Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), India

Today through SEWA’s ICT projects, a number of poor rural and urban women are using ICT to improve their trades and secure their livelihoods.

Story behind SEWA
Years ago during severe and frequent droughts Gauriben had only two options, either to forcibly migrate, or work at earth digging sites. She does not remember how much jewellery and precious family heirlooms (intricately hand embroidered items of personal use) she had sold at throw away prices just to survive. With acute water shortage, no regular income and cattle adversely affected by harsh and fragile condition, Gauriben was unsure of her and her family’s future.  She even could not dream of the education of her children, health care, repairing of her old house, saving money, etc. and all this was way beyond her means. Day to day survival was a challenge. What to eat tomorrow and where to get work tomorrow was the burning question every day and this always put her in trauma. Who will lend the money to Gauriben and who will give the daily ration on credit? The future was very unsure! This was the case of most of the members of SEWA when SEWA entered into their lives. The members were informal and scattered, with no options of income and employment.

Today can anybody imagine that more than 1500 of SEWA members have landline, more than 200 SEWA members are engaged into different livelihoods are owning mobile phones, more than 1000 SEWA members have basic computer literacy and more than 250 SEWA members have became trainers of computers education. More than 15000 artisan women have organised their own company and have implemented a full-fledged MIS/ERP and are directly competing into the mainstream market through websites. More than 22 community learning and business resource centres have been run by women and serving the community, more than 1000 salt workers have set up their own salt testing laboratory, agriculture workers with the use of small mobile phones have ventured into the partnership with corporates and doubled their income. There are numerous examples.

The last ten years has seen an IT boom in India. IT has made India prominent on the world map, with India becoming renowned for its computer-savvy IT professionals. The Information and communication tools have not only improved the lives of everyone but have also resulted in the huge class of high salaried professionals. While privileged people in the cities and semi-urban areas have benefited from IT, this story is very different amongst the poor, further different amongst the women who are poor and even more different amongst the poor women living in the rural parts of India.

Many women in villages have not even seen a telephone, a mobile or a computer. Using these gadgets is nothing short of a dream for them.  However these women do not dream about being able to use a phone or any other technology. They dream about being able to eat two square meals a day and not worry about where the next dinner will come from.

What do these women do for their living? What are their trades? Most of them are non-literate and a very small percentage is semi-literate. There are vegetable vendors, small roadside shop owners, casual agricultural workers, salt workers and many of them are too poor and unskilled even to earn a living.

What can SEWA do to improve their lives? With IT as a solution, how exactly can SEWA help these women adapt IT in their day to day work? These are some of the questions that was being discussed  when the organisation, set on the IT mission a few years back. Today through SEWA’s ICT projects a number of poor rural and urban women are using ICT to improve their trades and secure their livelihoods.

SEWA, a member based organisation of poor, self-employed women was one of the first organisation to successfully organise rural women and women working in the informal sectors and now has 61 cooperatives, 400 self-help groups, 4000 saving groups over 530000 members in Gujarat – with its membership often encompassing all the women in the entire village. SEWA has realised the potential of harnessing the power of information technologies in the context of the informal sector at much earlier stage. Its organisational structure and reach gives it the potential to harness such technologies effectively. In order to optimally utilise the power of ICT at the grassroots level, SEWA has launched various integrated development programmes and has demonstrated the capacity to deploy ICT and mainstream it effectively. SEWA has pilot tested various ICT tools for poverty alleviation, micro-enterprise development and even disaster mitigation, with remarkable success. SEWA’s ICT efforts focus on the following aspects:

• capacity building,
• livelihood generation and security, and
• knowledge sharing.

A number of ICT tools has been experimented and customised in various projects of the organisation. The new technologies have the proven potential and flexibility to facilitate capacity development, enable in cooperative efforts and reduce vulnerability by access to information. Depending upon the trade and the ability of the workers in different trades these ICT tools need to be customised and adopted in different ways.

SEWA in livelihood improvement
Take the case of Jasuben Malik, now president of Jeevika Sewa Mandal. Jesuben grows seasme seeds. She sells them to the local trader who then sells them in the main market in Ahmedabad. SEWA trained her on the use of mobile phones, giving her a loan for purchasing it. Jesuben used her phone to find the prevailing prices in the market. This gave her the power to negotiate with the local trader. Soon Jesuben mobilised a number of other women of her village. They have formed a cooperative. The cooperative now sell directly to the main market without involving any middle men. Jesuben is now recognised as a business woman.

Videoconferencing has played a very important role in supporting trade related  activities of its members. Take for example, the case of a wheat procurement order that was received by its cooperative members in the district of Sabarkhata. This was a huge order of about 100 tonnes. When the price of procurement had to be decided, members used telecommunication facilities to directly communicate with the Sewa Gram Mahila centre. The latest market prices were found and negotiated. During implementation of the order, the members had a lot of questions, which had to be explained from Ahmedabad. Videoconferencing was a very effective medium of addressing the community issues and questions, is a much simpler and effective way of sharing information and communicating in such cases. SEWA members can not only freely talk to one another and discuss the project, the visual medium that videoconferencing provides helps in better communication.

Access to electronic medium
Videoconferencing equipments are being used in many of SEWA’s centres for effective interaction, holding literacy training, health related, childcare related and other trainings for the community members. It has also helped in sharing ideas, not only across Sanskar Kendras, but also with countries like Afghanistan.
Sat-com facilities are also used by cooperatives in all districts for sharing of ideas and as for discussions and issue resolution. Sat-com, as a medium of communication, has become very popular as it is available in all SEWA district centres. These facilities are operated by the members themselves, the programme being held fortnightly at the centres.

Laxmiben Narenbhai of Kutch sells milk in her village. She was taught on how to operate an electronic weighing machine. She started using it to weigh the quantity of milk being sold. The result was dramatic. People flocked to her ‘booth’. Although people in the villages have less access to technology, their faith in technology is tremendous.  Says Laxmiben “People trust electronic gadgets and hence felt that my electronic machine would never lie”. Laxmiben does the largest sale of milk in her village. Her income has increased many fold.

Other simple tools such as calculators have also helped the members. Use of calculators has helped women now to handle and count their earnings. Women operate their own accounts whether it is in the SEWA bank or through SEWA’s ATM facilities.

The use of these simple tools makes a huge impact in the small micro-enterprises of these women. These are very simple but very necessary for any person who is linked to the market. Exposure to these tools removes a lot of unfounded fears (related to ICT). The removal of these fears has helped in introduction of more complex technologies.

Advancing steps in technological and management inputs
The plight of the salt farmers is known to all. These people toil relentlessly in harsh conditions and yet do not have enough money to eat two square meals a day. They work in the salt pans that are very far from their homes and when they need to send a message, buy a commodity or a replacement for a broken part of their machines they have to travel to the village. This trip which is about 70 kms one way takes a day, wasting precious time and money. ICT interventions have been helpful to these farmers not only in improving their trades but also in improving their quality of life. Salt testing laboratories have been set up in the villages for these salt farmers. These labs have been equipped with the latest testing technologies.

Training is imparted to the salt farmers to improve the quality of their salt. They receive technical inputs on how to make industrial salts which fetch a much higher price than the edible salts. Efforts are being made to set up mobile labs so that the farmers do not have to travel to the village. ICT interventions have also improved the quality of life of these farmers. SEWA has set up mobile vans that deliver spare parts and other commodities to these communities. These vans offer education to the farmers and their children. In addition medical facilities are also provided. Doctors travel with a team to address the health problems of hese farmers.

The women in the districts of Kutch and Patan are very adept in embroidery. The demand for this intricate embroidery is tremendous, in India and abroad as well. However, these women were not aware of the demand and price for skills. They sold their work to middlemen for next to nothing. SEWA has been engaged in organising and facilitating the activities of these craftswomen and ICT is playing a very important role in converting the micro-trades of these women into a huge enterprise.

The 15,000 women have been organised to form a company. ICT activities are being taken up in full swing to increase production and generate more revenue for themselves. Market awareness of the various products is generated through websites and other media. The SEWA trade facilitation website displays new designs and products of the members. A management information system is being developed to capture market related information about buyer’s preferences. This system will integrate the members in the villages with the main marketing hub in Ahmedabad, enabling real-time access to market, financial and product information. The craftswomen are being trained on the use of computers, scanners, mobiles, faxes, emailing etc.

SEWA organises computer trainings for the women and their children in the villages of nine districts of Gujarat. The trainings are all about exposure and introduction to very simple computer applications that can help them in their trades, help them communicate with one another and ease a lot of burden in their lives. Many women are trained in Excel worksheets. Niruben, team leader of the insurance team now uses Excel as a planning tool. Others like Reenaben uses Excel for maintaining her accounts.

These women do not use very high end technologies but their acceptance of technology broadens their outlook. In the districts of Kutch where girls are not encouraged to study, computer trainings for adolescent girls has grained popularity. The training gives them a better vision of the future. Many who exhibit greater talent undergo further training and then become teachers and run  SEWA’s Sanskar Kendras. “It’s a great feeling to go back to your school as a computer teacher” says Shobhana Parmar (Anand district) who had to drop her schooling because of financial problems at home.

Sanskar Kendras
The Sanskar Kendras are the community and business resource centres. These are 20 in number and have been set up across nine districts of Gujarat. A number of activities are held at the Sanskar Kendras. These include the ICT trainings and other trade related trainings. The Sanskar Kendras are also centres for carrying out disaster management activities. While all the kendras at the district offices have connectivity, some of the Sanskar Kendras at the cluster level (wherever telecom infrastructure is available and reliable) also have connectivity. Videoconferencing and sat-com facilities are also available in most Sanskar Kendras. At times of disaster, connectivity with the districts and Ahmedabad helps in organising relief activities and bringing trade and work back to normal quickly.

A number of softwares such as savings software, insurance software are being used by the women  which help capture trade and activity related information for deciding future interventions. Data entry in this software is done by the trained community members. The software generates information that helps in planning and deciding future course of actions. As in the case of the insurance and the savings software the reports help track member savings and investment. emailing and Internet access at the Sanskar Kendras have been useful to members, who want access to market and government information. However, trouble free connectivity still remains unresolved for Sankar Kendras.

A number of other ICT interventions are being planned. Setting up of mobile vans offering facilities, providing PDAs to our members, offering telemedicine facilities, establishing linkages with the government for access to government information at the Sanskar Kendras and many others.

Linguistic challenges
Adapting these technologies to local languages is very challenging task. Information and technology tools are predominantly designed for the English speaking class. A greater challenge is in imparting training to the non-literate women and encouraging them to use the trainings. These trainings have to be constantly adapted to suit the various communities.To overcome these, SEWA is looking for partners. There are some areas in which research inputs are needed to provide information on how to take our ICT programmes further. These areas include measuring the increased income of its members who have participated in the ICT programmes, researching on how cooperative efforts can be established across regions to spread the effects of the various programmes that have contributed a lot to the changing faces of the women. There are many more Gauribens whose lives have to be touched.