I wait in the Ritz Carlton lobby to meet up with Chetna at the Annual Global Women in Leadership Economic Forum 2016 held in Dubai recently. As she approaches me in a lilac pink saree paired with traditionally designed earrings, she exchanges pleasantries in a soft voice and holds my hand with a touch so warm that I
easily connect to her.
It is not difficult to comprehend then, how Chetna has been able to turn every challenge into an opportunity for the over 225,000 customers she serves across the 7 Mann Deshi Mahila Shakti Bank branches, with over 10,000 daily transactions and has lent over 9 million dollars (AED33,056,550) with a 98 per cent repayment rate. The bank has indeed become a vehicle for the rural women to develop their businesses, and their families; free themselves from maledomination; and find their own path.
It all began in1987, after working with the renowned socialist Jayaprakash Narayan’s organisation against emergency–Sangharsh Vahini and later with Sharad Joshi’s Shetkari Sanghatna (farmers organization). She moved to a village, Mhaswad after marriage, a bold decision to marry another Shetkari activist— Vijay, who was a farmer with a completely different lifestyle than she was used to as a city-bred girl.
Squatting in the open with pigs to push away, waiting for hours for buses, lack of electricity and non-availability of mainstream newspapers were only a few of the many challenges she faced.
Due to a weak village economy, most men from these villages had migrated to cities, leaving the women behind to take care of the family.
“The women here were illiterate and were involved in low-profit jobs ranging from farming and animal rearing, to small businesses like running tea-stalls or pottery.”
Progress came by as villagers approached her with their problems for guidance. Kantabai, an iron-smith, approached Chetna asking for her assistance to open a savings account in a bank in her village to save enough to buy a plastic sheet to protect her children from the approaching seasonal rains.
Around the same time, in around 1996, a committee appointed by RBI suggested inclusion of communities like women, tribes and youth for an inclusive approach to finance and reach in rural areas. This helped Chetna’s cause. Kantabai’s case made her think that perhaps starting a bank was the way forward.
She put together a proposal. She mobilised about 1,100 women to collect a mandatory amount of share capital–Rs 600,000 (AED 32,600). “None of this was easy. We went to the Reserve Bank of India seeking a
license for a micro-financing bank with 17 Promoting Members who were women from low-income groups, averaging Rs40 (AED2) per day.
“My background with public life and knowledge of economics helped, but back then very few women ventured in this sector and even RBI was nervous about the idea because they had never issued a license for such a bank.” The proposal was rejected because the 17 village women, had used thumb impressions on the documents as
they couldn’t sign.
“At that moment, even though I became despondent, the women decided to continue the fight. They were not boggled down by the news, they said ‘teach us how to sign and we’ll do this again’.” Within a year, they went to RBI headquarters with Chetna and got their license. Mann Deshi Mahila Shakti Bank became the first rural
women’s bank started by women without any outside financial support.
However, Chetna saw that setting up the bank was only the first step towards helping them. “These women would not travel to the bank regularly to deposit their money because then they would lose working hours. Also, keeping a physical pass-book was not an option, as they were apprehensive about their husbands discovering the amount they saved, thus Mann Deshi came up with the idea of smart bank. Mann Deshi thus initiated
Says Chetna, once an Economics professor in a Mumbai college, “We reinvented banking to reach women where mainstream institutions and processes don’t work.”
In another unique service for female entrepreneurs, Mann Deshi sends its representatives to local markets every day to take care of vegetable vendors who need loans to buy from wholesalers. “Our staff goes to the markets as human ATMs,” says Chetna. “We provide women with capital at the time and place they need it most–on the road.”
She asserts that financial inclusion is not just a low-interest bank account or a loan, “you need to design your product based on the cash flow and needs of the population you’re trying to serve.”
To change the status quo of women at a social level, the bank also took the initiative of giving rebate on property loans, for land to be owned or co-owned by women. Thereby encouraging property ownership by women. Today the bank provides loans, savings plans, pension, and insurance to 25,000 entrepreneurs every year.
Mann Deshi’s non-profit arm, the Mann Deshi Foundation, operates training centers at each branch, offering everything from one-day courses in financial literacy to a year-long course on running a business to
empower these rural women entrepreneurs. “We have directly supported over 300,000 women and girls, which impacts the whole community.”
In 2012, the bank established India’s first women’s Chamber of Commerce to offer support to female entrepreneurs. Chetna decided to start the chamber after the police detained one of her bank’s entrepreneurs.
Bainabai Kantilal Sagar was taken out of school and married off at the age of nine. A few years later, she was a single mother facing her son’s medical bills alone. To manage expenses, Bainabai used a Mann Deshi loan to start a teashop, where she made tea on a stove that used her domestic gas connection. She didn’t know using gas subsidized for home use in a business was against the law until the police stormed into her shop and arrested her.
With no one else to turn to, she contacted Chetna at Mann Deshi who helped release her from police custody
and get back into business.
To help women in similar situations, Mann Deshi set up a toll-free hotline in 2014, which is an extension of the
Chamber of Commerce, helping women get business licenses and resolve legal issues.
Talking at length with Chetna brings to the forefront, that the key to her finding solutions has always been organic. She takes cue from the problem at hand and reinvents as per the need of the hour.
“50-year-old Laxmibai came to our bank requesting a loan to buy a cell phone. Our bank staff assumed that her son was pressurizing her to buy it and thought it would only add to her expense. But when asked, she explained that as a shepherdess she spends six months away from family every year and wants the phone to keep in
touch with them. Before leaving, she also asked, “Why don’t you teach us how to use cell phones?”
Says Chetna, “This compelled us to start a business school a few months later and Mahila Udyog by 2007 to provide non-financial services.” Mann Deshi Business School offers vocational skills like tailoring, repair work etc. and also soft skills like financial management, business management, marketing, computers and other financial literacy programmes, women’s health and hygiene workshops, workshops to increase the effectiveness of women in governance, anti-liquor and women’s rights campaigns and a sports programme as well.
“We advertise this even on a Mann Deshi’s Community Radio, which not only serves as a platform for cultural exchange through folk music and stories, but is also useful for advertising our bank and other facilities.
The government uses it to create awareness for health and other issues and we allow our clients and women
entrepreneurs to advertise their products as well. It’s free space for the clients initially, but depending on the volume of their business they have to pay later.”
What is most interesting is that one amongst them rides the airwaves and hosts the show too.