STANFORD, Calif., — Gaining access to the cash economy is one of the top priorities for India’s rural women, noted panelists at the third annual “Ideal Village” conference, organized by the Science for Society and held at Stanford University June 26.
The day-long conference brought together panelists from several prominent social impact ventures, and focused on the empowerment of women, particularly in villages.
Sundar Kamath, a member of the Science for Society and one of the organizers of the conference, told India-West on the sidelines: “So many of us work in tech all our lives, but we are benefitting only the urban middle class.”
“On the other side are billions of people without access to the basics,” said the Indian American social impactor, adding: “The ‘Ideal Village’ concept was created with the goal of self-sustainability, employing holistic solutions to address a myriad of issues.”
The organization hopes to bring together NGOs to collectively address India’s issues. “The connectivity will make a huge difference and create a multiplier effect,” said Kamath.
Women are – by default – becoming the leaders in their communities as more than 70 percent of rural households have wage earners working outside the home village, and perhaps even out of the country, noted Trishala Deb, regional director for Asia at Thousand Currents.
Deb noted Thousand Currents’ partnership with the Women’s Awareness Center in Nepal, at which 35,000 members managed to accumulate $4.2 million in assets through savings and credit. The Center now provides micro grants and mini loans to other women, and has been so successful that corporate banks – who had not in the past allowed women to obtain loans – lowered their interest rates to be competitive with the organization. “Our cooperative changed the banking system of Nepal,” said Deb, to loud claps from the packed audience.
Deb noted that trust – not metrics – was the key component in determining loans. “Trust-based transactions lead to greater risk-taking and more successful entrepreneurship,” she said.
Kate Byrne, vice president of business development, partnership and membership at Watermark, which annually hosts a very popular networking conference for women, noted that women are increasingly starting to fund each other. A key component of fostering female entrepreneurship are mentors, she said, and creating safe spaces where women can feel free to be wrong.
Women lead the green economy, but receive less than five percent of venture capital funds, noted Marilyn Waite, program officer for climate finance at the Hewlett Foundation, adding that when women of color are added to the equation, a very minute percentage receive funding.
Access to clean energy sources is a key component in the empowerment of women, said Sally Bensen, co-director of Stanford's Precourt Institute for Energy and the director of the Global Climate and Energy Project. “Access to energy is the foundation of the modern economy,” she said, noting that women have traditionally born the burden of finding sources for energy and spend a large percentage of their day hunting for sources of fuel such as firewood and cow dung. The institute is partnering with collaborators to bring “pico” solar systems – mini grids which can provide power to an entire community – to the developing world.
Nearly 100 percent of villages in India are now electrified, said Benson, noting however that the bar is set very low. About 86 percent of households in India now have connectivity to electricity, but continue to struggle with poor power quality and reliability, she said.
The Institute is working with the U.S.-based Deshpande Foundation and the Reliance Foundation to develop solutions to a myriad of issues in India. “Infrakits” – developed by the collaboration – address a myriad of issues such as water purification, improved rice hulling, chicken incubators, and food preservation, even when power is not available, said Benson.
Several social innovators spoke throughout the day, highlighting key initiatives for the developing world. Ashok Khosla, founder of Development Alternatives, spoke about his vision for self-sustaining shopping malls in which villagers could simultaneously sell and purchase goods. (See separate story.)
“We are working to make poverty history,” said Karin Lion, director of global agriculture strategy at Digital Green, founded by Indian American social entrepreneur Rikin Gandhi. Lion noted that more than half of small farmers are women, but largely lack access to best agricultural practices. The organization creates videos to help women learn how to better manage their crops, and has created a supply chain which allows women to get the products to the marketplace at a fair value. After the products are sold, the women are paid through an app called PayTM. Aggregators employed by Digital Green pick up the products from women’s farms, and determine their value in the marketplace.
Digital Green has thus far reached 25,000 women in India and Bangladesh. “The volume of waste has drastically reduced,” said Lion, noting that, as women generate income, their value in the family structure increases.
Kate Cochran, CEO of Upaya, said that 256 million people in India live on $1.90 per day. Upaya is focused on funding companies that create jobs in rural India. “Financial return is secondary,” she said, noting that the organization has worked with 14 companies to create more than 8,000 jobs.
Upaya consciously invests half of its portfolio in companies headed by women, said Cochran. Some companies in the current portfolio include Elrhino, which makes paper and stationery from recycled rhinoceros and elephant dung; Maitri Livelihood Services, which trains disadvantaged women and places them in suitable jobs; and SMV Green, which finances battery-powered rickshaws, helping rickshaw drivers upgrade from manually-pulled or gas powered vehicles.
Cochran said she wants to see Upaya’s companies create an additional 3,000 jobs per year.
Abhishek Sinha, founder of Eko Financial Services, talked about his app in which small mom and pop shops can receive and send money. Arun Nagpal, founder of Mrida, discussed several of his organization’s initiatives, including a project that helps grain farmers develop their grains into flours which are then used to make snacks sold in U.S. grocery stores or online.
Indian American entrepreneur and philanthropist Anuradha Jagadeesh led a morning panel on effective means to educate and retain girls at rural schools in India. Padmaja Sathyamoorthy of the India Literacy Project noted that greater emphasis must be placed on improving government schools, where 67 percent of India’s children are educated. Sathyamoorthy said girls can be retained post-puberty with simple measures such as toilets. Ranjini Saigal of Ekal Vidyalaya noted that allowing girls to bring their younger siblings to school has dramatically increased attendance.