Indian social entrepreneur of the year gives rural women access to banking

Social entrepreneur Chetna Sinha's cooperative bank for illiterate female workers in India shows how empowering women can help to bring entire families and communities out of poverty.

Chetna Sinha is the founder of the Mann Deshi Foundation, an Indian cooperative bank for 310,000 rural women. Pawan Singh / The National
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Social enterprises aim to improve communities and help society benefit from their profits, so what could be more enterprising or more social than a bank for illiterate village women?

This is what the unassuming Chetna Sinha has set up: an Indian cooperative bank for 310,000 rural women, doing US$100 million worth of banking and micro-financing.

“People assume poor people want access to credit but they want to plan their lives,” says Mrs Sinha, who visited Dubai in October to speak at the Global Women in Leadership Economic Forum. “Rural women want to control their savings.”

An economics teacher from Mumbai, Mrs Sinha met her farmer husband Vijay when they were student activists and moved to his village of Mhaswad, in the western state of Maharashtra, when they married.

Once there, she discovered that an illiterate woman blacksmith, who sharpened farm tools for a living and saved $1 a day, had been refused a bank account because she was not an “affordable client”.

Mrs Sinha, 57, went to the banks with her and hit the same walls. Eventually, drawing on her activist past, she decided to just create a women’s bank herself.

Mann Deshi Mahila Bank opened its doors in 1991, but it took until 1997 to get its banking licence – mainly because the reserve bank refused to licence a cooperative of illiterate women. So Mann Deshi started literacy classes.

Finally, a frustrated Mrs Sinha challenged the authorities to calculate the principal interest on any amount faster on a calculator than she could in her head. She got her licence.

“The margins may not be high but it does not mean there is no business,” says Mrs Sinha, whose goal is to provide for one million Indian women entrepreneurs by 2020.

But she admits a lot of mistakes were made in the early days – the first being to assume that all the village women needed, to start banking, was a bank account.

To avoid losing a day’s wages travelling when they deposited their cash, she found they also needed doorstep banking – so Mrs Sinha built a team of field agents to visit them.

And they did not want passbooks, as they generally did not want their husbands knowing about their savings. So micro-ATMs were devised – hand-held machines that used their thumbprint to link to their Indian “UID”, or national identity.

“In spite of their poor education, they are smart enough – and techno-savvy,” says Mrs Sinha. “We do not need poor solutions for poor people.”

Today the bank provides daily micro loans, savings plans, pensions and insurance, while the Mann Deshi Foundation runs a business school, a radio station, a financial hotline, has built water banks in the drought-prone state and even donated 10,000 bicycles to get girls to their classes.

“Focusing on women in terms of empowerment and job creation is a proven method to bring entire families and communities out of poverty all over the world,” says Medea Nocentini, co-founder and chief executive of Consult and Coach for a Cause (C3), a UAE-based social enterprise that works with some 300 social entrepreneurs.

“Businesses benefit from diversity, increasing business success and ultimately economic improvements.”

One of the social enterprises that C3 is working with is Reach Mentoring, the first non-profit to be registered in the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) free zone. It has paired more than 200 mentees and mentors in the region since 2014.

“Women running social enterprises have been able to address many of the most prevalent and challenging social issues affecting them, their communities and their children worldwide,” says co-founder Pamela Chikhani, who is also the corporate head of business development and communications for the Oasis Investment Company.

“Women bring different perspectives and approaches to business. At Reach, we believe that bridging the gender diversity gap in the workplace, by engaging female leaders in positions of influence to serve as role models, is critical.

“Inspirational female leaders such as Chetna Sinha are positively impacting the world by demonstrating vision, developing social enterprises with strong business fundamentals and acting as a powerful role model for other women.”

Mrs Sinha was named Indian social entrepreneur of the year in 2013 and in 2015 one of 15 women changing the world by the World Economic Forum.

For every area Mann Deshi has branched into, Mrs Sinha has a story of a lowly working woman who inspired it. One of the schoolgirls given a bike, 27-year-old long-distance runner Lalita Babar, just represented India at the Rio Olympics.

“There is a charm in creating role models,” says this queen of all role models modestly.

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