Story of Hope: A Lesson in grit and resilience, story, hope, lesson, grit, resilience, normal life, society, pandemic, customers, entrepreneurs, endeavour, responsibility, health, willpower, cloth shop, government, garment store, vfs, village financial services, loan, festive wear, business, partner

With the COVID-19 lockdown getting lifted in phases, all of us have been striving to return to our normal life. Some took small steps, some took long strides, but as a society, we are bouncing back even as we fight the pandemic.

As we resumed normal work, and our customers their entrepreneurial endeavours, we assumed a new responsibility. We had kept in touch with our customers — rural India’s women — during the lockdown as we realised the importance of mental health and the human connection that instils the feeling of belonging. During those calls, we learnt the strength and extent of the Indian woman’s willpower to overcome hurdles.

The lockdown forced Imrana, 50, of Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarabad district, to shut her cloth shop. Imrana bore the financial brunt of the shutdown with resilience. A mother of four, Imrana realised that once the government lifted the lockdown, she would have to restart her operations and regain her momentum. And she did! Slowly but surely.

Helped by her youngest son, now in Class 12, Imrana puts in every ounce of her energy towards her dream of prosperity. Imrana’s three other children are grocers or shopkeepers.

As she gears up for the winter with a new range of clothes and winter wear, Imrana reflects on her past and her struggle to set up her garments store with help from VFS.

Imrana started her entrepreneurial journey by selling Cotswool undergarments. But the wheels of fortune didn’t turn in her favour. She decided to start afresh.

Imarana realised that to survive the competitive market, she needed a more comprehensive range. That is when she decided to take a loan from VFS. Today, Imrana’s well-stocked clothes store offers everything from festive wear to winter garments, for children as well as adults.

Imrana’s story is not just a story with a happy ending. It is a lesson in perseverance. It is an example of willpower, courage and business acumen that our women possess. We are proud to partner with women such as Imrana, who didn’t stop with setbacks but are surging ahead with lessons from them.

Enabling farmers will help all of us, farmers, agricultural, agricultural country, urbanisation, growth, industry, services, livelihood, economy, market, pandemic, empower

Come what may, India will remain an agricultural country for quite some time to come. Despite urbanisation and the growth of industry and services, agriculture remains the largest provider of wherewithal to a big chunk of the population. Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood to 58 per cent of the Indian population.

The COVID-19 lockdown reminded us of this fact: agriculture was the sector that kept the wheels of the economy moving. Yet, we have largely neglected farmers in India’s growth story. They have borne the brunt of the sacrifices that a changing economic structure demands from the market participants. If it were not for the pandemic, the farmers and their issues might have continued to remain a matter of academic interest.

Just think about it. We still haven’t been able to create the cold storage chains and logistics required by a sector on which 58 per cent of the population depends. The result: 20 per cent of farm produce goes waste, and farmers continue to be at the mercy of market fluctuations.

Neither do the farmers have access to crop data to plan like their counterparts in the developed world. Though baby steps are being taken towards this, farmers at large are still clueless. Their crop planning remains primordial at best and they play safe by choosing crops on which the government offers minimum support prices.

The argument is not against the mechanism of minimum support prices, but more a lament about the fact that farmers cannot tap market information. While the poor infrastructure forces farmers to dump produce when demand falls short of supply, they cannot even choose a crop properly because they do not access market intelligence.

Putting such things right would go a long way in empowering our farmers. With the 58 per cent economically empowered, the nation wouldn’t have to struggle so much with basic issues. An empowered farming community would help all of us and push industry towards the growth we aspire to reach.

Microfinance in our Atmanirbhar journey, microfinance, atmanirbhar, self dependent, poverty, poverty alleviation, entrepreneurship, economic, financial, microfinance institutions, entrepreneur, mfi, government, loans, industry, small enterprises, business, lender, collateral, handholding, funds, financial transaction, transaction

Microfinance will keep growing in importance in the days to come, as it has in the days past. Microfinance has grown from being just an instrument in poverty alleviation to the fuel for a national aspiration — the aspiration of being atmanirbhar or self-dependent.

To be atmanirbhar, as the Honourable Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi, has said, is not about being inward-looking. It is not about living in isolation in the global market. It is about strengthening the industrial frame of the nation. Being atmanirbhar, as the mission describes, is about exploiting entrepreneurship across the economic pyramid.

But the challenge is to provide financial muscle to entrepreneurs way down in the pyramid, who do not have easy access to the traditional channels of finance. Microfinance institutions are playing a significant role in keeping these entrepreneurs moving and growing.

The government is using the Small Industries Development Bank of India as the main source of funds, and MFIs as the channels of disbursement. Under the portfolio risk fund, the government provides the bulk of the security deposit that SIDBI requires from borrowing MFIs.

One should remember that within the conventional channel of loans to industry, lenders consider the smaller enterprises as very high-risk. Lacking the financial muscle to provide the collateral required by conventional channels such as banks to offset the risks that the loans entail, the smaller enterprises have no easy way of accessing funds for business.

Lack of funds not only hampers growth; it also prevents entrepreneurial potentials to play out. This is where the microfinance channels have stepped in to help. Why has the channel become so crucial?

Those who are small do not have the expertise in the efficient deployment of funds. With MFIs going to their doorstep and handholding them in using the borrowed funds, the financial transaction goes beyond a mere business engagement. It becomes a personal bond.

That’s where the microfinance industry scores in addition to providing easy access. And that’s why the microfinance industry will be a significant provider to the national dream of emerging on the global industrial theatre as a contender to reckon with. The microfinance industry will be the source of funds to enterprises in the last mile.

Story of Hope: Her children will have a better life, story, hope, story of hope, tailoring, business, tailoring business, stitching, source of income, responsibilities, homemaker, reputation, empower women

Manju sounded like a proud mother when she told me that her daughter had stitched a salwar suit the day before, entirely on her own, and with no help or guidance.

It so happened that Manju had not been feeling well, and there was a committed delivery to be made. That was when her daughter, who studies in Class X, pitched in confidently.

But, for Manju that is enough.

Manju does not want her daughter to be a regular assistant in her tailoring business: She is determined to make her three children graduates. She would not like them to repeat her life.

For various reasons, Manju had to drop out of school when she passed Class VIII. She got herself trained in different kinds of stitching techniques and quickly upgraded to be a trainer herself. When she got married and moved to live with her husband, she had to give up her source of income and concentrate on the responsibilities of being a homemaker.

It was only after the birth of her three children that Manju thought of picking up the reins of her career again, this time directly into production rather than training. With her skills, it did not take long to build a reputation and get customers beyond the local neighbourhood of Rishikesh.

“Show me any dress, and I will stitch another for you exactly like it,” boasts Manju when we asked her why her customers are so happy with her.

Manju’s story is not an isolated one. Many of our customers have not been fortunate enough to go to school or had to drop off. Enabling such women provides them with the means to fulfil the dream of ensuring that their children, especially the girl child, get a formal education.

The lockdown hit her business, but we hope that the current festival season powers Manju back on track. Our task at Village Financial Services is to help her grow.

Story of Hope: Loan repayment is all about attitude, hope, lender, borrower, commitment, social environment, loan repayment, vfs, customers, repayment, capital, career, business, financial, ethics

I have always believed that repaying loans on time has a lot to do with the mind of the borrower. There is no model or perfect equation that can ensure compliance with the repayment schedule if the borrower does not have the right attitude. The social environment also has a significant role in the grooming of borrowers.

At VFS, we have been fortunate that most of our customers adhere to their repayment schedule irrespective of what they come across in life. One such story is about Punam Jha, a customer of Village Financial Services’ Mandideep branch in Madhya Pradesh.

A mother of two, Punam runs a kirana shop. In January this year, Punam approached a VFS JLG or joint lending group for a loan to buy extra stocks and scale up her kirana business. At that time, none of us could foresee the coronavirus pandemic or the lockdown that would be enforced in end-March.

Thankfully, because of the extra funds, Punam had enough stocks to operate until the logistics sector got going fully, and she could get fresh supplies.

While the lockdown hit the entire country, Punam always kept up with her repayment schedule. To her, sticking to the commitment she had made to VFS was of the utmost importance, and she did not want to falter.

Punam is just one of the many VFS borrowers who have been maintaining their commitments, not only in repayment but also in other aspects. It is because of customers with such a great attitude that VFS has been able to touch five lakh families, contributing to their financial prosperity. It is because of this experience that VFS also tries support its customers whenever they face any major unforeseen event. We never have the slightest doubt that our customers will get back on track once business gets back to normal.

We are sure that Punam’s two children will be model citizens if they have been brought up with her ethics and attitude.

Story of Hope: Minor diversification leads to major prospects, hope, diversification, prospects, pandemic, toys, workshop, soft toys, plastic dolls, dolls, change, new products

The COVID-19 pandemic has confined more than half the population. While the lockdown has been lifted, people still fear meeting each other physically while others continue to avoid going out unless it is essential. With public gatherings such as fairs, carnivals, musical evenings and jatras unlikely to be allowed any time soon, the livelihood of people who depend on such events has become uncertain.

At Village Financial Services, customer welfare is a priority so we avoided face-to-face meetings. But we stayed in touch with our customers over the phone. On one such call, Keka Paul, who makes soft toys, told us how the lockdown affected her. As the mother of a five-year-old daughter, Keka understood that the pandemic lockdown will help in keeping the virus at bay. But the sight of her once-flourishing workshop remaining in darkness for more than two months crushed her spirit temporarily.

Before the pandemic, Keka used to sell her soft toys to distributors, who travelled from fair to fair in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Assam. With the lockdown, orders dried up. After the government lifted the lockdown, Keka realized that her business model should include sales to proper toy stores. And that she would have to add plastic “Barbie” dolls to her product portfolio.

Now, while soft toys remain her primary product, demand for the new plastic dolls is growing. Hopefully, the autumn festivities will help get her back in full swing.

Fairs and carnivals, both in urban and rural grounds, will come up again. But the new product line – and the extra revenue it fetches - is here to stay. A change that may have come much later had the hardships of the pandemic not forced her into a corner.

I am happy that Keka could make a bad situation better with her spirit.

Keka also spoke of her 5-year-old Ruplekha, who was to get admitted to Class 1 this year. Then the pandemic struck and no one knows when the government will allow the schools to reopen. Till then, Ruplekha will be “product-testing” the toys her mother makes!

Story of Hope: Natural disasters keep challenging rural India, rural, entrepreneur, rural entrepreneur, amphan, cyclone amphan, income, pandemic, crisis, hope, stability

Over the years, the Indian subcontinent has been witnessing regular natural disasters like cyclones, flash floods and earthquakes. As lives and livelihoods suffer devastation, the aftermath often takes years of recovery. It goes without saying that the most affected by the devastation is rural India. Acres of fields, cultivated with months of blood and sweat get uprooted or submerged in a matter of minutes. The prior warnings can hardly help save agricultural produce that have not been harvested. As it was with Amphan.

A chat with one of our VFS customers revealed how the twin trouble of the pandemic and Cyclone Amphan jeopardized her life.

Suchitra Mondal and her family dreamt a life of financial stability with the support from VFS. Their primary source of income was from the cultivation of three different kinds of marigolds and hibiscus. As a secondary source, the Mondal family used to be fish sellers in one of North Kolkata's prominent bazaars. The local train commute made it possible to give them access to Kolkata's markets where demands of fish remain perennially high.

The dream was upturned when Cyclone Amphan made landfall in the month of May. Their blooming fields were washed out, so were their hopes. As our conversation progressed, Suchitra reminisced how the day before Amphan came, she prepared to save her marigold buds by constructing fences around the fields. But which bamboo fence could ever hold ground against a super cyclone raging at a speed of 260 km/hr?

Adding to the grief, the pandemic induced lockdown halted the busy local train to an unnatural halt forcing fish sellers like Suchitra Mondal to sell in their local market at subsidized rates.

But what amazes me with our rural customers is their resilience. Even with the setbacks, Suchitra regains her hopes for the festive season as she looks forward to her hibiscus cultivation. Workers have been employed to clean the fields and restart cultivation. But the question remains, will the renewed efforts bloom in time for the Pujas?

Meanwhile, the struggle to stay afloat during the crisis remains. With the help of her husband, Suchitra somehow manages to meet the family expenses through their local fish shop. While the couple struggles to make ends meet, their 12-year-old son patiently waits for the school to reopen. The luxury of online classes is far from the reach of the Mondal family.

The process to rebuild their fields and renew their hopes has started again. Our rural India may get hit by forces beyond control but it will be impossible to keep them down for long.

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