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If I can learn to use Facebook and Whatsapp, I can learn to use UPI for payments also

When Technology Meets a Network Weaver: Avanti’s Journey with SEWA

Nilansha Tiwari - Partnerships, Training & Financial Literacy

“I have never used a smartphone. Then how can I use it to make payments? Money is hard to come by. If I make a mistake, risks are great for my family,” Seemaben (names changed) confided in me one afternoon over a cup of tea. Seemaben and I were at her house in Kheriya, a small village in Bihar’s Katihar district. I was working with the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) on behalf of Avanti Finance to help low-income borrowers like Seemaben with their credit needs. Seemaben runs a small tailoring business out of her home and is a member of SEWA for a decade. I was attempting to teach her to repay her loan using a smartphone. She was hesitant. I realised that her reluctance did not stem from ignorance but a lack of confidence.  

In an attempt to help her use a smartphone for something she might enjoy and also demonstrate how easy it is to use the smartphone, I asked Seemaben “What if you could video-call my friend in Mumbai on your own using my smartphone? The idea appealed to her. I gave her my phone and slowly assisted her through the process. As she held the device, her hands trembled with excitement. When she successfully connected with my colleague, her excitement was palpable. Once the call ended, she looked at me and asked, “Can you teach me how to use Facebook? My bhabhi, who is an ASHA worker, posts all her festival photos there and my daughter shows them to me.” We spent the next hour not only exploring Facebook and then as her curiosity grew, YouTube and Amazon.

Eventually, Seemaben learnt how to make her repayments on her phone. This was how we began a financial literacy programme for her community. As the first person to learn how to make digital transactions, Seemaben became a mentor to her peers.  Seemaben, SEWA & Avanti together helped them go cashless. 

Avanti and SEWA: A symbiotic partnership

Avanti’s relationship with SEWA is deeper than that of a borrower and lender, as my interaction with Seemaben shows. Both organizations are uniquely committed to long-term sustainable and transformative change in livelihoods. SEWA is a network of women-led institutions that have built a strong community of low-income women working in the areas of livelihood and economic empowerment, healthcare, and childcare for over four decades. The network includes independent district associations, credit thrift cooperatives, specialised livelihood and micro-entrepreneurship companies, a research academy, a capacity-building and financial literacy organization, a microinsurance company and a cooperative bank.

SEWA’s model is decentralised and entrenched in women’s ownership. The leaders and decision-makers of SEWA’s various organizations are women from low-income households. They are also stakeholders in these entities. Decision making is organic and driven from the ground up. It is supported by a team of professionals selected from local communities and trained through years of patient capacity-building efforts. The model is, therefore, truly community-led. The distributed leadership makes it agile enough to respond to the local needs

 of its members.

Avanti’s association with SEWA is almost as old as Avanti itself. It began with our first pilot, conducted with its Bihar branch in January 2018. Today, we work with SEWA Bank, SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre and five of SEWA’s District Associations in Gujarat. Avanti aims to leverage SEWA’s deep community outreach and experience to transform livelihoods. Our open-access platform, built on the principles of crowdsourcing and transparency, is conducive to – and in line with – SEWA’s principles of decentralised and community-led livelihood transformation.

In Ahmedabad, for instance, we have partnered with Shri Mahila Sewa Sahakari Bank, a SEWA Bank cooperative that self-employed women own as shareholders. They leverage our open-access platform to aid livelihood transformation in their community. We engage with the bank to deploy capital through our platform, in turn leveraging our partnership to scale up and co-create customised products to fit borrowers’ needs. Avanti has worked with the bank to train its agents to use our app. They have since been using it to bring customers on board. With the API integration, SEWA Bank intends to scale this up to the majority of its unsecured book. Our partnership is currently on a pilot basis but has the potential to enable branchless banking in the bank and expand its areas of intervention by building a trust-based partner ecosystem.

Aiding post-covid livelihood recovery

Two years into our work with SEWA, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world. Livelihoods were disrupted, especially among the urban and rural poor. This included micro-entrepreneurs who were part of SEWA. To aid their recovery, Avanti joined hands with the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation (MSDF) in January 2021. We have since deployed Rs 5 crore from the fund provided by MSDF to aid the recovery of members of SEWA Gujarat. We also partnered with SEWA Trade Facilitation Center (STFC), a member-owned livelihood ecosystem that works with various SEWA district associations to improve the livelihoods of low-income women. STFC identified 10 districts in Gujarat – Ahmedabad, Anand Kheda, Gandhinagar, Surendranagar, Patan, Arvalli, Chota Udaipur, Kutch Bhavnagar – to deploy livelihood recovery loans.

 

SEWA has leveraged its entire ecosystem to identify borrowers and define livelihood products. It has drawn inputs from a post-COVID study conducted by IFC to identify the locations and livelihood needs of borrowers. Once a location is selected, SEWA field agents (Aagewans and Bank Sakhis) identify and curate borrowers based on their livelihood requirements, their SEWA membership and their past repayment discipline. Most members have accounts with SEWA Bank, allowing SEWA to disburse and facilitate cashless collections from borrowers. In most of these areas, the association has existing livelihood, enterprise development and financial literacy interventions. At Avanti, we have successfully trained 25 field agents who are servicing over 1300 borrowers across these districts.

Lessons, challenges and the road ahead

Several aspects of Avanti’s digital platform have been inspired by our work with SEWA. These include the ability to enable guarantors for loans, to revise certain loan aspects without having to reject and refill all of them, the fields for savings-based credit and the ability to take images of borrower assets for credit evaluation. Additionally, we developed customised literacy modules for SEWA borrowers to teach them to use our platform with ease. We have since extended this to all our partners.

Our principal challenge concerned SEWA’s lack of digital infrastructure. Many of our interactions with agents began with teaching them to use smartphones before instructing them on using our platform. The bank also relied on an elaborate paper-based system to disburse loans, whereas our model is built on paperless documentation. We resolved this through a series of discussions with SEWA’s operations team. We mutually concluded that the platform could be customised to reduce paper and effort for SEWA Bank while maintaining the operational and compliance integrity of the bank’s processes.

A few agents also faced a language barrier while using our app. Although various fields in our app are populated in multiple languages, error messages and other notifications in the app appear in English. Rural agents find it difficult to read these. However, our platform is constantly evolving. As we enter new geographies, we plan to customise our customer support and troubleshooting guides to local contexts in multiple languages and disseminating these through WhatsApp.

The partnership between Avanti Finance and SEWA has the potential to scale a strong community model while also increasing the robustness of both our systems. Avanti has a strong opportunity to ensure financial inclusion and achieve our goal of transforming livelihoods. We have made significant headway together with SEWA and have a long, adventurous journey ahead of us. 

Video Credits: Vatsala Shrivsatava

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