Shantipath Peace Centres

Client – The SEWA Shantipath Program

Background – The Shantipath Program was born out of SEWA’s relief work in response to the Gujarat riots of 2002. Though the cause of the riots is still debated the riots were based in conflict between the Hindu and Muslim communities within Gujarat. The Indian Prime Minister tasked SEWA with providing for the widows and orphans created during this violence. Through religious education, vocational training, and schooling Shantipath has made significant progress mending the damage of this atrocity. One key way that the “Shanta-bens” (Peace Sisters) were able to accomplish this was through linking women with livelihoods. This provided both income and empowerment for women within their family and community.

Initial Project Mandate – Assess the impact of these centers as training and business hubs and recommend ways to increase livelihood opportunities

Post Field Project Mandate – Develop a plan for implementation of two pilot “Business Hub”, a marketing brochure, and an impact assessment of the Shantipath Peace Centre Program.

Challenge – Create a viable solution with the scope to grow with the economic landscape of the Ahmedabad based on minimal information.

Personal Impact – Prior to leaving for India it was mentioned during one of our information sessions that the women we would be working with are very intelligent and capable, and that is exactly what they were. Most of the senior management has completed graduate level education, and even those members with an eight-grade education have years of experience addressing the livelihood problems within Ahmedabad. In the last 10 years these women have increased the income, skill, and employment levels of the SEWA membership in their communities. We were not there to provide some unique insight through the lens of a US MBA student, but to provide an additional perspective. The main reason that I went to India was to experience the informal jobs sector in India and my experience with the leaders and membership far exceeded my expectations.

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Expectations and results

Deciding to go to India was not difficult. The excitement overwhelmed any fear. Everyone who talked about their own experience in India talked about the abrupt difference between slums and extravagance, the smells, the small amount of personal space, and the beggars. I don’t recall a conversation about India that didn’t involve shaping my expectations for the horrible poverty. Even though you won’t be able to describe how it feels until it happens, I certainly felt prepared for culture shock.

Having been prepared for the culture shock, it didn’t feel so “shocking” and I did know when it hit me at multiple times, usually while driving through the cities and country. When it hit, it took the form of a calm state of pensiveness or perhaps an extreme version of staring off into the distance. At the same time it was so interesting to observe how different life was from what I knew, from the way people get around in packed chaotic streets, how every ten feet for long strips of city streets were lined with various vendors, handicraftsmen, and homes, to the way we were watched.

I learned a lot about myself, but also through our project. Working closely with a small team I thought was familiar, having been a student in Foster undergrad and grad school for a cumulative 5 years of this team style learning. It was not the same though and I learned so much from the differences.

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Padding Freedom for Women

One of the things that fascinated us the most during our trip to the Visavadi Center was their sanitary napkin production. There, several women manage a process that sources the raw materials, operate a machine to cut, arrange, stuff and sew sanitary napkins that are then sold, at a loss, to women in the community.

As women from the US, community acceptance and feminine products are two things that we take for granted. We have easy access to a wide variety of feminine products, which have been continually innovated and improved to fit our active lifestyles. But in many other cultures, a woman’s time of the month is one full of shame, where women are literally ostracized from their families and communities. The same is true in rural India. As summarized by a blog written by Elizabeth Scharpf and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elizabeth-scharpf-and-rachel-kauder-nalebuff/when-a-period-ends-more-t_b_172862.html):

“Despite the fact that half the world menstruates, most people overlook the serious repercussions of a lack of affordable sanitary supplies in developing countries. The reason? Most people don’t know that it is a problem. Others find the subject embarrassing. Even those who do understand think there are more pressing problems at hand. Why spend money on pads when AIDS remains to be solved, when countries desperately need infrastructure, when the economy is collapsing? Because it turns out that providing pads does much more than prevent embarrassing stains. It is a simple solution that can change the standing of a gender, and thus an economy, across a continent.”

In Gujarat – and throughout rural India –  the way women were taking care of their periods is often very unsanitary – using old and dirty cotton pieces that would not get cleaned or dried properly. This can lead to many health issues, including infection, infertility and even deaths; the danger is extreme. Beyond the direct health issues that it can cause to the woman, the impact it can have on a woman’s livelihood and her family’s livelihood is compounded – if she can’t work and provide for her family, the repercussions can be serious.

We couldn’t help be fascinated by this – perhaps because it is so different from the world in which we were brought up. But was also found ourselves completely inspired by this activity – women helping women in possibly one of the best ways that one woman can improve and support the lives of other woman. We wanted to learn more.

Before SEWA embarked on this project, they had over 2 years of research into the type of product they could make. There were other pads that had wings or were thicker and longer, but they were more expensive. So they settled on a machine that cost them 400,000 rupees. Raw materials would have to purchased every six months and because these materials are bulky, they need a place to store both the raw materials and the finished products. They sell the pads for 25 rupees, a price they determined would be attainable appropriate as a token amount. As mentioned before, they lose money on this project.

Our SEWA leaders made it clear to us: “This will not be a profitable business; this is being done for the social good.” But they did want us to look into how to reduce the costs and how to upgrade the machine.  In the end, we determined that this is the sort of opportunity that foundations and corporations look for to fund. The capital costs should be supported by those efforts. But where SEWA can have the most impact is on the education and distribution systems. The education part is important as it not only would include the safety benefits of using the napkins and how one should dispose of it,  but also help rural women more understand their bodies, a sort of taboo topic. We also think there is an opportunity to partner with the RUDI women, making sure the distribution network can reach far and wide. SEWA’s research found that door-to-door selling of these products are preferred. Finally, with perhaps the greatest ROI for SEWA, we think this is an opportunity to recruit the next generation of leaders for SEWA. The Manager-Ni School can recruit younger individuals and train them to be facilitators in the sanitary napkin project. These young women will not only get an early taste of the SEWA benefits, but can also convince their friends to join SEWA. This recruitment will help the generation gap we noticed during our time with the SEWA women.

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Communication Challenges: Our Major Takeways

Communication on teams can be tricky enough when you’re with coworkers or fellow students here in Seattle. But add in cultural and language barriers and suddenly you find yourself on a steep learning curve.  As we, the SEWA Manager Ni School, got settled in Ahmedabad and in our SEWA office, it started to become clear that our initial expectations of project communication needed to shift and thus we would like to share some of our observations to help future groups better communicate with their SEWA Clients.  

  1. Direct the meetings: Before we left, it was easy to assume in our excitement that we would have ample opportunity to meet with the SEWA Manager Ni School (SMS) team members and that information would be available in a snap. However, the women at SMS are working very hard to create and facilitate training programs for women throughout Asia and are constantly being pulled in different directions. After our initial meeting, we quickly learned that scheduling future meetings was a must; we could not assume that someone would be immediately available when a question arose. Furthermore, it was helpful to prepare a thorough meeting agenda beforehand with questions and desired outcomes to maximize our meeting time.  We needed to be much more direct in our communication style and say exactly what was needed and when. Once we realized that we were the ones driving the meetings, we were able to adapt our communication style to reach out desired outcomes.
  2. Clarify terminology: One of our earliest realizations came when our SMS Managers were asking us for a break-even model to use when assessing various activities in which the Community Centers could engage. From our business background, we assumed they wanted us to develop a model which would show when the costs and expenses were equal – where the total revenue and total costs curves would meet. We also assumed that from this, they would want to anticipate the profit they could make from their pursuit of an activity. Upon inquiry, we discovered that they weren’t interested in making a profit; they wanted to operate debt-free, a completely different objective. Their use of the word “Sustainable” was also misleading coming from our background: we assumed that by sustainability, they wanted to become self-sustaining. However, that was not their goal: they wanted to look for continuous sources of income to cover their programs, whether through private or government grants. Again, this changed our objectives. We learned that it was important to clarify terminology to better address their objectives and understand their needs.
  3. Ask. Ask again. Ask some more; ask different people; ask in different ways: Before we left, we were told about the graciousness of the Indian culture and how it can be difficult for some to say no when asked a question or favor. Throughout our time in Ahmedabad we experienced both of these traits. First, each day the SMS team was incredibly generous in hosting us for lunch around the table, a daily tradition. All of the women were so proud of SMS and eager to share the results of their work and dedication. We loved hearing about the success stories of the Centers but were also curious about the programs that weren’t working as well as expected. As we asked more detailed questions about the Visavadi CBLRC, the responses would occasionally be brief but said with a positive head nod. To get the real picture – or rather a more complete picture – we learned not to push the question further right away but instead return to the subject during a later conversation, sometimes with a different person. Often, this would give us the information we needed. We tried to find the balance between understanding different communication styles while also getting the information we needed. Being aware of these differences but also working to find common ground helped to build our relationship with the SMS team.

We’ve all heard the adage “communication is key to any relationship”, and this is true no matter which continent you’re on. While communication proved to be challenging, it also served as a great learning experience.

 

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This is what innovation looks like

The busy streets of Ahmedabad

I often joke about MBA buzzwords — strategy, breakeven, decks, ambiguity, impact, intrepreneurship — but the one I hear most is “innovation.” I tend to think of innovation as a new piece of technology or a scientific breakthrough. In actuality, innovation is any kind of change that leads to improvement. In my time with SEWA, I repeatedly observed actions that, although they seemed minor, actually made a huge difference in the lives of members. Two examples of the innovation coming out of SEWA spring to mind:

1) Mobile price monitoring. The biggest barrier to the financial independence of castor farmers was that they had no way to know the current price of castor. Without this information, buyers could easily rip off the farmers. SEWA saw this problem and utilized a ubiquitous technology to fix it: SMS. Each day, SEWA sends a text message to the farmers with the latest castor price so they are able to demand fair payment.

A view from the top of Kankaria, a tethered hot air balloon in Ahmedabad

2) Making and distributing inexpensive sanitary napkins. As an American woman, I have never had to consider what my life would be like without sanitary products. For women in the developing world, access to these products can be nearly impossible, putting them at risk of infection and preventing them from attending school or going to work. SEWA is working to combat this by employing women to produce and package sanitary napkins to sell to women in rural areas. In addition to selling the products, SEWA also educates women about feminine hygiene and helps to reduce the stigma associated with menstruation.

I couldn’t be more amazed by the work that SEWA is doing. The ingenuity demonstrated by the SEWA staff and sisters is proof that innovation and impact come in many forms – and that they are more than just buzzwords.

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Hariyali

First Day in Ahmedabad

During fall quarter we began preparing for our trip to India to work on our assigned projects for the Self Employed Women’s Association.  I was assigned to the Hariyali team.  The Hariyali project had recently shifted focus from providing cookstoves to villagers as clean burning, fuel-efficient solutions for cooking meals rather than the common three-stone fire, to looking at the feasibility of providing electricity to off-grid communities in India.  With only this general idea of what we were going to be working on, we began reaching out to people and companies who could help provide insights into current electrification efforts in India.  We spoke with local engineers about power sources, and Indian companies such as Mera Goa Power and Gram Power, who are currently working to provide energy to remote villages in India.

With more questions than answers, and still several final exams to complete, we boarded a plane bound for India.   Arriving in Mumbai in the evening I had my first glimpse of Indian weddings–large, beautifully decorated, outdoor areas lit up by professional sports-grade lights; thousands of people dressed in fine, bright-colored, sparkling attire celebrating the wedding.

Less than 24 hours later our group boarded another plane bound to Ahmedabad to meet with SEWA and our project managers.  There, we met Anurag, our project manager.  We had only spoken with Anurag one time before via Skype.  For the next week and a half we spent almost every day with Anurag, discussing aspects of the project.  We spoke about different social, technical, and economic challenges.  We discussed how religion and caste could impact our project.  We learned the general political structure of a village and how a panch and sarpanch were elected and what their roles were.

Aditya and Anurag at work

We spoke about current structures in SEWA that could help support the project.  Anurag even invited his nephew, Aditya, to help us with the project.  Aditya not only provided a fresh perspective and insightful questions, but he also helped research information regarding solar cells and translated questions for us when we visited a remote village.

 

In addition to spending time with Aditya and Anurag, our team had the chance to visit local temples and sites.  We became accustomed to the traffic flow, learning how to comfortably cross busy streets, embracing the different right-of-way perspective.  I was amazed at how so many people on foot, bike, motorbike, car, and truck were able to safely use one roadway without following “strict” traffic rules.  Our team also had the opportunity to speak with locals, enjoy delicious local foods, see local art, and visit the local university.

Our time in the field, around Ahmedabad, with Aditya, Anurag and with the other SEWA members, was illuminating and memorable as they took time to explain things about their work and their culture, and shared their lives with us. It was both interesting and challenging to learn about solar energy, gasification, and mini-grids, as well as the needs for energy in different villages. The experience highlighted the importance of electrification, even if there is just enough electricity to power several lights and charge a mobile phone. This small difference has huge impacts–children can study into the evening, parents can do work to generate more income and be able to serve three meals a day, new businesses are created around the repair of these electrical devices…

Simply living in India for a few weeks, being exposed to the dynamic culture, following local politics, and even going to a Bollywood movie reminded me of the importance of travel and the impact these different experiences can have on me personally and the group as a whole. It is only when we get outside of our daily lives and challenge our perspectives that we can truly broaden and expand our awareness and understanding.

I look forward to continuing working on the Hariyali project throughout the winter quarter.

Art installation in Ahmedabad. Woman carrying food through the old part of Ahmedabad.

 

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RUDIben Use Mobile Application to Help Increase Profits

The Rural Distribution Network India (RUDI) is a large rural cooperative whose mission is to empower Indian women. Owned and managed by rural women and farmers, the RUDI network ensures work, income security and leads to economic empowerment. Our team’s project focus is on the RUDIben, rural saleswomen that travel throughout villages selling goods that include spices, pulses, and tea.

On our third day in Ahmedabad, team RUDI set off on a 2-day trip to the district of Surendranagar to tour the district-processing center, meet with RUDIben in the villages and learn what it takes to become a successful RUDIben. I was overwhelmed by the warm reception we received by the families in each of the villages. We sipped chai tea while listening to the stories of how the women SEWA and RUDI have empowered them and impacted their lives.

While there are improvements to usability of the application, the benefits are starting to be realized by both the RUDIben and the district processing centers that receive the data on a daily basis. Prior to using the mobile phone applications, RUDIben would have to go directly to the processing centers to place orders and then wait for the products to be ready. Now they spend less time traveling and allows them to make more sales, which has drastically increased their profits.  One saleswoman saw her income increase from 250 rupees to 5,000 rupees a day.

One of our team’s deliverables is to assess the use of mobile phone applications and provide insights into how other organizations have used similar technology. We will also be meeting with mentors that have worked with both the Gate’s Foundation and PATH to gain a better perspective on similar initiatives. We are looking forward to building upon the work that we started in Ahmedabad throughout rest of winter quarter.

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The Next Step In Linking Livelihoods

The Shantipath Peace Centres came about as a result of the 2002 riots, which ravaged the city of Ahmedabad and left thousands of women homeless, widowed, and without an income. What started out as an effort to rebuild and move forward became a model for restoring peaceful relations between Hindus and Muslims while helping women build skills that make them employable.

Shantipath now operates nine Centres within the city of Ahmedabad and our team had the opportunity to visit five during our trip. During these visits we sat in on classes and interviewed the women in charge of the centers, teachers, young women who were training at the centers, children who were attending Knowledge Center classes there, as well as their parents and caregivers. Everyone welcomed us with open arms and opened up about their experiences despite the fact that we were complete strangers. The stories of their lives and what the Shantipath Centres have helped them accomplish were both humbling and inspirational. We spoke with a Muslim Center-In-Charge who broke deeply engrained norms and roles within her religion in taking the position and is now the leader of her family unit, as well as Hindu women who now have a new sense of identity and worth because they are able to make money and contribute to family income.

Among our deliverables is a formal structure and plan for a business hub pilot program for two of the Centres that will link women who receive training from Shantipath Centres to jobs. This happens currently in a very informal fashion, with the Centere leads going out and networking with local employers on behalf of the girls in their Centres. Our student team will provide the details of how to start, structure, scale, and sell this program throughout the Shantipath network. We are also providing the Centres with an impact report of what they have achieved so far, from our perspective, as well as a marketing brochure for future visitors.

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Empowering Women in Rajasthan

When being told to “be flexible” while working in India, our team did not realize how quickly we would need to adhere to this. After spending a day in Ahmedabad, we set out for the Dungarpur district in Rajasthan in order to visit three different villages where SEWA’s Jyoti Project was underway. This would be our opportunity to see SEWA’s work first hand, and to begin to understand the impact SEWA has had on the lives of women in these villages. Some of the improvements we expected to see were in income and health, but what surprised me was how empowered the women we met were, especially in the second and third villages.

Our first meeting in Dungarpur occurred immediately after we had arrived, and was at a school where SEWA had installed solar panels on the rooftop. We met with a group of 13 women and 6 men, including the village Sarpanch (village government leader). This meeting saw the Sarpanch do most of the talking, with the women nodding in agreement to most of his statements but rarely speaking up on their own. We were able to conduct a more in-depth interview of one of the women, and only in that setting did we really start to see the effect of SEWA on her confidence and her ability to act as a leader in the area. She had seen many different levels of SEWA involvement, starting with a solar lantern and eventually seeing the installation of two handpumps, solar panels, and the development of a local area childcare center in her home. She talked about the confidence she had developed, being able to earn an income with SEWA’s help and having the courage to travel alone to Ahmedabad.

Our second and third village visits helped to solidify how empowered and confident the

Meeting some of the women we would interview, learning about their village, their lives, and how SEWA has helped.

women were, particularly in contrast to the first group. The women we met with were very willing to speak their mind, and be very open about what SEWA has done for them. The second village had been working with SEWA since 2007, and even though they’d been asked many times before about what the Jyoti program and SEWA has done, they were excited to share their stories with us. The third village was like this, too, even though they had only worked with SEWA for a few months. What came through when talking with the third village was the possibilities working with SEWA could provide. They were just getting familiar with the uses for their solar lanterns, and already they were discovering ways to improve their lives, from being able to work later at night, to using the lanterns overnight to keep rats away. They were excited about this piece of technology, and even more excited to learn more about its uses and what else SEWA could provide.

One of SEWA’s goals, throughout all its projects, is to promote self-reliance for its members. Dungarpur is a tough district to make a living, and any kind of assistance SEWA can provide is more than welcome.

The land the women of Dungarpur farm on.

However, the Jyoti Project has done far more than just give the women a push in the right direction. It goes beyond just income improvements, time savings, health, or education. To them, it was a way for them to be in control of their lives, a way for them to not have to rely on their husbands sending money back home from Ahmedabad. They could plan for their households, and help improve their village on their own. Given how male-centric Indian culture can be, it was a massive change, and I was honored to be able to see some of it in person.

 

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Village visit

My group is working with the Hariyali team. Our project is to do an analysis on whether to use solar power or biomass gasification technology for supplying small rural villages with electricity.
Anurag, our manager, and his nephew, Aditya, took us to a small rural village in order to do some primary research. The village partnered with SEWA 7 years ago to put in a 40 Kilowatt (KW) wood-gasification plant in order to get seven hours of electricity per day. The plant took a year and a half to build. It consisted of two hoppers, an engine, a generator, a converter, a wood-chopper, a mini grid, and wiring to all the households. After one day of successful run time, the government decided to intervene by bringing full 24/7 electricity to the village. After the village had full grid electricity, the wood-gasification plant wasn’t used at all and is now completed rusted and unusable. It was a little upsetting to see such a large waste of potential resources. The village people gladly answered all of our questions (thanks to translation from Anurag and Aditya!) and even gave us several glasses of fresh cow’s milk!




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