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The women behind Swadhaar FinAccess – and the challenges they face

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Last Thursday morning, I had the opportunity to go on a field visit as part of my role as an Ambassador this summer for Swadhaar FinAccess (the arm of Swadhaar that specializes in providing financial education to its many clients).

The slum community we visited is called Chembur, which happens to be one of the biggest slum communities in Mumbai. Swadhaar has a strong presence here – 11 people work here providing training and assistance within the community.

My task of the day was to understand the roles of each of these people (who incidentally are often also from this same community), collect feedback from them as to what the challenges are that they face, and the ideas they have to improve Swadhaar FinAccess’s results. These colleagues are the daily faces of Swadhaar in the communities and are the first ones to know when something isn’t working!

Read on for a look at each of the following Swadhaar FinAccess employees. Clockwise from the top left is Rehka, Bahkti, Surekta and Padma.

Read on for a look at each of the following Swadhaar FinAccess employees. Clockwise from the top left is Rehka, Bahkti, Surekta and Padma.

First, I met with Padma, the Mobilizer.

As her title suggests, her job is to mobilize. That means that she goes to every doorstep in the area, trying to sign-up women to attend Swadhaar’s training sessions. This isn’t an easy sell though. She has to convince the would-be students to pay 35Rps (about $1) to attend the 3-day, nearly 8 hour training. It is Padma’s job to help the women understand the real benefits they can gain from attending the training.

On average, she says that about 1/3 of the women she talks to ultimately agree to attend the training. The hardest women to convince are the older women and those who work all day and therefore do not have enough time.

I met next with Surekta, a Peer Educator.

Surekha has already attended Swadhaar trainings in the past and has been recruited just for that reason – and that she also showed exceptional leadership potential.

Her role is similar to Padma’s but she focuses on insurance. She goes to every doorstep and explains to her neighbors the benefits of having life insurance – what can be an obscure concept for some people who often out of necessity only plan for immediate financial challenges and not future ones.  She is also the one who collects the fees every month of the women who have bought the insurance, going door-to-door.

Surekha’s biggest challenge is the cash collection. It is hard to visit all the houses every month asking for money. On average, 30% of the clients can’t pay at the time, so she has to come back later to ask again. This can be a very difficult – and sensitive – task, especially at the end of the month.

Rekha is a Trainer and is responsible for conducting the financial education trainings. She also helps Padma with mobilizing when she isn’t conducting the 3-day training each week.

She loves giving the trainings and almost always gets glowing and positive feedback from the women afterwards. Her challenge however is that even though the women enjoy and learn from the training, it is very difficult to change their behavior without additional follow-up afterwards, which at the moment doesn’t exist. She would also like to convince more women to attend the training – it can still be considered odd for a woman from a community like Chembur to attend trainings like Swadhaar’s in the first place. But – people like Padma, Surekha and Rekha are changing that!

Lastly I met with Bhakti, the manager of the Chembur branch. She is responsible for coordinating the ten other women who work there and is also in charge of the Financial Information Literacy Center (FILC) – a new initiative of Swadhaar’s that just opened in January 2013. For just 100Rps per year, women can receive any information that they may need related to personal finances or opening a business.

Her key challenges are similar to Padma’s – she must convince people to become members of the  center and understand the benefits associated with it. She also needs to find some innovative way to promote it. To date, only 400 women have walked in since January.

Overall, I was impressed with how genuinely happy these women were in their jobs and they all agreed that they thought Swadhaar is doing a great service to the community. But they all also agreed that “we shouldn’t stop here!” More follow-up needs to be done, innovative solutions must be found to attract more women and additional trainings must be launched.

In particular, there is a strong demand for “business activities” trainings. Like, how to open a business? how to manage it? And, how to do it from home?

Should more local women get access to training in basic financial literacy and business activities, then the next step would be for them to apply for a micro-loan from Swadhaar FinServe to launch their business – a virtuous circle of education and financial empowerment!

Name block - David Musset

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