Microfinance Diaries: Seeing is Believing in West Bengal

The driver carved his way across northern West Bengal through territory unknown to most, including the mapmakers. Our SUV eventually rolled to a stop at the end of a dirt road where a group of village women dressed in their best and brightest saris were seated in a semi-circle on the ground. They had been waiting for hours.

And they were waiting for us.

Microfinance Group of Women - West Bengal, India
Meeting the Women of Deep Colony

We were just photographers, storytellers coming to collect some impressions for Five Talents, a microfinance organization. But the women gathered for us like we were royalty.

“What if we don’t live up to their expectations?” I wondered as I took in all their expectant faces at once.

I couldn’t fashion a better lesson in humility.

On an average day, India overwhelms. Our travels overland from its southern states to its northern border with Nepal taught this day-in, day-out. The colors never end, the cities are beautifully cacophonous and the simplicity of rural life contrasts starkly with everything a Westerner knows.

But this time was different.

If you have ever wondered what has kept me on the road for over 1000 days, I will give you a hint: it’s not the ruins and the beautiful landmarks. It’s the bumpy-road rides to remote villages like this where a group of 13 women take a loan of 175 dollars, turn it into a 350-dollar profit, and the profit ripples its way to a crossroads of social transformation.

This is microfinance at work. This is microfinance at its best.

Indian Women, Microfinance - West Bengal, India
Microfinance Group in West Bengal, India

As we depart for the Andean hill town of Huancavelica, Peru to work again with Five Talents, I’m reminded of our first project with them and the rural women and microfinance groups we encountered in northern West Bengal.

Microfinance: Balancing Theory with Reality

For over a decade, I have been reading books and articles about microfinance organizations like the Grameen Bank. Through textbook definitions I understood what microfinance could do: provide small loans to help families and communities make their way out of poverty by developing small businesses.

What I didn’t gather from my reading was the potential of microfinance programs to challenge social norms and to alter perceptions of women in society. Microfinance is not a cure-all for poverty, but it can offer opportunities where none stood before.

In this series we’ll share with you the unique story of each village we visited in the Indian state of West Bengal, and how microfinance played – or could play – an integral role in changing villagers’ lives there. Hopefully you’ll get a sense of the India we saw and the complex historical canvas of poverty, caste, and British colonial tea plantation legacy that serves as a backdrop to today’s opportunities.

Seedlings, Literal and Figurative

Beautiful Older Indian Woman, Microfinance - West Bengal, India
A Beautiful, Wise Face

The women of Deep Colony (yes, that’s the name of the village) were proud of their accomplishments. But they were shy. In turns, they diverted their eyes when we caught their stares, but stole curious glances when they thought we weren’t looking. Children hopped from lap to lap. Who was whose? It was difficult to tell; each child was equally comfortable with everyone. The feeling of community was evident.

After introductions, the women showed us their enterprise: a seedling nursery. The thirteen women in the group used a small loan plus their own investment money to start their business with 7,000 rupees ($175). They used the money to buy seeds and rent a plot of land from a fellow villager.

Each member of the group was paid for her labor. And each earned a share from the profits ($350) and took home 50 seedlings to sell or to use at home. The nursery was successful; the women were making plans to buy a plot of land in the group’s name in order to expand the following year.

Chipping Away at the Walls of Caste

As the leader of the group described its business, four women squatted in the dirt and began tending the plants. Before the days of the seedling business, these women of varying castes and social groups did not interact much, if at all.

Indian Women Working in the Nursery - West Bengal, India
Working Together in the Nursery

Now, they worked side by side.

The group leader, a widow raising three children on her own, explained how being part of the group has allowed her to earn enough money to send her children to school. Her self-confidence has grown so much that she had recently been elevated by her peers to the role of group leader. Her body language – in fact everyone’s gestures — reflected this newfound self-esteem and dignity.

What is the best thing about being part of this project?” I asked the entire group.

Without a pause, one woman answered: “We earn as much as our husbands.

I looked around; all the women – young and old – smiled, nodding in approval, as if they were offering one another silent “high fives.”

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Comments

  1. says

    What an inspiring story! It seems like sometimes we get moving so quickly in our lives that we forget to slow down and think about what is really important to people: empowerment, the ability to provide, happiness. My PC homestay mama used to pay women to work in her garden and it made a huge difference in their lives ~ for once they actually had something they earned and could call their own.

    I was also wondering if the two of you know much about Kiva. It’s come up a few times in the last week in things I’ve been reading and I’m curious if you’ve done any work with Kiva or know anything about how that microfinance program works.

    As always, thanks for the great post!

  2. says

    There is an opportunity for anyone to get involved with microfinance today, and create a larger impact than ever before. With United Prosperity (www.unitedprosperity.org), you can choose an entrepreneur to support by providing a small amount of money towards a loan guarantee. United Prosperity issues a loan guarantee to a local bank, which then grants an MFI a loan usually twice the size of the guarantee. So, your dollar/impact is doubled with United Prosperity’s peer-to-peer loan guaranteeing model.
    Once the entrepreneur repays their loan, you get your money back!
    Just spreading the word. This organization is young, but innovative and growing fast!

  3. Pete DeRitter says

    Can you guys loan me $175.00? Just kidding. This is a great program. It is nice to see that a small infusion of capital can make such a difference in peoples’ lives. Keep up the good work.

  4. says

    What an inspiration these ladies are providing to others that can benefit from microfinance. It is amazing for so little to make such a huge difference in someone’s life. Thanks so much for sharing.

  5. says

    @JoAnna: Nicely put: “what is really important to people: empowerment, the ability to provide, happiness.” These projects help to ground us and understand the socio-economic issues of the places we’re visiting.

    Regarding Kiva, we have worked with Kiva Fellows and Kiva’s local microfinance organization partners (MFI) in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. Their model is simple and transparent. They find local MFIs in countries around the world to partner with. The MFI has to meet a certain set of criteria to become a partner. Online, each borrower has a photo and a profile so you can decide to whom you want to loan money. And, it’s not a donation – you get the money back in a year (and then you can decide whether to take it or reloan it).

    What I have liked about the local Kiva microfinance partners I have met is that they seem to balance well the financial (sustainability/profitability) and social goals of microfinance. For example, the MFI in Ecuador provides capacity training (from business skills to family communication) once a month to its borrowers at loan meetings. The loan officers know their clients well.

    Yes, I would recommend Kiva as a way to get involved with microfinance. Even with the recession in the States, they are breaking record numbers each month. It’s impressive.

    @Jake: Thanks for sharing United Prosperity with us. It’s an organization I hadn’t heard of before. Sounds like it is also doing some great work.

    @Pete: It is incredible to see how small amounts of money invested properly can go so far. I remember a Kiva borrower in Guatemala bubbling with pride over her Kitchen Aid mixer, something most people put on a wedding registry and barely use. She couldn’t stop talking about how much it helped her pastry and cake business. I’ll never look at a Kitchen Aid mixer quite the same way again.

    @Nora: Glad this piece helped get you even more interested in microfinance! While not every microfinance program we’ve seen has produced such financial and social results, microfinance to me is still a great – and many times sustainable – for poverty alleviation

    @David: Stay tuned for the rest of the series! The next day we visit another village where microfinance has been around even longer – we were blown away what six years and a small amount of capital could do for a community.

  6. says

    Hi guys, I can understand why your blog cornered the first placing of the 2009 Adventure Extreme Travel category. I have already bookmarked your site. You said:-

    “If you have ever wondered what has kept me on the road for over 1000 days, I will give you a hint: it’s not the ruins and the beautiful landmarks. It’s the bumpy-road rides to remote villages like this where a group of 13 women take a loan of 175 dollars….”

    I thought no travel writer’s going to put that in black and white (at least not that I read about, and I read a lot of travel blogs). Yes, its not the ruins and the beautiful landmarks, but the bumpity road rides and the mud the inclement weather, the prospect of not knowing where to put up for the night and the mosquito bites. This IS what makes travelling fun!

  7. says

    @Nsalba: It’s nice to “meet” someone else who gets this style of travel and what keeps us motivated to stay traveling. I think some travel writers/bloggers may feel the same, but perhaps don’t feel that this sells in the travel industry. For us, in addition to being fun, this style of travel helps you learn and understand what that country is about and what life is like for ordinary people.

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