Project Shakti: Strengthening Women’s Livelihoods

A few months ago, I discussed the idea of social intrapreneurs based on a SustainAbility case study that featured Hindustan Unilever’s Project Shakti. This month, the World Bank Institute’s publication titled Development Outreach focuses on business and poverty, with an article written by those involved with the same project. The authors describe the project not as a CSR initiative, but as “a business initiative with social benefits.”

Initially, the project was created as a response to Unilever’s desire to tap into new markets within India. Unable to reach most small villages due to poor transport and supply chain infrastructure, along with challenges of selling products to a population with little or no disposable income, Unilever saw the need to innovate.

Connecting with existing women’s self-help groups, Project Shakti allows women to start generating a annual income of US$150 after receiving training and a loan to get off the ground.

The company decided to set up a direct-to-consumer retail operation by creating a network of entrepreneurs to sell its products door-to-door, and to produce a range of affordable products in small sizes to meet the needs and pockets of low-income consumers. These are mostly single-use sachets selling for as little as 50 paise (half a rupee) each.

As a female member of a low-income family, imagine earning an amount that would almost double the family’s household income. The impact on the woman as an individual, along with the ripple effect on the family and surrounding community, is probably unmeasurable.

Now, Project Shakti also consists of public awareness programs focusing on health and hygiene, as well as an i-Shakti initiative that allows villagers to access information through kiosks.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the authors’ description is their take on lessons and challenges. Managing partnerships and balancing interests lies at the heart of these challenges, and the authors note:

Whatever the primary purpose and objectives of each partner, whether developmental or commercial, creating convergence between different activities is the key to progress. A big part of the solution to development lies in working together and using infrastructure, whether developed by the public or private sector, for the benefit of all.

Clearly, this is no easy undertaking, yet Project Shakti provides a powerful example of a business that profits while improving the livelihoods and quality of life for its customers. Originally driven by the need to diversify their customer base and increase profit, the program now reaches over 3 million households in India. When business and social good align, the collaboration can have a wide-reaching impact.

Breaking the First of Many Glass Ceilings

At the first national conference on rural BPOs, as mentioned previously by Santhosh, the real spotlight was on women. Business processing organizations all over the country are discovering that women are just as capable, if not more, than men in completing the tasks related to these jobs.

“We give the same entrance test for both boys and girls and have no gender discrimination in our intake policy. But somehow girls seem to be more successful in our test and 75 of our 125 people are girls,” said C S Gopinath, senior vice-president of HDFC Bank, who set up the bank’s first BPO at Nellore in Andhra Pradesh through its subsidiary Atlas Development Facilitators Company.

In a society where social stigma and family responsibilities are also interrelated factors, all-women BPOs offer an attractive solution.

“Many fathers do not like the idea of sending their daughters to work alongwith boys. And if perchance, any girl goes out with a boy for a movie, the social stigma is so high that the whole village will boycott us. So, it made sense to have a women-only BPO,” said Madhukar Rajagopal, CEO of JSoft.

Gaining a foothold to respectable and skilled jobs within BPOs is a major step forward for women and their employment outlook. As one door opens, many more are sure to follow…

Who Represents India’s Women?

On average, Indian women work longer hours than men, as their day consists of a more diverse array of tasks relating both to the maintenance of their livelihoods (public sphere) and homes (domestic sphere). In rural India, this could take the form of both working in the fields and performing domestic duties such as cooking, drawing water, cleaning the home, washing clothes, and educating the children. In urban India, this could potentially mean working outside the home while simultaneously performing the aforementioned domestic duties. Unfortunately, in proportion to their input of labour, time, and resources, women are not equally compensated as men. In the case of this article, I won’t speak to financial compensation (which is also unequal), but rather, I will speak to the more intangible aspect of the problem – representation.

According to a recent MeriNews report, India lags behind its South Asian partners with regard to “the commitments made in the Common Minimum Program (CMP) of mainstreaming women in the legislative process and structures effectively. In fact, “according to a survey, reservation for women stands at only 8.2 per cent in India while in Pakistan it is over 21 per cent, Nepal 30 per cent and Bangladesh is 10 per cent. ”

The Alliance for Women’s Reservation Bill (AWRB), which consists of more than 30 women’s groups, has expressed serious concern over this relative lack of participation in the “country’s progress,” and has sent Prime Minister Manmohan Singh a memorandum “demanding that the 33% reservation bill be tabled and voted upon in this half of the budget session. Members of the Alliance are tired of the politicization of this process, and refuse to be exploited as political puns during the election cycle.

Veena Nayyar, director of Women’s Political Watch, said it best:

Women are angry, tired and feel insulted by unmeant and unkept promises by manifestos and speeches of the senior most leadership of the country and these too pick up momentum only in the election year.

If India claims to be a global force, no longer can it afford to lag behind in terms of women’s rights. Neither can the government simply pay lip service to 50% of India’s population. Social development and economic development must occur simultaneously in order for the title, “India Shining,” to be truly apt.

Kavita Ramdas speaks on women’s rights

Kavita Ramdas, the current President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women sat down with Britt Bravo of Have Fun Do Good, to speak on women’s rights across the globe.

“I think there are many different ways in which you define leadership. As a feminist, and as a feminine feminist, I truly believe that we don’t do a very good job in the United States of believing that you can lead by serving, and I think the United States needs to think deeply about being in service of the rest of the world.”

The Global Fund for Women is the largest independent grant-making body in this field and so her words carry a lot of weight. The text of the interview can be found here. Or if you want to listen to her speak, a podcast is below.

Internship Opening: Entrepreneur Training & Business Development for Rural BPO

The purpose of this internship is to develop business for Source for Change, an all-women rural BPO, and to expand the capabilities of its local entrepreneur (Attachment here Source For Change.doc).

The interns will be responsible for:

  • Generating new business opportunities in data-entry and digitization services
  • Training a local entrepreneur and developing operational processes to deliver quality services
  • Delivering sales presentations to global organizations and MNCs
  • Developing innovative means to expand the business network of Source for Change (e.g. modifying website content)
  • Traveling to New Delhi, Jaipur and Gurgaon to meet with potential clients
  • Training employees of Source for Change in both basic and advanced computer skills\

More after the jump.

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Midday Newsfeed

Headlines from around the town:

To mark the International Women’s Day, Indian anti-poverty network Wada Na Todo Abhiyan has released a report highlighting the recommendations of the Women’s Tribunal Against Poverty held in October last year. The charter against poverty reinforces the demand for women’s access to power, resources and services.

Quite a few debates are currently raging in the disability rights movement. Special schools or inclusive education, community based rehabilitation or institutionalised rehabilitation, job reservations or none

Google is adding more and more mapping tiles for India. India is now getting digitized and we are seeing new google mashups for India… Currently the site covers new construction projects for Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chandigarh, Pune, Gurgaon and Noida.

Government of India has an online Grievance forum. The govt. wants people to use this tool to highlight the problems they faced while dealing with Government officials or departments like Passport Office, Electricity board, BSNL/MTNL, Railways etc.