By Moin Qazi
I vividly remember my moment of epiphany. It was a balmy afternoon in early 1996 in Warora, a small town in northern Maharashtra. I was posted there as the manager of a bank’s branch. I was busy trawling through the day’s mail and going about my tasks. Although transactions had not commenced, there was, as usual, an undisciplined crowd of customers waiting for the main door to swing open.
I was distracted by the yells of customers and the clumping of heavy boots of clients from the military barracks, when my assistant interrupted me saying a group of women wanted to meet me.
At first, I hesitated, but my instincts suggested otherwise. I agreed. I beckoned them to sit. Wasting no time, the group’s leader said they were seeking a loan to set up a business. They answered each of my questions confidently. Finally, I fired a fast one” “How will you repay the money? It is not a government dole. Every pie must be returned. What can you offer as security in lieu of this loan?” The women turned to each other, looking for answers. The chirpiest in the group was the demure and petite Veena Raut, a commerce graduate, who later assumed the stewardship of the group.
Their pitch was essentially that I should give them a chance only if I trusted them, and they would live up to my expectations. These women represented the aspiring generation that was trying its luck with innovative development strategies that were being aggressively promoted both by the government and the banking sector. This was also the time when if you asked somebody about the most promising innovation for women’s development, the answer would invariably be ‘microcredit’.
Microcredit had emerged as a powerful tool for shaping the entrepreneurial impulses of the impoverished—particularly women. It involved small loans (microloans) being given to a group of people who typically lacked collateral, steady employment and verifiable credit history.
Group loans to women were highly popular, and we had seen good results in rural areas. I was thus keen to try it with the women in Warora.
I visited the women in their homes and was impressed by their determination and solidarity. Their cautious approach could be mistaken as a lack of confidence, but with time, I understood them better. After a few meetings, in which I addressed all their queries, the group was formally launched.
With the help of the district administration, I helped the group secure a grant for a two-week Entrepreneurship Development Programme (EDP) for development of relevant business and managerial skills, business planning, technical training related to the production of goods, book-keeping and inventory management, preparation of business plans for loans, and storage and warehousing. This incubation helped boost their overall confidence and skills.
The group was christened Priyadarshini Mahila Udyog. I decided to devote each Sunday for a month to help the group establish its business. The nearest industrial township in Nagpur assisted the group in designing their gadgets and machinery.
We would travel to Nagpur by jeep in the morning and return to Warora in the evening. A few visits helped crystallise our plans. We decided to purchase scaled-down versions of the equipment used for manufacturing food items for schoolchildren.
One of the industrial units supplied a modified popcorn-manufacturing machine suitable for local needs. It could be operated on petroleum gas. He also introduced us to a local printer who agreed to supply polythene packets in bulk with the group’s logo branded on them. A candle manufacturer had one standard mould. He later helped us acquire several moulds from Mumbai for fancy candles which won the unit a strong brand in the district.
The Municipal Council of Warora solved the marketing issue with bulk orders for chalk sticks, candles and broomsticks. The local grocers offered to serve as retail outlets for the unit. The Hindustan Petroleum Corporation provided priority connection for LPG, and the Municipal Council provided a shop in its commercial complex at a fair discount. The State Electricity Board provided a priority electric connection.
Veena later graduated to become an assistant in the government’s development administration and is now a Village Officer heading the administration of a large village in Yavatmal district.
Priyadarshini Mahila Udyog has since been shepherded by Minakshi Wankhede, who also doubles as a home guard with the local police authorities. Her association with the local police has boosted the business in various ways. Minakshi’s leadership augured well for the group.
As the group’s capital increased, it decided to diversify, acquiring a machine for making vermicelli and another for camphor balls. In their spare time, the women would engage in tailoring work, the most popular being the stitching of pico falls.
Soon, a flood of accolades followed, with Priyadarshini Mahila Udyog even being facilitated by the prime minister. These achievements put the group on a new growth trajectory; it bid and won the tender to supply mid-day meals to school children.
The unit now supplies mid-day meals to over 1000 children, and gives dignified employment for a dozen women.
Cooking begins at 9 am in the industrial kitchen, which is a tarp hung on four posts jabbed into an empty patch. An all-female crew prepares giant vats of savoury rice and lentil porridge. Workers cook several kilograms of rice, curry and vegetables in giant steel pots. They stir curry with paddles the size of oars.
During one of my visits to the schools where these ladies served meals, the teachers commented on the excellent quality of food. Earlier they had to throw away half the supply because of its insipid taste, I was told. Now there are no leftovers. Some children even bring tiffins to take back some food to their homes.
Priyadarshini Mahila Udyog’s latest success is the sanction of an outlet in the public distribution system, the government programme that supplies subsidised food grains to the poor. The honesty of the group members is reflected in the happiness of consumers; they get the full eligible ration on time and at fair rates. This has helped other PDS outlets too. As in all spheres, benchmarking improves ethical practices.
Fast forward to 2018.
Twenty years is a long period for women from varying religious, linguistic and caste hues to remain under a common umbrella. Life has changed in other ways too.
The younger members of the Priyadarshini Mahila Udyog left Warora after getting married, others retired. Of the original group, only three members remain—Minakshi, Shashi Narole and Zaibun. Though age has mellowed them, the youthful glint is palpable. They now live in better homes, their children lead better and healthier lives, and they have investments in bank deposits and plots of land.
The group’s journey has great lessons for me, as for the larger society. The lives of its members are inspiring stories of resolute perseverance and dignity. Putting the right supporting structures in place can make the ecosystem for female entrepreneurs more congenial and foster a culture of equality. Entrepreneurship is a powerful path to reducing poverty and empowering women. It creates financial independence, which is modern society’s strongest currency.
Moin Qazi is the author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker.
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