Archive for September, 2008

Sewing Machine. Corner Store. Fabric. Seed. Trees. Donkeys. Fertilizer. Blanket weaving. Brick pressing. Statue Making. Pottery. Ice ream Making. Vegetable Trading. Utensil Making. Electrical Repair. Steel Smelting. Juice Shop. Welding.

The 2.5 million members of SKS are using their loans to start and expand over 160 different types of businesses. Of which, the ones listed above are a sample. Part of the elegance of this method for supporting development is that we did not ask any of our members to start these businesses. They chose. No aid agencies swept in to enforce their version of economic development on a community. While micro-lending lacks the coherence of an integrated community development plan that a government body or multi-national development agency might attempt to implement, this model provides each interested community member a resource to implement their own family development plan. I don’t mean to suggest a community should have an either/or decision between long-term, integrated development or individual, small scale income expansion. I wish these were yes/and choices. Unfortunately, both options are rarely available.

Until three weeks ago (this was meant to be posted earlier), I had never seen micro-lending actually happen. I was worse than a pretender. I had no experience with how women really used their loans and I had lingering doubts about whether or not interest rates tended towards the usurious. More specifically, I was concerned that, if the relatively educated, average US consumer can’t figure out how to say no to the fourteenth sliver of plastic promising low introductory rates, our members would be unable to price the “cost” of our loan. During my first visit to a center meeting (this is where a group of 30-50 women meet to pay their weekly interest and determine if anyone else should get a new loan), I wanted to understand how our members thought about their loans, the interest rate, and the value of the loan to them.

An overview of how our meetings work (photos follow each step, when included):

1) The group assembles under the lead of a Field Associate. The operation is quite efficient and respectful. When we showed up a bit late to the center, we had to pay 5 rupees to the center. No one gets away with being late / disrespectful.

2) Each member’s passbook and weekly interest payment is collected. Should someone not be present, their interest must still be paid by the other members of the center (I have seen this group responsibility in action at a number of centers and am still impressed that the center adheres to this principle). Collective obligation to pay the loan is the lynchpin of our model, which is based upon the work of Dr. Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank.

3) Usually a few other members of the community show up, whether children from around the area who are surprised to see folks like myself or children of our members, who sit suprisingly placidly through the meeting.

I met with one of our members after the center ended and she introduced me to her newest source of income, provided in part by a loan from SKS:

After speaking with her, my concerns (perhaps you could call them paternalistic concerns) about our members being able to price the full cost of our loans declined. She shared this thinking with me, though I have added a few additional calculations and clarifications. Her figures were not this precise, but her train of thought and explanations were.

She had decided to purchase a water buffalo, which cost ~30,000 rupees. She had Rs 10,000 in savings that she was willing to put towards the purchase of the buffalo. She would match this with a loan from us to complete the purchase. To determine if our 20,000 rupee (425 USD) loan, paid over a one-year term, was worth it, she calculated the following:

1) The cow would produce 4-6 liters of milk per day, which she could sell at Rs 15 – 18. Let’s call this Rs 75 more in daily income or Rs 500 per week, for simplicity’s sake.

2) In six months time, the cow would become pregnant. During this period, she would only be able to get 2-3 liters of milk per day. Or Rs 40 per day over the gestation and calf rearing period.

3) If the pregnancy was successful, she would be able to raise the calf for a year and then sell the calf for up to Rs 20,000.

4) She hoped to repeat the successful pregnancy at least twice more over the next four to six years.

The interest on her loan came out to Rs 5,000 on a principal of Rs 20,000. So, on a weekly basis, she was expected to pay back Rs 500 (Rs 60 in principal and Rs 15 in interest per day) per week. Consequently, for six months, if everything went okay, she would just be making her interest payments with the additional income from the milk sales. But, from then until the end of the loan repayment period, she would need to find money from somewhere to service the loan. She and her husband had decided that he would take on extra work to cover this shortfall.

She explained that she was confident that they would be able to pay the loan back over the course of the year and that, after this time, the cow would earn for the family more than the cost (interest) of the loan every four months or so.

Pretty sophisticated, in my opinion. Moreover, this was not a canned meeting. This was just one center member with whom I happened to ask a few questions. While this story seems to be a success, thus far, I know that plenty exist of these plans breaking down. I just offer this as a basic illustration. I am sure, if my conversation had gone quite differently during my time in the field, the tenor of this post would be quite different.

In the background of this photo, you can see the side of one of the community’s small shrines. If you want to see the visualization of what an angry god might look like, you’ve got it. Forgot to pay your tithe to the church? Missed that opportunity to help that old lady across the street? Forget to pay your Netflix bill? Put that pre-paid envelope in the mail, now. Include the check.

Here are a few more photos from that field visit:

Out for a morning stroll. Here’s looking at you.

A roadside Ganesh.

The Party is alive and well. I see these bits of party propaganda all over the place – from Andhra to Orissa to Tamil Nadu.

Our whole bus got in on the tank refill process. The guy in the white shirt was getting a bit frustrated with our advice.

Venkat took me on the field visit. When someone had asked him why he chose to work at SKS, he said he wanted to help as many people as he could before he died. No qualifiers or anything else. Damn.

Then he stuck me on the back of this. We passed more than a few shocked truck drivers to see this pasty, white person accordian-ed into the back of the ‘rick.

I woke up to this view of Hyderabad that morning. We were on our way to the field by 5:30am. A nice start to the day.


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I spent the past five days in Orissa repairing a project that had nearly jack-knifed off the rails. In the process, I learned my first words of Oriya, participated in my first Ganesh Puja, got chased away by an irate father, and saw some of the most breath taking scenery I’ve spied thus far (which, as of now, isn’t saying much, because I’ve spent most of my time around Hyderabad and Bombay).

Geography lesson time: Head north-east from my adopted state of Andhra Pradesh to the neighboring area of Orissa. Orissa’s capital is Bhubaneswar. It’s from here that we are preparing the pilot.

We’re working to crack the code on whether solar-powered lighting, through the use of micro-loans, meets the short-term electrification needs of our members and, by extension, the poor. So far, the results are mixed. In particular, a number of the areas that we had hoped would be promising candidates for the pilot are more electrified than originally thought. Nevertheless, many of our members have demonstrated intense interest in having an affordable way to obtain reliable, clean energy. And so, we are working on tightening up the model, reducing cost to our customers, and preparing for launch in the next month or so. Until then, I do not have too much that I can share about the program specifics.

What I can say is that I am convinced that this is an important first step in allowing our members to provide their families with a key resource to improve their lives. In Udala, when nature’s light goes out our members rest. After sundown, children cannot do homework, mothers cannot develop their businesses, and husbands cannot complete their work. Kerosene lanterns are polluting, dangerous, and expensive (over the long-term) and flashlights are totally inadequate for lighting a living space.The solar lights that we are currently testing will lift these constraints on our member. I am sure we’ll also learn of many creative uses that we could not have anticipated.

My hope is to work with some highly innovative, but realistic, product design and engineering companies that are creating flexible home energy solutions for off-grid households. In essence, the challenge for our members is that they need an affordable, reliable method for storing energy (i.e. – a battery) and a method for reliably accessing power (i.e. – AC grid power, solar, micro-hydro). The most expensive piece of that equation is the battery, currently. But, battery costs are declining and energy-efficient lighting units (LED lights, for example) are extending usage time and increasing lumens.

I am working on slightly more nuanced posts about Orissa, the gender divide, differences between developed and developing states within India, communal politics and violence, and my developing perspective on the value and constraints of microfinance. I suspect this will take a bit longer than I hope, but…

In the meantime, I wanted to share some photos from our field work and from our travels around Orissa over the past five days. We are pushing forward on our pilot, so I hope that I will soon be able to spend a couple additional weeks working to better understand these communities’ needs and what we can do.

Our assistant Sangam leader- beautiful and captivating.

Roadside friends.

Tanvi practicing her best Vikram Akula.

This kid was born to perform.

The 8th wonder of Orissa: The Rice Paddies

Northeastern Orissa’s main coal-fired power plant. 30 km from one of our sites, but electrification is years away. This was jarring when we came around a curve and this blight was smack dab on the horizon. I’m a bit conflicted, because ultimately this plant can drive huge quality of life improvements for our customers. That is unless, of course, we get our solar panels covering the countryside. Then our customers are in charge!

The harmony that rose from this group in the paddies was beautiful. While I couldn’t understand the lyrics, the sound was powerful. We stopped for a while and traded “ap kaise ho”s (hellos) and then attempted to stroll into the paddy. That proved a bad idea, so we stuck to the road and soon departed.

Just back from fishing. Tanvi and I decided that she carried the crown of Ms. Orissa 1958 proudly. There was no posing necessary for this photo.

A reflective moment. I found this boy’s manner to be wonderfully relaxed and self-assured.

The Cart that was put before the horse. We didn’t see any horses or water buffalo in this family compound, so I’m not quite sure which adage to mangle.

Unfortunately, the lighting was quite low in this room. I was trying to capture these fascinating, quizzical looks this young girl was giving me. A slightly blurry image will have to suffice.

GOATS. Nothing says rural India like a goat blocking a bridge.

A Sangam Meeting in a schoolhouse.

The lonely cement industry. This guy had just loaded up a huge dump truck full of sand and was waiting for round two. As we drove over this river, I caught this scene out of the corner of my eye. I could write a separate post about the construction industry in Orissa. I won’t, but for 10 KM before and after this river bed we saw families sitting in stone breaking camps preparing rocks for road surfacing. The price of manual labor is so astoundingly low that I saw rock crushing machines sitting idle next to these manual rock breaking sites.

To market.

The following are all shots of the children of our members, who (mostly) patiently waited for all this lending to get out of the way:

This girl kept peering out from behind the door frame. Her mother is in the lower left. Her shirt has a huge Chicago Bulls logo on the chest. We chatted for a while about the upcoming season, she’s bullish on Paxon’s ability to pull the team together and prefered Beasley as our first draft pick.

She spent the meeting hitting a boy in the head and eating sweets. Seems like a pretty good day’s work. This captured a moment of passivity.

Preparing to seed a rice paddy.

Beats Coppertone’s UVA/UVB protection every day.

Ingenious. Apparently cows don’t like to put too much effort into their foraging. This bundle blocked there path and made rolls of barbed wire that you might see in Wisconsin look a bit excessive.

He was knocking off the top of this wall, one carefully balanced swing at at time.

Another shot of the paddies.

You get the picture. We’re trying to create more of these scenes.

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I’ve just arrived at my hotel in Bhubaneshwar in Orissa, after a few days spent investigating the feasibility of introducing solar lighting products to our customers there. I thought I would catch up on my posts with an overview of the monolithic obstacle to enjoying a fruitful, extended stay in Hyderabad. This post is a bit light on analysis and context, as it’s been a long week. I’ll plan on adding more detail when I get back to Hyderabad.

While the US INS is decidedly less welcoming when it comes to bringing qualified workers into the US, the Indian government presents few obstacles in applying for a work visa. In fact, in a rather ironic twist, the Indian government has chosen to outsource the provision of visa applications through a group called Travisa. I always included their offices in a walking tour of NYC. Mainly because the office was next door to my apartment, but also because few tourist stops offer such a taste of irony.

The real challenge lurks at the begnin sounding “Foreigner’s Registration Office” (FRO) at the Hyderabad Police Commissioner’s offices.  I was steeled for this experience by many of my friends who spent between three and five days trying to navigate the forty feet between the assistant commissioner’s office and the FRO waiting room. People have literally broken down in the waiting room due to the mental anguish of attempting to comprehend the absurdity of the system. I saw a couple recently arrived from England welling up in tears as their son bounced off the wall after the first five hours passed.

And so, I decided to entertain myself by finishing an account, Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, of the more colorful personalities of Bombay. When that provded insufficient to tide me over during the six-hour wait, I took to using my blackberry as my method of blogging my FRO odyessey. The whole experience was a study in the creation of work to justify jobs to create more paperwork, and so the wheel of life turns.

Here are the blackboards that list all of the documents you need (I had a stack of 75 pages of paper, with duplicates of duplicated forms).

A few things happened that I wouldn’t have expected. I never thought I would be presented with this option on an application form, though I’ve seen other optional fields that have left me queasy, in the past. Play “Guess which field”:


This TV stand seemed like some sort of premise for a Jeff Foxworthy joke.

The live blackberry blog (with photos inserted afterwards):
35min to get there after we ask 12 different people where the Police Comissioner’s office building is.
Check-in, pat down, lounging guards. Get into the FRO by 10am. People come out early to sign us in. Welcome surprise. Call names at 10:30 (on schedule), I scramble for copies. Get there as number 3 and get in by 10:45am, 15min of document perusal. Passport checked 5 people. Documents looked at by 3. Younger folks are better dressed, more helpful and energetic, after twenty years I suspect this will have changed.

The third stage of registrant evaluation and quiet dismissal occurs slowly under the dim lighting of the musty office hall, with sheaves of gradually yellowing paper towering above you, like autumnal leaves gradually decaying. Older men are rotund, gruff, never smiling.

The senior application inspector is a colorless man who is busily harassing a newly arrived Sudanese refugee with broken English and Western clothes. “Why do you come here? You speak no English. So many don’t have jobs already. What will you do?” The man suffers these verbal thrusts with the placid countenance of someone who clearly has suffered worse aggression at the hands of officials throughout his flight to Hyderabad. After executing a proper thwacking the big saheeb, the senior inspector, reclines, pleased with himself, and accepts the Sudanese man’s application. Who knows what bureaucratic hoops he will have to dive through yet to allow himself to struggle to eke something out here. They are only allowing him a 6-month visa, so this is a semi-annual humiliation.

Of the thirty or so supplicants with whom I wait, 20 are Sudanese, the women veiled, and the men displaying too much respect for the Hyderabadi fashion sense – garishly patterened, rough cotton shirts, dark bootcut pants. With the women, there is an elegant grace, matched with a more assertive public character than I have seen with Indian Muslim women, though I know my exposure to both groups has been minimal.

Sitting in front of me: two chinese students, a couple americans, and two young women. Behind me, students, likely, with a fondness for 7up and the occasional flurries of animated discussion, which in the US usually covers the trio of pressing topics on shopping, boys, or gossip.


The waiting room exhibits some of the universals of bureaucratic interior design – discolored tile floors, narrow rows of utilitarian seating, the lazy whirl of fans. thoug these surely fail to provide much comfort when the full weight of the hot and humid monsoon season bears down.

A young English (I could tell before they spoke) couple enters – husband is some sort of consultant, given his computer back; the wife wears the psuedo locale clothing of a frequent international traveler and the token hena tattooes of someone recently returned from an Indian vacation destination or an inclusive wedding, who hops from city to city. The son seems content to seek dad’s attention, while asking probing questions about his father’s open laptop, entranced by the blue screen. His shirt reads, “Look handsome, young man.” This is a rather surprising exhortation to have on one’s shirt, given that those types of shirts usually project something more assured. In the US, I would expect it to read, “Trust Funder” or “Beauty Queen” or “Juicy” or “Your relative lack of wealth makes me uncomfortable, so I wear rhinestone studded clothing and massive watches.”  I am fascinated with the idea of growing up in India. I can’t really imagine how that would shape my perspective. I’m excited for this child. I wonder how he will internalize it. For the time being, he seems intent on exiting the waiting room, even if the barred window is the only escape route.


FRO 08/21/08 Stats:
55 people arrive to register. This is just for Day 1 of the process.

Number of staff: 14
Min docs per peson: 43 pages (mine was 75). Avg: ~60 pages.
Total pages generated for one day of applications – 60 * 55 – 3,300.

Avg hours spent per applicant for their first day – 7. Total time spent by applicants today – 7 * 55 – 385 hours.

Applicants per staffer – 3.9.
Applicantions processed per hour of staff time – .56.

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