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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
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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.

18 comments

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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?

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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!

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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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Photo of Sarah Westbrook

Great contribution Simona. Now I understand more clearly the points that you were making the other evening about needing connections within the community.

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Photo of Simona Ioannoni

Hi Sarah! Happy you found my contribution, hope to see you soon again to know how is your bee project going.

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Photo of Em Havens

This is such an inspiring story, Simona and so cool to see that it was part of the HULT prize! Similar to Karine and Adria, I'm so curious- is Pulse being implemented anywhere now? What happened to your team after the pilot? It would be so cool to see the next iteration of this in the ideas phase...

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Photo of Joanna Spoth

Awesome work Simona – I loved reading about your pilot. Looking forward to more info, especially reading your answers to Em's questions!

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Photo of Simona Ioannoni

Hi Em and Joanna, thank you for your comments and sorry for my late reply! After the Pilot in Ahmedabad, the results our team brought were used to prepare the pitch for the Hult Prize finals in 2013. Pulse got funded after the competition by other couple of organizations and individuals. Currently Niketa, one of the founders is back in India and she is running a bigger pilot in Pune. The Company is growing and got Intuit as technological partner which is pretty exciting!!

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Photo of Shane Zhao

Great personal story Simona! I had actually read about Pulse previously through D-Prize so this is definitely a treat to hear more about the project from your point of view in the field. I love how you and your team formed a solidarity within the community to create change. Where else have your team piloted the project outside Ahmedabad? And has the same strategy been effective in getting stakeholders of other communities on board? Looking forward to hearing more!

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Photo of Simona Ioannoni

Dear Shane, thank you for your comment! I am glad you heard about Pulse before, it is a very interesting social enterprise! As today the team is piloting a more redefined version of the platform (they got Intuit on board as technological partner in order to design the mobile platform) in Pune and the project is going great.

What worked for us in Ahmedabad and now in Pune as well, was partnering with local organization and people coming directly from the community. There are so many non-profit organizations trying to approach slum-dwellers that the leaders are really protective and want to be sure that the project or product can really benefit their people. And you cannot have the support of the community without being introduced by their leaders.

Before approaching the women in the community we spoke many times with Fehmida and Shezhad and only when they were 100% sure that we were there to support the people they introduced us to the women. This is really important: if you loose the trust of the leaders, you will loose the community, they won’t event let you close to their houses anymore, and that would be another story to tell ☺

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Photo of Meena Kadri

Awesome share, Simona – and I'm particularly stoked because although I live in New Zealand – my Dad is from Ahmedabad and I lived there for a couple of years a while back when teaching at the National Institute of Design. Women certainly have great ideas around savings and money matters in India. Check out what I found in Mumbai when researching for the Helsinki School of Economics:
http://www.randomspecific.com/women-together-incentivising-savings

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Photo of Shane Zhao

Also, on a tangent note, you might be interested to check out this contribution Simona. It's great to see how mobile based tools are being used in a variety of ways to create financial opportunities in India:
https://openideo.com/challenge/financial-empowerment-challenge/research/simple-money-tracking-tools-can-help-improve-access-to-affordable-small-business-loans-for-the-underserved

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Photo of Simona Ioannoni

Hi Meena, this is such a coincidence!! Not only because your have Gujarati origin, but also because while I was there in Ahmedabad I had also the chance to visit the National Institute of Design since a friend that helped us in the field was studying there at that time! Really beautiful location!

Thank you for sharing the article, it is really interesting. Mahila Milan does something very similar to what the Sarijan Mahila Credit Co-operative Society led by Shezhad does. She was going almost every day from house to house to collect few Rs from the women that joined the Co-operative. I will definitely share this article with my friends in Pune, you never know, It might it lead to a third pilot in Mumbai!

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Photo of Karine Sarkissian

Wonderful post Simona. That's a really great story and wonderful initiative too. The power or communities, people coming together for the same goal is wonderful. Have you kept up with the program? Is it still continuing? Wonderful story, inspiring!

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Photo of Ambily Adithyan

In Indian households it is generally the women who do purchasing of groceries and other household items and hence it is important to put the women at the center while initiating any community based saving service.
Saving any change they receive, even a rupee, which otherwise islost unknowingly can have significant impact.
Great idea Simona
I wish you good luck in your endeavour

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Photo of Riya Banik

Thanks for sharing Simona. This is a strong example of community stands strong with each other.

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Photo of OpenIDEO

Congrats on this post being today's Featured Contribution!

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Photo of Simona Ioannoni

Thank you so much OpenIDEO team! The experience in Ahmedabad has been life-changing for me and I'm really happy to be able to share it with all of you in this challenge!