Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank is India’s first bank run for and managed by low-income rural women. MOIN QAZI highlights a unique initiative in which last-mile female agents of the bank are equipping women in remote villages with digital literacy tools and skills to enable them to access financial services affordably and conveniently.
MHASWAD village is a mere blip on India’s vast geographic radar but it shines brightly on the country’s development landscape. Women here are seeding a digital revolution here that is enabling financial security and well-being for low-income women in remote villages.
Located in the rain shadow region of Satara district, Maharashtra’s sugar bowl, it faces perennial drought and agrarian distress. However, a unique movement involving several thousand women has quietly made the development landscape greener.
The movement began with the Mann Deshi Foundation in 1996 and was started by a trained economist Chetna Sinha who combined her intellect with her passion for rural uplift.
She used local villages as crucibles for some of the most revolutionary experiments in social innovation and entrepreneurship.
Run entirely for and by women, the Foundation has so far reached out to four lakh rural women. Mann Deshi’s field leaders have been able to uncover deep and varied nuances of poverty’s problems at the local level and are accordingly fashioning interventions to address them.
One of the first innovations of the foundation was the establishment of Mann Desh Mahila Sahakari Bank. The bank has done pioneering work in financially empowering women in remote villages.
Among the recent achievements is a cadre of female digital literacy agents who are bringing women in remote villages into the fold of a digital world. The programme adopts an innovative model (training of community members) and unique approach (tapping into technology to promote livelihoods) to bridge the digital divide and empower rural women.
These women attend a one-week intensive, hands-on training on how to use smart devices. It qualifies them to become a digital trainer, known as “Digital Didis,” didi being the Hindi word for “sister.”
Digital Didi is a rural woman equipped with skills and knowledge to impart digital literacy to women in the confines of their humble dwellings.
The programme, launched three years back by Mann Deshi, has full-time mobile trainers supported by digitally-able entrepreneurs who coordinate the programme. They are all building the social rails of a local e-Bazar. Mann Deshi is proposing a package of supports and services that ensure women’s long-term and robust use of digital financial services.
Combining digital financial literacy with convenient access, building trust through local female agents recruited from within the community, providing nudges and reminders through repeated door-to-door visits and assisted transactions for carefully identified use cases has created a silent digital revolution in remote parts of the region.
Driven by their passion and an urge to do something for their society, these female agents are bringing women from remote rural villages into the digital ecosystem.
As part of digital literacy, Mann Deshi provides guided online experiences that help users discover and mine information that is most useful and relevant to their life – information that can eventually decrease the current information gap faced in the remote hamlets.
The project is successfully nurturing a growing community of digitally-savvy women who act as proponents and torch-bearers of the digital literacy programme. Mann Deshi has undertaken a user awareness exercise to highlight the safety of digital payments as well as the ease of using digital payments for everyday use cases.
Vanita Shinde, the backbone
The backbone of this innovative idea is Vanita Shinde, a self-inspired entrepreneur, whose passion for infusing professionalism in rural women entrepreneurs has helped unleash a wave of creativity in these women. Vanita comes from a humble beginning but she is a tenacious woman with a unique brand of determination. She is the administrative head of the Mann Deshi Business School where she introduced training modules in entrepreneurship using a pedagogy that is extremely accessible for semi-literate women. She uses native jargon for explaining advanced concepts and techniques.
Vanita is using the same lessons to replicate and scale the Digital Didi initiative. She envisions an ecosystem that can help all women who are part of the Mann Deshi movement become digitally proficient. “The new age will be the digital age. It’s going to be the survival of the digitally fit. Women of my generation have paid the cost of illiteracy. But I don’t want the new generation to pay a price for digital illiteracy. I want to go further and enable them to reap the fruits of digitisation”, avers Vanita.
The Digital Didis help overcome geographic, technology, knowledge and trust barriers standing between the poor and the resources and information they need to pave their way out of poverty.
Armed with the newly-acquired digital skills, these women feel liberated and acknowledge that their work has now become remunerative and satisfying. They connect their communities to information, tools and resources that change lives.
Poor people don’t just lack money. They lack access to information and resources the rest of us take for granted. The digital literacy programme introduces women to digital banking, ATMs and cashless apps. This connects women to larger markets and financial infrastructure, builds credit history and makes business payments easier to manage. Most importantly, it gives them a stronger financial identity.
Digital financial services—using basic-feature mobile phones to safely save, borrow, make payments and use insurance—enable women to save and manage money without having to travel endless hours or pay expensive cash transaction fees. It also gives women the power and opportunity to improve their lives and have a voice in their community.
Technology-driven business and commercial practices are now becoming a part of the daily life of women even in the remote hamlets of Mhaswad. This has ripple effects: their business has expanded without much additional investment in manpower; they are better able to monitor and supervise their businesses; their business processes have also become highly efficient.
Digital access helps women refine vocational skills (by taking online classes in agriculture, tailoring, livestock rearing, and more), improve financial literacy, keep up with government programs that benefit their families, and learn about nutrition.
The programme aims to empower the Digital Didis to extend the initiative’s impact beyond their digital literacy engagement. Given the knowledge and credibility they have gained in their communities, these women disseminate and gather valuable information that can help strengthen digital trade in rural areas.
Each Digital Didi has a full-time dedicated role of imparting not just digital literacy but also integrating digital tools in daily business operations and also navigating household transactions such as payment of utilities, accessing public services for health and other social benefits with online tools. She serves a cluster of 15 villages and receives a monthly compensation of Rs 8,000-10,000. The participants are spread over 12 districts of Maharashtra.
The programme uses a variety of innovative and user-friendly tools such as pictorial charts, comics, storytelling and classroom training. It takes around three months for an average participant to become digitally literate and by the end of the programme the trainees are able to confidently use digital tools in their personal and business lives.
With the right mixture of group activities, theory, practice, videos and other interactive discussions, cognitive thinking is stimulated.
Mann Deshi believes that digital inclusion can empower women not only in enhancing individual agency but also in dismantling hostile norms surrounding gender.
The trainers handhold the trainees throughout their digital journey so that their digital lives remain free of frictions. The training pedagogy is so friendly that digital tools get seamlessly integrated into daily lives.
The whole programme has a cascading effect with trainees becoming the new role models and mascots for their communities. It imbues other women to catch on to the ongoing wave.
Fifty-five-year-old Akkatai Veerkar has never been to school and works as a vegetable vendor. Today, she listens intently to the teacher in front of her explain the benefits of digital finance. Akkataii is one of 20 women sitting in a bus parked at the Mhaswad weekly market where they sell a variety of household items every Wednesday. “I always thought that using an ATM card was tough and only for educated people. But now I realise how easy it is! I can’t wait to start using mine,” she says. “I am excited to learn about mobile apps that help transfer money. It will make it so much easier to pay the farmer from whom I buy my grains,” she adds.
“While introducing women entrepreneurs to the benefits of cashless transactions is one aspect of this initiative, it’s larger objective is to connect them to bigger markets, create cash flow records, and generally make business payments easier,” says Vanita Shinde.
Vanita is not a lone crusader. Her natural organising skills have always marked her out as a great social mobiliser. The huge social capital generated at Mann Deshi is emblematic of her people skills. That was her first revolution. In the second revolution, she wants to translate this social capital into digital capital.
Instead of adopting mass-produced generic digital training modules, Mann Deshi uses a cutting-edge approach in all its interventions. Its uniqueness lies in customising all its programmes and processes to tailor them to the local context. Several small businesswomen trained by it have started using social media tools like Facebook and Instagram for promoting their products.
Initiatives like Digital Didi have great potential and offer useful lessons for development policymakers and practitioners. The government can complement the efforts of crusaders like Chetna Sinha and Vanita Shinde by identifying, adapting and successfully scaling up promising interventions instead of rolling out more and more reforms.
(Moin Qazi is a well-known development professional. The views expressed are personal)