive client education system. All women who take out their first loan with Mann Deshi are required to take Basic Financial Literacy training, which includes how to save and the basics of how interest rates work. Once the women successfully repay their first loan and are disbursed their second and larger loan, they are offered Advanced Financial Literacy training where they learn how to budget for larger repayments and the value of pensions and insurance. But that was where the client education road ended.

 

Chetna founded Mann Deshi because she saw an unmet demand for savings accounts catering to the needs of rural women. Similarly, she heard the clamor of her clients for business training and assistance in scaling up.  Mann Deshi, ever responsive to client demand, developed the Deshi MBA program to teach marketing, cash management, and leadership skills in order to accelerate the transition of working capital to profit. Sound familiar?

 

The Deshi MBA program is delivered in four workshops that include training modules similar to Sthreejyoti. Last year they introduced the program to 273 women. Initially Mann Deshi developed and delivered their homegrown modules but results from their first impact assessment revealed curriculum development is not a Mann Deshi core competency.  The bankers, for obvious reasons, had difficulties thinking like educators and struggled with developing a pedagogy that would not only resonate with their clients but would be in simple, digestible language. Not only that, but the cost of developing their own materials would, in the long run, divert resources away from their savings and lending products.

 

What do Siddhartha Gautama and two dozen Mann Deshi clients have in common? Enlightenment under a bodhi tree.

Enter ACCION. Mann Deshi was informed of Dialogue on Business through Dasra, a client education NGO, who advised not to take on the “Herculean job” of developing their own modules. Having partnered with ACCION since summer 2010, what impresses Mann Deshi about Dialogue on Business was not only the comprehensive curriculum but also ACCION’s delivery channel (Mann Deshi also considered training materials from Citi Foundation but Citi didn’t offer a delivery mechanism); what is essentially a ‘ponzi scheme’ of instructors that can quickly and easily share knowledge. Mostly, Chetna is impressed with how Sthreejyoti is able to teach high-minded financial and entrepreneurial concepts through creative stories and examples relevant to the student. Mann Deshi plans on using all of the Dialogue materials in their Deshi MBA program.

 

Chetna is realistically optimistic about the future of the Deshi MBA program. “We have the right formula: client demand and tried and true ACCION materials and methodology.” By the end of the year she hopes to have reached 400 women entrepreneurs, and by 2014, expects to have brought 5000 women through the program, which I personally think is entirely attainable. More encouraging, Chetna hopes the partnership with ACCION will be a lasting and reciprocal. She feels the feedback from Mann Deshi clients would improve how ACCION develops and delivers its modules, and that ACCION would continue to not only provide support and advice in helping Mann Deshi entrepreneurs scale up their businesses, but also how Mann Deshi itself can scale up their client education program.

 

Leaving Mhaswad, I felt proud to be associated with ACCION. Even though I am just an Ambassador, a temporal guest, I garnered a sense of pride to be a part of an organization that is changing the way that women entrepreneurs are growing in their business acumen, and part of an organization that is growing in influence and reputation; even in the most rural parts on the subcontinent. Those of you readers who are ACCION, you should garner the most pride.

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