Empowered by cellphones


Women of Rajendranagar slum carrying out their mobile-based transactions. Photo by the authorIt’s 8.15 am on a Tuesday morning. As many as 20 women gather at Parveen’s house in the Rajendranagar slum, off the busy 80 feet road in Koramangala. They all hold small cards in their hands, and wait for the loan manager from Grameena Koota (a microfinance institution), to arrive at their doorstep.

We are talking about a pilot project started by mChek, a mobile based secure authentication and payment platform that enables the customers to transact through their mobile phones, and Grameena Koota, in Bangalore.

These women all hold basic mobile phone models, and are fiddling with them, even as they take an oath  in Kannada that they will use the money that they borrow, for the betterment of their families. Once the oath is taken, their transactions are all conducted over their phones. Then, the loan manager makes notes in their cards, shows them how much they have borrowed, and what their balances are.

The money is indeed put to good use, to start businesses.

Take for instance, Shantha, a member of the group. She has helped her husband buy a welding machine, and that has augmented his business.

Explains Valerie Rozycki, Head Strategic Initiatives at mChek, “This pilot project will be scaled up to the national level. Each group is provided one mobile phone and multiple SIM cards to ensure ease of use and security.”

At some point, these women will also use mobile-based applications to pay their electricity bills.

And interestingly, most of these women are willing to pay the fees, required to operate mChek,   once the pilot project finishes its term.As many as 20 women, who are part of the group at the Rajendranagar slum,  and have been living here for the last 10 to 15 years, have all taken to the mobile phones. “The transactions get over, in say, 15 minutes. It saves us a lot of time. We can finish with it and get on with other work,” explains one member of the group. Time is crucial for these women, as most of them, work as domestic help in homes nearby. 

Changing lives

I ask these women if this initiative has changed their lives. “Yes, they chorus.”

Microfinance, and mobile-based microfinance, at that, has come as a boon for these women, most of whom didn’t even have bank accounts earlier. Also, borrowing from private lenders means paying huge interests, explains Shantha.

With this initiative, they have two advantages: one, they don’t have to deal with huge amounts of cash, because they can go once in a while to the Grameena Koota office, and make their withdrawals, two the loan manager comes to their doorstep. A secure PIN means they don’t have other family members misusing their money. Empowerment, did you say?

Indeed. Take Parveen’s example. This widow has three children, and she has borrowed a loan from the microfinace initiative, and has helped her son start a business.

There are visible signs of progress in her little house.

Things this poor widow from a slum would never have dreamed of, before. For one, there is a refrigerator, a television, and then, she is able to lease the house she now lives in, for Rs one lakh.

Soon, their transactions done, the women walk out in small groups to their respective day jobs.  Feeling empowered,  with the ability to improve their lives, just that much.

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