Buzz India’s Uthara Drives Money Into Rural Women’s Life In An Orange Bus
- IWB Post
- June 23, 2017
While there has been considerable progress in India on the social front in terms of women empowerment, there is still a long way to go when it comes to the financial empowerment of women.
Aware that this problem was not going to be fixed on its own, Uthara Narayanan founded Buzz India, an organization with a unique approach that ‘four-wheels’ rural women to become financially independent.
With a brightly-coloured orange bus that travels over Karnataka, they have managed to change the lives of 150,000 people by training a whopping 30,000 women. Their goal is to touch the lives of 1 million women in Karnataka alone by 2025, leaving them more empowered and confident.
I had the opportunity to talk to Uthara about the work she does at Buzz India. Let me sound my horn!
What was your motivation behind starting Buzz India?
For a long time, I pondered one question: ‘How do people come out of poverty?’ I came to realize that it’s not about money, but behavior. I firmly believe in people’s power to change for the better. Overcoming poverty is as much about a person’s personal journey as it is about money.
There must have been a few bustling stops in your journey before Buzz India?
Actually, it wasn’t my journey alone; I co-founded Buzz India with two other people, Dev and Suresh.
I’ve always wanted to bring about social change, to contribute to the development of India. Initially, I wanted to be an IAS or IPS officer, so that I could initiate change from within the government.
When I was 7 years old, there was this TV show which was a favorite of mine, ‘Udaan.’ About a woman IPS officer. My mother tells me that is probably where I got the idea of becoming a police officer from, but my family and parents have been a huge part of my journey. Fresh out of college, I participated in an exchange programme in Canada, where I learned a lot about NGOs and social work.
Tell us about your homework prior to every bus trip to the village?
We plan trips through partners, like Anganwadis and NGOs that operate in those areas. We get written permission from the government and show them to the people at the Anganwadi, who help us mobilize women. We also network with local NGOs, micro-finance institutions, and the government network, which the biggest.
Have you ever faced any resistance from the villagers?
Sometimes there is community resistance from the elders, and sometimes, caste-level problems, but 97% of the time, everyone co-operates, and we are successful.
We so love Buzz India’s brightly coloured buses. Tell me about the first ever Buzz bus, how it was equipped, and the efforts that went into it?
When we first started, we piloted without the bus. We reached out to the village community, but the most difficult part was the logistics of it. We would hold our workshops in the community centres of the villages, but that was problematic because not all villages had them, and sometimes, caste and religion came in the way.
That’s why we started the buses so that we could hold the workshops outdoors, which would also be more comfortable for the women’s families.
The very first Buzz bus was equipped with chairs, an overhead projector, an AV system, a whiteboard, charts, and some toys and props for the role-plays we did. The projector was solar-powered, so we had solar panels on the bus’s roof.
Other than the obvious teaching, what goes for fun during such outdoor workshops?
There’s obviously the role-play activities, in which the women use the media of dance, drama, and music to carry out their roles. They find these quite fun and enjoy them a lot.
We also play this block game. We blindfold the women and ask them to stack blocks on top of each other. The game teaches goal-setting.
We have some pretty interesting debates and discussions about finances and business.
How are trainers selected and trained?
We look for trainers with a Master’s degree in Social Work. For this, we put out advertisements on job portals. Every trainer goes through a rigorous interview in which we assess their passion for working for our cause. This is followed by a mock training session to gauge their aptitude for teaching and training.
Once selected, each trainer participates in a 1 or 2-month-long induction session at the office, after which they shadow a senior trainer and learn from them. Every month, we have capacity-building programmes to hone their training skills.
While these women learn a lot from you and your team, is there anything that you’ve learned from them?
Everything about these women impresses me. They embody power. It takes a lot of strength to remain cheerful after going through a lot in life, but they are resilient. They always have a positive outlook on life no matter what problem comes their way.
It’s impressive how financially resilient they are. They never give up, even if they have no money. You see these big corporations that file for bankruptcy the moment they are in troubled waters, but it’s different with these women. They repay 99% of the loans they take.
Common questions asked by the women?
The most common question is “Will you give us money?”, of course. (laughs)
They also ask us how they can increase their income, and seek our help with market surveys and linking.
Do you discuss dreams together?
They want to build better lives for their children, make sure they speak English, study, and eventually work in an office.
That’s something I’ve realized: none of them want their children to become agricultural workers like themselves, to ‘work with dirt’; they want them to have a job and work in an office. They feel that the life of a farmer is not dignified, but that’s where I feel they are wrong.
Especially in a country like India, agriculture is very important. We need to accord dignity to farmers and agricultural workers, or this sector of the economy will be in trouble. That’s why I always tell them that having dirt on their hands is good, it means they work with the earth and help feed everyone.
How has the response from their families towards these workshops been? Are the male members supportive of them and their empowerment?
There have been cases in which we’ve seen a husband come to his wife at lunchtime, and ask her to leave the workshop to make lunch. At the same time, we’ve also seen husbands dropping their wives off, and families watching the sessions from behind.
What we do is not only about women empowerment but about empowering the community as a whole.
We never tell the women to leave their families; it’s not our place. We always tell them to reason with their family and sit and have a proper conversation, everyone will be less angry, and there will be fewer fights. Fighting gets us nowhere.
Many times, people waste time playing the ‘blame game.’ We believe in the power of solution-based dialogue and conversation.
One success story of a woman that was trained by Buzz India?
There have been many success stories, but my favourite one is Devamma’s. I remember, back in 2012, she was part of the group I had personally trained. When I was out mobilizing women for the programme, Devamma had come up to me, asking for 5000 rupees. She was a tailor, but was in deep debt and had an abusive husband. I told her that I wouldn’t give her money, but would, instead, teach her to make money for herself, and so she joined.
3 years down the lane, Devamma single-handedly convinced her husband and in-laws to help her husband de-addict. She started working at a tailor shop, and even started her own Self-Help Group! In some time, she not only managed to pay her loans off but also saved up to 1 lakh rupees.
I was surprised when one day, she came up to me and said, “I want to start a bank.” I was confused at first and asked her why. She said she wanted to lend money to the women in her village, at rates lower than money-lenders would.
Did Devamma eventually start a bank?
Yes, she did. She came up to me back in 2015 and has since started her own bank. Well, I wouldn’t exactly call it a bank, but it’s a small set-up in which she has included 10 other women. They lend to their fellow women at reasonable rates.
What are some of the institutional barriers the women face in banks?
I think the biggest problem is the devil inside a person. Women are usually too intimidated to go to a bank and ask for a loan. They think that bankers are ‘bade log,’ that they are too poor and dirty to enter such a big place. What happens is, even when they go, the bankers ignore them and tell them to come later. A lot of it has to do with behaviour.
You see, that’s the problem. Society sees women as daughters, wives, mothers, and in other social roles, but never as people. We need to get rid of these stereotypes. We should never undermine women. What we need to do is help them overcome this intimidation, and teach them to be confident with themselves.
I’m not trying to underplay the institutional barriers like collateral, guarantee, lack of ID proof and assets, but the biggest barrier will always be the societal one.
This reminds me of the time Mr. Mohammad Yunus visited your organization. Tell me about that experience.
A few years ago, Mr. Yunus was in Bangalore, visiting various NGOs. Suresh convinced him to come visit us and take a look at our bus.
Mr. Yunus is a very humble man and is very encouraging. He always says, “Do something, at least. Even if you help one person, do it.” He is definitely an inspiration for me.
Other than primary training, how do you train the women who go on to become community leaders?
Our leadership programmes are a newer development.
So, first, every woman sits for 2 half-day sessions in which we talk about their personal finances. Then, 1 woman is selected to lead 5 villages. She is tasked with being in touch with other women and going from village to village telling women about her experience and encouraging them to join our workshops. Stepping out of their village and talking to strangers in other villages is initially intimidating for them, but they overcome the hesitation. We expect them to completely immerse themselves in community interaction.
We give them tasks that translate to leadership. We now have modules to train them. These are on self-awareness, skill development and the like. We teach them to interact with their community, how to use resources, build relationships, and identify and deal with specific problems people might have. We target the areas they need help with.
This is all part of adaptive leadership courses taught at universities like Harvard and MIT, which I have read about and taken inspiration from. We believe in experiential learning, which brings out the power in them. We never tell them to be leaders, but teach them leadership skills.
Highlight some of the battles these women fight and the solutions to each.
The first is, obviously, poverty, the absence of liquid money. Laborers earn monthly wages, but agricultural workers earn only once a year when they sell their harvest off at the market. As soon as they get the money, they spend it to maybe build a borewell or to buy a tractor or seeds. They don’t think long-term. That’s why we teach them budgeting so that they spend and save their money judiciously.
Another problem is borrowing, especially at high-interest rates. They don’t know whether they should go to a moneylender or a bank. For this, we teach them the difference between productive and consumption loans. With consumption loans, they get no returns. For example, taking a loan to buy a saree would not bring you anything because it will soon wear off.
Our approach is such that we never tell them what to do, but only the implications of their actions and decisions. We go to the core issue of the ‘why’ behind all problems.
We teach them about liquidity, insurance, pension, government schemes, and financial goal-setting. We teach them to think long-term.
Do you plan on expanding your bus routes?
Yes, we plan on expanding to 30 districts of Karnataka by 2025 and reach 1 million women in Karnataka. While it won’t be possible for us to reach every state, we will partner with other NGOs to start a similar kind of set-up elsewhere. If there’s any NGO that wants to do this, we would be willing to share our modules and everything with them. We plan to expand through replication and partnership.
I am also in talks with the Telangana government to see if they can implement such a programme over there. If there is an existing infrastructure, we should make use of it.
If you wish to volunteer for Buzz India, get in touch with Uthara Narayanan at firstname.lastname@example.org.