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The power of community - Women together for a Change

How communities can thrive change - A personal Story from Ahmedabad, India

Photo of Simona Ioannoni
19 18

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“Yes! We got it, our idea is great and many people will benefit from it: one step further to tackle food security in Urban Slums by providing financial tools to the women in the community!”

This is what our team in San Francisco discussed before starting the first pilot project in India for Pulse Active Food Saving.

Pulse was the idea of four bright social entrepreneurs that were competing in the Hult Prize in 2013. The challenge of the year: tackle food security in urban slums. Pulse Active Food Savings is a mobile micro-savings platform built to improve savings by enabling households to save money from being lost or misspent. In fact, rather than receiving change from a transaction a customer can dedicate the change into a savings account built into their mobile phone. I was selected to join Pulse to run the pilot in India, a crucial step that would have proved or not their idea.

I left for Ahmedabad, Gujarat, as part of a very diverse team of four, and we were really curious to understand how the women of the slums of Vatva and Sarjek, the two slums closest to Ahmedabad, were organizing their finances. Like most people in poor communities, they didn’t have any access to banks or other traditional financial institutions.

Community leaders, Fehmida and Shezhad, two amazing women from the slums working for a local nonprofit organization, introduced us to the community of women in Vatva and Sarkej.

Before sharing the idea behind Pulse, it was incredibly important to talk with the women from the communities to understand if they were actually facing the problem we identified: a need for a savings platform. Pulse allows customers to place any change (coins) on a transaction with a vendor, into a mobile account, which could then be used in later days, when/if they were short on money. The idea was based on the fact that it is too easy to use small coins on unnecessary items or to lose it.

After two week of interviews, observations, and brainstorming sessions around several prototypes, we presented our idea to 40 women from both communities. They loved it!

To get the project started, we needed the support of two key players within the community: the women that usually purchase the food and the vendors that are selling products and providing the change in coins. In Vatva, there is only one vendor that walks between the houses twice a week with his kart. This is the only access women have to purchase fruits and vegetables. In fact, most of them are not comfortable or don’t have enough money for a ride to go to the market.

The vendor was our stop sign. He couldn’t find the value of what we were proposing and said no. We had 40 women absolutely enthusiastic to start, that could see the benefit of our idea, but without the vendor on our side the pilot would have been put on hold.

When the conversation with the vendor happened, we were a group of four: Niketa and I from Pulse, Shezhad, leader of the community and Yasmin, one of the women that wanted to be part of the program. The conversation started in Hindi and was a very animated one. My knowledge of the Hindi language is very limited, but I could understand that the vendor was not convinced. After 10 minutes, he left to finish his round in the slum. Shezah and Yasmin left and Niketa and I, very discouraged, started thinking: “How can we convince him? What kind of incentive can we give him to be part of the program?” I couldn’t believe that just for one "No" the whole community was going to suffer.

We started walking towards Shezhad’s house when, all of a sudden, we saw more than 20 women, led by Shezhad and Yasmin, walking towards us. Their words were: “We are going to get him!”

I saw fire in their eyes: determination. We marched with them and found the vendor. The group went around his kart, and the conversation started again. But this time 20 women were advocating for our cause! After 15 minutes, he was on board. When he said, “Yes!” all the women started laughing and cheering and clapping hands! They turned and asked: “When are we starting?”. Niketa and I started crying. It was such a powerful moment that I will never forget.

These women, with nothing but their desire to create a better environment for their families, fought for an idea they felt useful. They were united, supporting each other, and by working together achieved what they wanted.

This is for me a beautiful example, and I hope it can be inspiring to you as much as it was for me.

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Photo of Adria Spivack

Hi Simona,
This is a really great project and I would love to hear more about it. Is Pulse being implemented any where now? Have you been able to gleam any long term effects from the system? What qualities/aspects of Pulse do you think make it successful and could be used in other applications? Do you think Pulse could be implemented else where?

Photo of Simona Ioannoni

Hi Adria, thank you for your comment! Yes, Pulse is currently up and running in Pune. Once the Pune site will run autonomusly they will expand in other sites in India. I am sure that Pulse can be implemented in many other places. The concept of having a safe place to save small amount of change it is definitely applicable to households in other developing countries. For sure before that, it will be necessary to run other pilot projects to understand what are the challenges of the locals. For instance when we went to Ahmedabad after talking with the women we came to know that they don't know how to read and for an idea that was SMS based that was a challenge. In other countries or even closer cities the challenges can be very different, so being sure that your product is needed and in which way is key!

Photo of Simona Ioannoni

For what concerns the aspects that made the idea successful, I think these are the most important:
1. Be humble and understand the people, what is their real need. When we started the pilot, Pulse looked very different than now. We had to adapt the idea to the real need of the people, understand dynamics in the slums (Leaders in the community are the one that will create the excitement and will bring everyone together).
2. Communicate the idea in a way that it is easy for your audience to understand. Make them part of the creation process. When our team presented the idea we prepared plays and draws to make Pulse easy for everyone to understand, and the women told us what they liked and what they didn't like. It was a coo-creation process.
3. Find the right local partners! We had the support of a local organization that was already working with the community for other projects. This was absolutely key to be able to start the dialogue with the women.

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