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India Journal: In their own words: “When I sold my first tomato”

January 28, 2015

I returned from a 10-day trip to visit Trickle Up in India in October, 2014.  Inspired by the people I met every day, I kept a detailed travel diary.  In several installments  posted to the Trickle Up blog, I hope to convey a first-hand view of the great work that Trickle Up is doing in India and our potential for even greater impact.  I invite your comments and questions, either posted to the Trickle Up blog or emailed to me directly  at abramsw@trickleup.org. This part 9  in a series and the conclusion.

Bill Abrams
President, Trickle Up

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I depart India, as I arrived, with a great deal of humility.  For as much as I saw and learned there, and for as many words as I’ve written in this blog series, I am well aware of how much I didn’t see, didn’t fully understand, and simply couldn’t know.  My purpose in these reports has been to share what I have witnessed, with the hope that the reader will gain a more intimate perspective on what Trickle Up and its partners d o, as well as the national and local context that shapes our work.  Mostly, I have tried to give a small sense of what the experience of poverty is like and, in very human terms, what it means to move out of poverty.

Perhaps it is because I spent 30 years in the world of journalism before joining Trickle Up 9 years ago, but I always find special value in the stories that people tell us and in the words they use to express themselves.  So I will leave the final words in this series to the women of Trickle Up India – the “didis” whose lives we are privileged to join.   Here, in their own words, are the voices of Trickle Up, as recorded on a single day in a single village by my colleagues Amenee Siahpush and Jaya Sarkar.

  • “Previously we didn’t have an identity; no one asked about us or cared much about us. But our families now care.”
  • “Now I can host people; I can help other people.”
  • “Together as a group, we were also able to demand a better road.”
  • “We acted together as a group to demand the repair of a small water channel so that we could pursue vegetable cultivation. And we are working to build a fish pond.”
  • “Before, we wore torn clothing; now we can buy new clothes.”
  • “Right now, we are living in mud huts. I never had the vision to live in a brick house. But this year we are manufacturing brick together as a group and are slowly improving our houses.”
  • “They used to treat me like I was the ‘last leg’ of society. But it’s different now.”
  • “In the past, if the kids wanted a biscuit, I wouldn’t be able to give it to them. If they saw other kids eating biscuits, they would just have to watch. But now he can have a biscuit like his friends.”
  • “Both with my husband and my father-in-law would think that we, women, were useless because we weren’t earning or doing anything. But now they say, “My wife and daughter-in-law have the capacity to do something.”
  • “With 4-5 groups working together, now we have a voice. A group voice!”
  • “Courage means talking to others. Earlier I didn’t know how to sell and to earn. But now I’m earning money on my own. This is what courage is to me. When I sold my first tomato and had the money in my hand, that made me feel very courageous.”

India Journal: Ending Open Defecation

January 23, 2015

I returned from a 10-day trip to visit Trickle Up in India in October, 2014.  Inspired by the people I met every day, I kept a detailed travel diary.  In several installments  posted to the Trickle Up blog, I hope to convey a first-hand view of the great work that Trickle Up is doing in India and our potential for even greater impact.  I invite your comments and questions, either posted to the Trickle Up blog or emailed to me directly  at abramsw@trickleup.org. This is part 8 in a series.

Bill Abrams
President, Trickle Up


open-defecation_header

Open defecation is certainly not a topic you would not expect a national leader to tackle in his or her annual “state of the union” address.  But there it was, among the major issues included in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech last August, his first since being elected.

“Has it ever pained us that our mothers and sisters have to defecate in the open?” Mr. Modi asked.  “Whether dignity of women is not our collective responsibility?  The poor womenfolk of the village wait for the night; until darkness descends, they can`t go out to defecate. What bodily torture they must be feeling, how many diseases that act might engender. Can`t we just make arrangements for toilets for the dignity of our mothers and sisters?”

It’s estimated that 600 million people in India – half its population – relieve themselves every day in forest, streets and alleys, along railroad tracks.  It’s unsanitary, undignified and unsafe.  It is a particular hardship for women.  It can cause diarrhea, especially in children, which can result in malnutrition, stunting, pneumonia and even death.  And any kind of severe illness can quickly become a barrier to success for Trickle Up participants.

toiletAmong the poorest 20% of India’s population, open defecation is almost universal.

Typically, due to poverty in their homes and villages, people lack access to sanitary toilets and thus open defecation has become the norm.  More important than installing toilets, as essential as that is, is changing habits.

Today we are travelling to a village called Khutmamunda, where Trickle Up partner Sewak is joining in a global strategy called “community-led total sanitation” (CLTS).  Instead of simply promoting installation of toilets, often with government or other subsidies, “CLTS focuses on the behavioral change needed to ensure real and sustainable improvements – investing in community mobilization instead of hardware, and shifting the focus from toilet construction for individual households to the creation of open defecation-free villages,” according to www.communityledtotalsanitation.org, a resource center.

“We were encouraged when Sewak approached us regarding their interest in piloting CLTS in one of the villages in which they work,” explained my colleague Jaya Sarkar, Trickle Up’s VP-Programs. “There are two reasons why open defecation is a critical issue for the populations with whom TU works.  First, the illness and malnutrition it causes are an impediment to sustaining the gains families make through our program.  Second, a comprehensive and sustainable approach to attain open defecation-free communities must include 100% of the population — including the poorest amongst them.”

Changing the habits of everyone in a community is essential. Working closely with Sewak, we hope to contribute to the project’s success by helping to ensure that the very poorest and most marginalized people in the village are included. “As the project in Khutmamunda takes root,” Jaya said, “the families we work with will also benefit from improved health and increased dignity, which will only make their progress in the Trickle Up program more sustainable.”

About 125 people (25 families) live in Khutmamunda, and most survive on small-scale agriculture and daily wage labor.  It’s a very poor village, on the lower side of a hill and thus dependent on rain water for irrigation and water.  Their longstanding practice was to relieve themselves outdoors, mostly in a nearby forest.  “We didn’t understand the effect of open defecation on our health,” one villager told us.  “Also on our dignity and self-respect.”

With Sewak’s training and encouragement, they decided to install an outdoor latrine at every household.  The cost is about $20 per household to buy the porcelain bowl and cement for a base.  Even though there are government programs that might have provided some of the materials, the village committed itself to the principal of CLTS that they should fund it themselves – an important sign of people’s commitment to their entire community.

To install a toilet, you dig a hole near your house, so long as it’s at least 10 meters from a water source, mix some concrete to make a platform about 2×3’, insert a porcelain bowl in the center.  Then you dig another, deeper hole that is lined with bricks to make a septic tank where the waste can decompose.  Then you build walls around it for privacy; the one we visited used sheets for walls.  Later, when there is money to purchase some lumber, there will be wooden walls.

In many ways, that is the easy part.  The bigger challenge is changing habits, which means changing attitudes and behavior.  In addition to open defecation being the norm that rural villagers grow up with, Hindu tradition encourages defecation in the open, far from home, to avoid ritual impurity.

girls-dancingOne technique for changing minds is theater.  After we arrived and were greeted with a traditional welcome dance and song, we sat down in the center of the village, where our hosts announced that we’d be seeing a one-act play put on by local children.  This was most definitely not what I was expecting when I saw “open defecation project” on my agenda for this week.

The play began with four absolutely adorable girls, about 10-12 years of age, doing an Indian dance that didn’t look very different from how my kids danced at that age.  That was followed by a mime skit in which one girl played a hand-powered water pump like the one in the village.  Then came another girl with a broom and a water jug who vigorously swept the area before filling her jug.   However, when the next girl filled her vessel without cleaning up first, she got a finger-wagging rebuke.

What’s important about that simple skit is that the education process involves the community directly, rather than just lectures and direction from Sewak or Trickle Up. Children are involved, which means they are learning lessons before habits become entrenched.  And it had some fun with a subject that needs a lighter touch.

Indeed, if you go to YouTube and search for videos on “open defecation,” you will find a veritable film festival of creative approaches to changing minds and habits.  Unicef India has created an entire You Tube channel, called Poo2Loo, that uses features a singing, dancing animated poop-shaped character called Poo. For its “Cleaner, Healthier, Happier” campaign in India, Bangladesh and Nigeria, Sesame Workshop has created a Muppet character named Raya to promote good sanitation practices.

But mass media campaigns like those, while they may be effective in urban settings, don’t have much relevance in a village like Khutmamunda, where there was little evidence of electricity, much less television or the Internet.

jaya-flowersAfter the dance presentation, village leaders and a SEWAK representative explained the CLTS approach in Khutmamunda, beginning with a mapping process (see cover photo) to locate where toilets would be installed.  Later, Jaya spoke movingly to the girls and the community at large. She praised the Khutmamunda villagers for “having come together across generations, class, caste and to make the community to creating a village free of open defecation.”  Later, she told me: “Personally, I was very touched by the feeling in that community.  In a world where they are up against so many challenges, this is one that they should be very proud to have tackled.” She also noted that the behavior change sought in CLTS is similar to what we aim to achieve in our core program, where education, coaching and collective action through Trickle Up savings groups all contribute to successful results.

The CLTS approach was pioneered by Dr. Kamal Kar, an Indian development specialist who is passionate about participatory approaches; it is now applied in more than 50 countries.  Before she joined Trickle Up, Jaya had worked in India and with Dr. Kar on other CLTS projects.dr-kar

She’s been talking with him recently about CLTS, and he has been particularly interested in how we might help ensure that the ultrapoor are included in CLTS programs and how our traditional economic strengthening program can contribute to improved health and sanitation. Likewise, we are always looking for ways to deepen our impact by building on the behavior change we help foster and the peer learning and support that takes place in Trickle Up savings groups.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Sanitation is more important that independence.”  In his speech last August, Mr. Modi set a goal of eliminating open defecation by 2019 – the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth.  Working closely with partners like Sewak, we at Trickle Up hope to do our part to help reach that goal.

 

Next, in conclusion: IN THEIR OWN WORDS: ‘When I sold my first tomato’

“…Here, in their own words, are the voices of Trickle Up, as recorded on a single day in a single village: “Previously we didn’t have an identity; no one asked about us or cared much about us. But our families now care…” 

India Journal: What Partnership Means

January 23, 2015

I returned from a 10-day trip to visit Trickle Up in India in October, 2014.  Inspired by the people I met every day, I kept a detailed travel diary.  In several installments  posted to the Trickle Up blog, I hope to convey a first-hand view of the great work that Trickle Up is doing in India and our potential for even greater impact.  I invite your comments and questions, either posted to the Trickle Up blog or emailed to me directly  at abramsw@trickleup.org. This is part 7 in a series.

Bill Abrams
President, Trickle Up

What-Partnership-means_header

Today and tomorrow will be my first opportunity to spend time with Sewak, an organization that has been a Trickle Up partner since 2007, one of eight now working with us in India.  Our partners are the linchpin in our work.  All are local organizations, deeply familiar with the people and context of the villages where we work.  Partner field staff organize Trickle Up savings groups, deliver training to women, provide continuous coaching and “handholding” through frequent visits, and monitor the progress of women and savings groups.

Sewak is an acronym for Self-Employed Workers’ Association Kendra (“kendra” means “center”).  Its origins are in a local soccer club that, in 1995, took on a larger mission of helping rural communities “generate…awareness on health and environment, train them in entrepreneurial skill and encourage them to find sustainable livelihood(s).”

Sewak works in the Sundargarh district of the state of Odisha. The Sundargarh district covers 3,750 square miles, which is nearly twice the size of Delaware.  About half of Sundargarh’s 2,000,000 population are members of Scheduled Tribes, an Indian designation for historically disadvantaged people who now are eligible for various government benefits.  Consisting of about 1,750 villages, the Sundargarh district is rich in forest, mineral, land, and water resources but “this profusion hardly ever reveals itself in the lives of its illiterate and unskilled rural folk, who merely survive as poor and vulnerable communities,” Sewak explains in its annual report.

Trickle is one of about 14 NGOs that work with Sewak.  Its income in the year ended March 31, 2014, was about $500,000, mostly from Indian sources.  For many years, Sewak received significant funding from Concern Worldwide, an Irish international NGO that has recently stopped working in India.

As we met with Sewak’s leaders at the start of the day, they presented an overview of the 30 different programs in economic development (where Trickle Up fits), health, education and children’s rights, and skills training.  Most were typical of the sort of interventions we have seen at other Trickle Up partners, both in India and other countries, but one was a surprise.  Sewak’s Project Pehchhan supports transgender individuals.  In April, the Indian Supreme Court recognized as “the third gender,” saying: “Transgenders are citizens of this country … and recognition as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue.”  It is estimated that there are 2-3 million people in the Indian transgender community.”

Ironically, Indian law does not take the same view of homosexuality.  A year ago the Indian Supreme Court upheld a ban on gay sex that dates back to 1861.  While the law is said not to be enforced in urban areas, the Indian high court said that it should be Parliament’s job to amend it.

“Partnership” is a word that you hear a lot in every field, non-profit and for-profit.  Whenever I hear it, I always try to ask questions to understand what it means (and doesn’t).  It is simply an economic partnership?  Is there mutual collaboration and learning?  How do partners make decisions together?

At Trickle Up, we work hard to make our relationships with local agencies truly collaborative.  Our partnership starts with their essential role in identifying prospective participants, delivering business training and follow-up coaching, administering Trickle Up seed capital grants, helping form savings groups, and gathering information for our monitoring and evaluation program.  We also look to Sewak, as we do with other partners, for their local knowledge and expertise, often drawn from a variety of programs they manage.  For example, Sewak’s expertise in health led to us incorporating health components and indicators in other Trickle Up India programs.  Sewak also is our partner in developing our new community approach that I wrote about in my blog post on “The Ultrapoor and the Very Poor.”

And we have helped Sewak develop its expertise in meeting the needs of the ultrapoor.  Our Poverty Assessment Tool was new to them and, in addition to using it to implement the Trickle Up program, helps them reach more vulnerable families in their other programs.  Sewak also works directly with several government programs and with the local community councils, or Gram Sabhas, and are able to advocate with them to ensure that the ultrapoor are included.  Another example of how Trickle Up has helped Sewak is helping them discover ways that the landless can lease land, which means that families living in hilly areas also can be helped.

Next in the series: OPEN DEFECATION

“Open defecation is certainly not a topic you would not expect a national leader to tackle in his or her annual “state of the union” address.  But there it was, among the major issues included in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech last August, his first since being elected.”

India Journal: Modi’s ‘Decisive Break’

November 19, 2014

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to visit Trickle Up in India.  Inspired by the people I met every day, I kept a detailed travel diary.  In several installments  posted to the Trickle Up blog last week and this week, I hope to convey a first-hand view of the great work that Trickle Up is doing in India and our potential for even greater impact.  I invite your comments and questions, either posted to the Trickle Up blog or emailed to me directly  at abramsw@trickleup.org. This is part 6 in a series.

Bill Abrams
President, Trickle Up

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After an exhilarating two days meeting Trickle Up participants in Odisha, we are now on a 7-hour train ride from the city of Jharsuguda (population 75,000) to Bhubeneswar (population 650,000), which is the capital of the state of Odisha and the site of the airport where we will then fly two hours to Delhi.  Amid our very busy schedule this week, this is a welcome opportunity to read the sheaf of Indian newspapers that I’ve been saving this week.

The big news this week, aside from Hudhud, were elections in two important Indian states and whether Prime Minister Narenda Modi deepens his support in the Indian legislative bodies and with the number of state Chief Ministers (equivalent to US governors) who are members of his BJP party.

modi-election-marchFor those who might not have been paying attention, the briefest of background: Mr. Modi was elected Prime Minister in May in a landslide victory.  India is the largest democracy in the world, with 554 million people voting (66% voter turnout) — compared to about 130 million people (57% turnout) voting in the 2012 US presidential election.  Mr. Modi’s rise to national leadership came from his 13 years as Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat. His leadership there was notable for strong economic growth, modernization of some antiquated laws, and pro-investment incentives.  He is a Hindu nationalist who has been criticized by many for not taking steps in 2002 to stop three days of anti-Muslim violence that resulted in between 800 and 2,000 Muslim deaths, depending on whose count you believe.

I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Modi at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York a few weeks ago during his first US tour.  He proved to be, as I’d read, quite charismatic and stirring. He is an outstanding, energetic speaker and presents a very bold agenda for change in India.  He is a marked contrast to his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, who was somewhat bland and viewed by many as the last gasp of the political dominance of the Gandhi family and the Congress party.modi-council-on-foreign-relations

A person of humble origin, the son of a tea seller, Mr. Modi is passionate and eloquent when talking about poverty.  In August, in the annual Independence Day speech, he opened by promising to  “take a solemn pledge of working for the welfare of mother India, and also for the welfare of the poor, oppressed, dalits, the exploited and the backward people of our country.” (“Dalit” is equivalent to “untouchable” and “backward people” is a common Indian expression.) He then went on to talk specifically about several issues related to poverty alleviation: violence against women, the “poison” of the caste system and other forms of discrimination, feticide (India has a ratio of 940 girl birth for every 1,000 boys), exploitation of farmers and others by moneylenders, ending open defecation and other unsanitary practices, and the need for bank accounts for all of India’s 1.2 billion citizens.  Plus issues pertinent to every Indian: more efficient and trustworthy government, greater economic growth, national service, education and more.

The Prime Minister’s agenda is enormously ambitious. While I was in India, he chose an Indian economist from Washington as his chief economic advisor.  Arvind Subrammanian, who was born and raised in India, made an interesting observation about Mr. Modi in a speech last May at the Rotary Club of Madras, India, as quoted in the Business Standard newspaper:

“Modi represents a decisive break from dynasty rule like Deng Xiaoping broke with the madness of the Mao Zedong ideology.  Other things that make me think on this are Modi’s decisiveness, pragmatic approach and the obsession to get things done, like the Chinese reformist leader.  Also, what strikes me as a parallel between the two is the kind of long-term horizon for their countries.  Of the course, the other parallel is that both of them have baggage.”

modi-fabulous-hatI am an absolute novice at understanding Indian politics but, following the Indian news closely during the election and on this trip, I am impressed by the scope of his ambitions.  It seems that hardly a day goes by without the media-savvy Prime Minister announcing another bold initiative, tweeting directly to hundreds of thousands of people sweeping the street to launch a “clean India” campaign (which is definitely needed).  Predictably, pundits and opposing politicians are now    looking for substantive accomplishments and meaningful change — especially in taming India’s relatively high inflation (6.5% over the past year but as high as 9.13% in 2013 and 11.17% in 2012).

“Mr. Modi, where is the change?” was the headline of a column in the Business Standard.  “At some point, the prime minister is going to have to stop talking and start doing,” wrote columnist Mihir S. Sharma.  Modi “has demonstrated an appreciation of the things that have gone wrong with the Indian economy…But no action his government has taken, or seems to be planning to take, is anywhere as near as epic in scope as the problems he eloquently outlines.”

Time will tell, of course, and India is not an easy place to govern.  But I do hope he can make real progress on his anti-poverty agenda.

Next in the series: WHAT PARTNERSHIP MEANS
“Our partners are the linchpin in our work.  All are local organizations, deeply familiar with the people and context of the villages where we work.  Partner field staff organize Trickle Up savings groups, deliver training to women, provide continuous coaching and “handholding” through frequent visits, and monitor the progress of women and savings groups.”

India Journal: The Ultrapoor & the Very Poor

November 17, 2014

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to visit Trickle Up in India.  Inspired by the people I met every day, I kept a detailed travel diary.  In several installments  posted to the Trickle Up blog last week and this week, I hope to convey a first-hand view of the great work that Trickle Up is doing in India and our potential for even greater impact.  I invite your comments and questions, either posted to the Trickle Up blog or emailed to me directly  at abramsw@trickleup.org. This is part 5 in a series.

Bill Abrams
President, Trickle Up

ultrapoor-and-very-poor_header

Today is our second day of field visits in the state of Odisha, and we will meet with two Trickle Up groups, one our traditional ultrapoor group and one consisting of women whom we classify as “very poor,” which means they still live in poverty but not as severe as the others.  The difference? The very poor own at least a small plot of land, own a productive asset such as a bullock to plow their fields, and have at least one household possession such as a bicycle, mobile phone or an old TV.  These are subtle differences, nearly invisible to anyone who doesn’t spend time in villages learning how to read the economic and social landscape, but they are important in matching the level of poverty to how we design our program.

Of approximately 140 families living in this village, or roughly 700 people, 13 families are in the Trickle Up ultrapoor group and 10 in the very poor group.  The women in the ultrapoor group receive a Trickle Up seed capital grant of about $225 to fund their enterprises.  The women in the very poor group do not, instead having to finance their businesses through savings and borrowing.  Both groups receive training and support in how to manage a self-help group, which meets regularly to save money, lend to each other, and provide peer support.  The ultrapoor group started last February with a weekly savings obligation of 10 rupees (about 15 cents), the very poor 20.  This month, though, the ultrapoor group decided to raise its own savings amount to 20 rupees, as the increased earnings from their Trickle Up businesses give them more capacity to save.

ultrapoor-groupWe began working in India with people at both levels of poverty about a year ago for two reasons.  One is that levels of poverty can change over time; one household illness, one disappointing harvest, or one dowry payment can push a very poor family into ultrapoverty.  The second reason is that having a larger footprint in the village (together the two groups represent about 15% of the households) can result in greater respect and less isolation for the ultrapoor, as well as giving both groups more clout when lobbying authorities for free government latrines or ensuring that a widow receives the support payments that she is entitled to by law.  For our local partner staff at SEWAK, a Trickle Up partner for many years, there is only modest incremental cost to train and coach (“handholding” in Indian parlance) the very poor group.  The partner field staff is already travelling to the village for the day to work with our ultrapoor participants.very-poor-group

As is our practice, we encouraged each self-help group (SHG) to choose a name.  The ultrapoor group picked “Mother Teresa” and the very poor “Bharadi,” a Hindi word that roughly translates to “motherly outlook.”  The women in the Mother Theresa group all wore red saris, those from Bharadi wore green.

Most were engaged in agriculture – growing tomatoes, chilies, eggplant, okra, corn – with goats or pigs as well.  Each woman proudly cited the number of animals she had, also noting any recent sales.  One woman set up a small snack shop.

Most of our conversation was about their financial activities: weekly savings through their SHG, opening accounts at a local bank, and borrowing money for family or business needs.  The women of Bharadi explained that they had first tried to form a savings group, pre-Trickle Up, under a broad Indian government program to foster SHGs through modest financial incentives.  Their group initially failed because, without sufficient training and support, they took on more debt than they could handle.  With SEWAK’s guidance, they are learning how to manage both the savings and lending functions of the group.  “Now we have a ray of hope that we will do better,” explained the group leader.

Pradeep Ku. Brahma, SEWAK secretary (equivalent to chief executive), later told me that there are about 16,000 SHGs in the Sunderghard district but only a few hundred succeed on their own.  Part of SEWAK’s support is to help the groups set their own rules: the number of installments for repaying a loan, interest rates (5% for this group), loan amounts (for a medical loan, it ranges from 400-500 Rupees ($8-$10) to 1,000, depending on how sick they are), and penalties for late payment (2%).  More important than the financial penalty, according to the group leader, is the loss of prestige that would come with a default.  “It’s important to honor our commitments,” she said.

While each group stores weekly contributions in a metal lockbox, they periodically deposit their savings at a bank that is about an hour away, by foot and bus.  In addition, most of their savings are recirculating as loans, which I always tell donors and others who ask me about the risk of theft.  (I am reminded of a meeting I had several years go with the head of one of the largest US family foundations.  She asked a lot of questions about the savings box before moving on to other topics.  As she left our meeting, she leaned over and whispered to me, “Don’t forget about security for those boxes.”)

Echoing the comments we heard the day before about dignity, the woman talked about how having a bank account was a huge boost for their own self-respect and respect by others.  “Previously we were afraid to talk to the bank manager,” one woman explained.  “Now we have no fear to talk to the bank manager.”  Sewak accompanied them on their initial visit but now, she added, “we go on our own.”  That notion of being included in the economic and social life of their community was a frequent motif; in the words of one member of Bharadi: “We are not isolated.”

id-card-photo“We feel dignified, we feel like we are like any other citizen,” another woman told us.  “This gives us a different kind of identity.  A passbook recognizes us as a citizen.”  It also serves as a bona fide photo ID, enabling women to vote in government elections.   Another woman boasted that she has a bank account while her husband didn’t.  “We are one step ahead,” she said with a grin.

With thanks to Sewak for their training how to improve their well-being and health, the women spoke movingly about the changes that were already taking place in their lives, about one year into the three-year Trickle Up program.  All members were now sending their children to school.  “Before we didn’t realize its importance,” one woman said.  With the collective voice of the SHG, a widow was able to secure a food supplement from the local government.  Now instead of seeking treatment from a local healer, known as a “quack,” they know they can go to the local health center or hospital.  They learned about hygiene — how wearing chappals (sandals) prevents disease, the importance of washing vegetables, and that clean clothes are important.  “Now we wash our children’s clothes twice a week,” one woman explained.

I asked them their goals two years from now, when they will graduate from Trickle Up.  In addition to wanting enough food to eat year-round and their children doing well in school, they talked about improving their houses.  Their goal: a two-room house in good condition, with a toilet and a separate kitchen.  As important as goals and aspirations are, the group also outlined their strategies for achieving them.  On improved sanitation, for example, they described how SEWAK’s guidance and the size of the two groups will give them the knowledge and political clout they need to lobby local government officials to provide community toilets that will serve about 5 families each.   It would take 6-12 months to achieve that objective, they estimated, with individual household toilets a subsequent goal.

After peppering them with questions for over an hour, I invited them to ask me some.  “Tell us about your life,” was the reply.   At such a moment one is acutely aware of all the privileges of life that accrue simply because of where you were born.  It’s likely that I was the first white person they’d ever met, that they’d never seen an airplane flying overhead (once at  similar group meeting, our local partner described it as a flying bus), and had no exposure to television or other outside influences.  I explained that I lived in a big city, in a building with three other families, had 9 rooms in my apartment.  I lied a bit when I said I had two toilets because, at the moment, it just seemed too much to tell the truth (4).  They seemed to find some common ground when I said my main meals consisted of rice or pasta, vegetables and fish or chicken.  I did not observe that what I eat for dinner might feed 3-5 members of their family.  They liked the fact that my daughter is a teacher, my son a college student, and my wife a writer.

Next in the series: MODI’S “DECISIVE BREAK”
Mr. Modi was elected Prime Minister in May in a landslide victory.  India is the largest democracy in the world, with 554 million people voting (66% voter turnout) — compared to about 130 million people (57% turnout) voting in the 2012 US presidential election. I am an absolute novice at understanding Indian politics but, following the Indian news closely during the election and on this trip, I am impressed by the scope of his ambitions. Yet, “Mr. Modi, where is the change?” was the headline of a column in the Business Standard.  “At some point, the prime minister is going to have to stop talking and start doing,” wrote columnist Mihir S. Sharma…

India Journal: The Chili Farmers of Ekma, ‘This is Dignity to Me’

November 14, 2014

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to visit Trickle Up in India.  Inspired by the people I met every day, I kept a detailed travel diary.  In five installments that will be posted to the Trickle Up blog through next week, I hope to convey a first-hand view of the great work that Trickle Up is doing in India and our potential for even greater impact.  I invite your comments and questions, either posted to the Trickle Up blog or emailed to me directly  at abramsw@trickleup.org. This is part 4 in a series.

Bill Abrams
President, Trickle Up

Chili-farmers-blog_header

To be successful in business, it pays to choose the right business.  In the village of Ekma, in one of the poorest regions in India, growing chilies is the right business.

Today I spent the afternoon with 15 women who graduated from Trickle Up a year ago.  They greeted us with flowers, handshakes and bows, a brass pot to rinse our hands, and a song of welcome.  As we walked toward the cluster of shady trees where we could sit and talk, a local villager kept the beat with a big drum.  It’s a typical greeting in an Indian village (as it has been in my visits to West Africa) and it’s always wonderful.

When these women first started with Trickle Up about four years ago, one of their first steps was to choose a business they could start with Trickle Up’s seed capital grant and training.  That process begins with a detailed assessment by Maitreyee Ghosh of Trickle Up’s Kolkata team, working with staff from our local partner, of the geography, topography, water supply, growing conditions and economy of Ekma and other nearby villages.  What could grow here that would thrive and have a good supply of customers at the local market?  What crop wouldn’t require a lot of technical expertise and experience? How much land would be required and, for those too poor to own any land, is there suitable land they can lease?  Most importantly, could chilies return 2-3 times the investment required for seeds, land, pesticide, and other inputs?

chili-peppers-photoThen our team talks with the new Trickle Up participants themselves, to get their opinions and greater insight into how the new tasks of farming could fit with their other obligations of raising children, cooking for the family, keeping the house.

Their answer: chilies.  Widely used in Indian cooking, they are always in demand.  They are lightweight to transport to market and, if they don’t sell out right away, can be dried and sold later.  Chilies don’t require enormous amounts of water and only need a few hours per week of tending while they’re growing.  With a four-month growing cycle, an acre of chilies can produce a crop that can sell for as much 100,000 rupees ($1,650).

The women I met, most of whom grew chilies as one of their Trickle Up livelihood activities, showed me six carefully groomed plots where seeds are first planted close together and cultivated to a height of about 9 inches, when they are then transplanted to a larger field in rows about 18 inches apart.  The first woman to speak explained that her husband had become ill and could no longer work, making her the family’s sole source of income.  She also earned money from gourds and beans she would grow later in the year, and from rearing pigs (she recently sold three for the equivalent of $150).

Another woman named Jasmine explained that her business was going well enough for her to expand by leasing more land.  She also would use some of her profits to rent a tractor to level the land, which had been “undulating.” sambari-ekka--photo

Later, a member of the group escorted us proudly to her chili plot, where she had hired a nephew at $2 a day for 15 days of hoeing to prepare the soil.  Her husband also helps her with her work, they have $600 savings in the bank, and they have invested $200 in bricks for a new home.  Before Trickle Up, she said, they often couldn’t afford two meals a day and rarely had money for cooking oil or spices.

I was fascinated by the women’s step-by-step explanation of chili farming:   Protecting young seedlings from birds and drying out by covering them with branches and straws.  The five days required for germination and four days to dry them after harvest.  How the women invested some of their initial profits in a water pump to irrigate their field from a nearby stream.   The other ways they made money: cultivating paddy (unmilled rice) during the rainy season, growing vegetables (beans, gourds, pumpkins, tomatoes, okra) after the chili harvest, and raising goats and pigs.

Initially, the women sold their chilies within their village but then a local trader heard about them and purchased nearly all of their output to sell at a larger town.  “We created a market,” one of the women explained.  Even though the trader pays them about 20-25% less than his selling price at the final market, he bears the cost of transporting the chilies there and assumes the inventory risk.

The Trickle Up chili farmers enthusiastically enumerated their costs, gross revenues and net profit. They spoke of having enough food year-round, being able to afford shoes and own more than one sari, saving to build a new house, buying a bicycle for their kids to go to school.  As they spoke about the changes in their lives and their families’ lives after successfully completing Trickle Up’s three-year program, the chili farmers spoke about tangible benefits but also frequently used the word “dignity” to describe their progress.

I asked them what dignity meant for them.

sewanti-aind-photo

SWANTI AIND
“Before I only survived through daily wage labor.  I often didn’t have enough food.  I only had one sari. My house was falling down.  My husband never paid attention to my words, my requests.  He threatened to throw me out of the house.  But now that I am doing my own agricultural activity, my husband listens to me.  Now he cooperates and encourages me to go to my savings group meetings. Everyone in the village knows that I am earning money and regards me better.  I feel well dignified now, in my family and out of the family.”

suchitaprava-ekka-photo

SUCHITAPRAVA EKKA

She is a widow but, before Trickle Up, couldn’t get a government widow allowance.  Now, with the backing of the other 14 members of her savings group, she was able to successfully apply.  “They heard our words.”

basmati-lakra-photo

BASMATI LAKRA
“My daughter will be educated.  She will lead a dignified life.  Before my husband brought home money and said ‘Look what I have earned.’ Now I also am earning. This is dignity to me.”  She also spoke of her family using soap to wash before every meal, as Trickle Up’s local partner agency had taught, as well as the importance of keeping drinking water in a closed container and wearing shoes in order to prevent disease.  “Before, we only saw others wearing shoes.”
surekha-toppo-photoSUREKHA TOPPO
“I am not an educated lady.  But my children will go to school and they will ride a bike. This is dignity to me.”

sabitri-majhi-photoSABITRI MAJHI
“We dream that our daughter will go to school and will go from place to place on a scootie (the nickname of popular motorcycles around the village).  We will have a beautiful house.  We will be part of the main society and not be isolated.”

 

Please join us again on Monday, 11/17 for the next post in our series: “THE ULTRAPOOR AND THE VERY POOR”

“…Echoing the comments we heard the day before about dignity, the woman talked about how having a bank account was a huge boost for their own self-respect and respect by others.  “Previously we were afraid to talk to the bank manager,” one woman explained.  “Now we have no fear to talk to the bank manager…” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

India Journal: Thought Leaders & Handholders

November 13, 2014

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to visit Trickle Up in India.  Inspired by the people I met every day, I kept a detailed travel diary.  In five installments that will be posted to the Trickle Up blog through next week, I hope to convey a first-hand view of the great work that Trickle Up is doing in India and our potential for even greater impact.  I invite your comments and questions, either posted to the Trickle Up blog or emailed to me directly  at abramsw@trickleup.org. This is part 3 in a series.

Bill Abrams
President, Trickle Up

Thoughtleaders-&-Handholders_header

About three years ago, when Trickle Up staff and board were updating our strategic plan, we set “thought leadership” as one of our goals.  Could we become recognized as a global leader in serving the ultrapoor?  Would we be able to, in the elegant phrase of my colleague Jaya Sarkar, “influence the agenda” of larger global agencies, funders and government policy makers that operate at a level of scale far larger than our own?

It was the most controversial part of our strategic plan process.  Did we have the resources to become effective advocates?  Was thought leadership something you could intentionally win, or was it the simply the result of good work on the ground? Was it realistic, in a world where the prevailing definition of extreme poverty is set the $1.25/day standard (covering about 1 billion people), to think that we could highlight the subset of 300-400 million people who live in conditions of ultrapoverty?

Poverty rates in India

Today in Delhi, we have the opportunity to be thought leaders in India.  We are hosting two workshops, one in the morning co-sponsored with the Ford Foundation and one in the afternoon co-sponsored with the Asian Institute of Poverty Alleviation.  Our goal with each is to bring together people and institutions that share our interest in alleviating poverty for the very poorest.  “Reaching the Last Mile” is the title of the morning meeting and “Building Better Life for the Vulnerable” in the afternoon.  The audience in the morning is mostly policy makers and government; the afternoon more oriented to corporate social responsibility.

Our other goal, of course, is to raise our profile in India and, in so doing, find new sources of funding in the country.  Historically, US-based individual, corporate and foundation donors have funded Trickle Up’s India program.   Unique among the countries where we work (the others are Burkina Faso, Mali, Guatemala, Nicaragua), India is classified by the World Bank as a “lower middle-income” country – 123 on its ranking of 185 countries based on per-capita GDP.  The sheer size of the Indian economy, its robust growth, and the likelihood of greater prosperity ahead all drive Trickle Up’s strategy to expand our work there through local funding – especially the Indian government and corporate sectors.

The morning session begins with a lamp-lighting ceremony, a very civilized way to start the day.  Unfortunately, the keynote speaker – Mr Jual Oram, the Minister of Tribal Affairs for the Indian government – had to send his last-minute regrets, as Cyclone Huddud required him to be at his office.  Other speakers and panelists were from the Orissa Rural Livelihoods Mission, the Jharkhand Rural Livelihoods Program, the World Bank, the UN Development Program, the Indian National Rural Livelihoods Mission, the Ford Foundation, the MetLife Foundation, and other important institutions.  A total of about 50 people attended.

As distinguished as the panelists were, the speakers who stole the show were five women who had never finished school, lived a lifetime of poverty, and were in Delhi for the first time in their lives.  No doubt also the first time they’d ever been in a hotel or slept in the kind of bed that you and I sleep on.  These “didis” (“sisters”) were all graduates of Trickle Up, and they were there to give their perspective on ultrapoverty.  As engaged as the audience was in all of the other speakers of the day, they were absolutely spellbound by the Trickle Up women.

bill-and-pinkyThe smallest of the five was named Pinky Besra and I don’t think she weighed more than 90 pounds or stood more than five feet in height.  Before Trickle Up, she said her family survived on her husband’s income of about $1/day.  Their tiny plot of land produced only enough rice for three months.  During the annual hungry season, they had to migrate for work in another city just to survive.  They were deeply in debt to moneylenders.

Now, with Trickle Up’s help, Pinky farms on her own land and recently opened a small shop to sell garlic, onions and spices.  She noted that her husband, who initially was suspicious of her Trickle Up self-help group and wouldn’t even let her leave her village to visit her parents, had allowed her to make this trip to Delhi from her home in West Bengal.

Jaya told me later that she was “mesmerized” by Pinky’s story, especially the importance of coaching — “handholding” in local parlance.  Pinky used the term “dada” — literally “older brother” — to describe the SEWAK field officer who worked with her group. As Pinky explained:

​”Dada told us we needed to save a bit for the group.  We said, ‘How can we save?  We are poor.’

Dada said, ‘But if you don’t save, how will there be money in the savings group?’

He had a point, so we thought about it and went back to see how we could save a little bit.”

“What impressed me,” Jaya said, “is how the dada took the time to generate discussion and explore areas they had previously not considered and thought impossible.  I was impressed by the way she described the interactions with the Dada and the trust between the two that enabled that kind of discussion and for the didis to really ask questions.  These kinds of discussions build a relationship that develops trust and confidence in the participants.”

A motif for the day’s panels was scale: How to expand a program like Trickle Up to a level that would have impact in a country where an estimated 350 million people live in extreme poverty, with about one third at the level of ultrapoverty.   If the one-on-one coaching that made such a difference to Pinky is an essential part of Trickle Up’s success, is that affordable at large scale and can you find and train enough field staff to deliver it?

“Handholding is a real game-changer in a woman’s life.  It gives her the feeling that ‘I am needed and I am included.'” observed Philip Mathew of the National Rural Livelihoods Mission, during a panel discussion following Pinky and the didis.  The question is, he said, “How do you scale empathy”?

As moving as the stories were from Pinky and her peers, I don’t want to short-shrift the other speakers during the day.  A few excerpts from my notes:

Seasonal migration: One panelist spoke of visiting dozens of villages in the Sundarbans region and seeing that nearly all the men between 17 and 40 were “missing” — gone away to find work so that their families could survive.  A representative from our West Bengal partner Prasari, estimated that 80% of the women in its area have to migrate for several months.  The high salinity of the soil resulted in low agricultural productivity, and chemical residues in lakes and ponds were affecting fishing.

Big data: A day of speakers and presentations is a day filled with data.  Two statistics that got my attention.  One, India has 17% of the world’s total population but 33% of the world’s poor.  Two, an estimated 55% of Indian’s population is engaged in small-scale farming, but agriculture accounts for just 15% of India’s gross domestic product.

The last mile?: Commenting on the “Reaching the Last Mile” title of the morning conference, Dilip Mahapatra of Odisha Rural Livelihoods Mission challenged the audience to  think of the ultrapoor not as the “last mile” of poverty but the “first mile” of poverty — the first priority for government, funders and all poverty agencies.  Later in the day, Professor K.G. Karmakar complimented Trickle Up on its faithfulness to the economic principles of Gandhi, including serving “the poorest of the poor first.”

No easy answers: Even as speaker after speaker posed the question of how to scale poverty interventions, they also emphasized the needs for fitting programs to local context, engaging people in finding their own solutions, and the need to resist the temptation of innovation for innovation’s sake. As Dr. H. Sudarshan of Karuna Trust, a health agency, observed: “I had no pills for poverty.”

Next in the series:  THE CHILI FARMERS OF EKMA: “THIS IS DIGNITY TO ME”

“…The irony is that before Trickle Up, when the women were eking out a marginal existence through occasional day labor, they often couldn’t afford to buy chilies for their own cooking.  Today they grow all they need for their own kitchens, earn $100-$300 per crop, and gain social capital by having enough to give relatives as gifts…”  

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