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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Teaching Business to Chidiya

Over the past two weeks, Rachna and I have been teaching Nest's Business Curriculum to our awesome cooperative of female artisans. Their cooperative is very much like a business, so we have taught lessons ranging from Pricing, Professionalism, and Marketing. These lessons are meant to help the women run Chidiya more successfully. The women have been businesswomen for their whole lives, with their families before them as well, but since they have never received formal business training, they really have so much more potential to increase their already existing income.

The curriculum is extremely comprehensive and well put together. The main trouble that we have found teaching it to the women though, has been our trouble with the translation and the womens' illiteracy. A lot of the concepts articulated in the curriculum are very "Western" or unfamiliar to both the translator and the women, as a result of the cultural disconnect. This has required us to partake in a lot of rephrasing and adapting the explanations so that they make sense to this certain community. It could get a little frustrating, but if I've learned anything about development work, you have to be both patient and flexible :)

The other difficulty lies in the womens' illiteracy, only because this limits the activities that we can perform during the lessons. Since the women cannot read and write on their own, a lot of the exercises we do have to be done orally, either in a large or smaller group.

There are around 5 members who consistently come to the training and are highly active. The other 4 do not come as often, and when they do, they do not participate. There was a conflict the other day between an active and nonactive member. The active member was trying to get the nonactive member to answer a question and participate, but she explained that she did not understand and could not answer. The nonactive member shot back at the active member and told her to answer the question instead. A verbal argument commenced, in Tamil, but I could tell that the tone of both womens' voices were highly unfriendly and harsh. After they both left, I learned that the nonactive member who got into the argument is the youngest in Chidiya and also does not have much experience outside of the village. The Narikuravar womens' mother tongue is not Tamil, but they have their own language. Since the nonactive member rarely leaves the village, she does not get to practice her Tamil as much. She also does not have experience selling the beads herself, since the men in her family perform that duty.  Since she does not feel confident in her experiences and in the Tamil language, she has not been participating as much. I am wondering what I can do to try to get her to speak up without singling her out. The language barrier makes things especially difficult, and I have realized that this is the reason why translating our lessons is even harder. The women have less of a grasp on Tamil than they do with their own language.

Besides these obstacles, the women have been given very positive feedback to the lessons. For each lesson, the women will tell us about at least one new thing that they have learned. In our previous Marketing lesson, we brainstormed how we can get Chidiya customers in the local market. Right now, Chidiya only receives orders from Nest, but if Chidiya can find a local vendor that they can receive orders from, they can be more independent in the running of their business. Having more orders like these will also allow for more financial and residential stability for these women and their families. 

Teaching Nest's Microbarter Model
Three Pronged: Microbarter Loan, Business Training, and Marketplace Access

The cutest, most smily baby EVER! He is one of the Chidiya member's sons so he joins us in the business lessons sometimes :)

Preparing for the lesson!

With the translator, teaching.

The women of Chidiya :)

The hostel children that patiently waited outside until the lesson was over, and immediately wanted a picture once they saw the camera :)
Teaching Pricing, calculating Production Cost: materials, labor and overhead. The women explained that they had never really considered overhead costs before, so this was a useful new thing that they have learned and will begin to implement. 
I can't believe that I only have two more weeks in India. I have so much to do! I feel that I have only really started learning about the issues in this community and how to approach them; I have spent the first month and a half learning. Now that I feel like I have a strong grasp on what I should be doing to really help Chidiya, I realize that I only have two more weeks yet. Eeeeek! In these last two weeks, I have to finish teaching the last 3 lessons of the Business curriculum, complete the client and control group surveys, get the rest of the womens' testimonials and pictures, and perform local market research. I will update you all on the last of my busy two weeks as they go! :) 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

My Big 21st Birthday, Indian Style :)

I’m not gonna lie; I was pretty bummed that I wouldn’t be able to celebrate my 21st birthday with my friends, probably in a bar somewhere where I would be able to buy my first drink. But at the same time, I knew spending my birthday in India would be memorable enough. I couldn’t be any more right :)

In the morning, Rachna and I went to the internet/cyber café in the next town over via our personal auto rickshaw driver, who told us his name was “John F. Kennedy.” He’s great :) We go to the internet café a few times a week since the internet in the village works archaically slow.  We'll mass respond to emails, upload any important documents from Nest, send Nest reports/documents, update our blogs with pictures- basically, anything we are unable to do in the village, we do it all at once. 

Afterwards, Rachna and I went back to the village to make our last minute preparations to the business lesson that we would be teaching in the afternoon with the translator. That day, we were finishing up our lesson on “Professionalism,” which I thought was especially important for this group of women. We helped the cooperative write up a mission statement, a set of rules, and a schedule for which they will use for the Yala order. Everything in Chidiya is done very informally, and there were no rules written up previously. Because of this, members did not know exactly what was expected of them, causing conflicts. We hope that setting up formal management procedures will help Chidiya spend less time arguing and more time focusing on their future as a successful business. 

I thought the lesson went extremely well, especially because I had seen the women get started on the upcoming Yala order. I really appreciated all their happy birthday wishes as they left at the end of the lesson to their own homes to prepare dinner for their families. Rachna and I ate our dinner soon thereafter, as usual, and retired to our room where we spend our nights reading books that we downloaded online. On the night of my birthday, I was in the middle of reading Stieg Larsson’s last book in his popular trilogy, “The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” And then, out of the blue, Mahendran and Seetha (our host parents and the founders of NEWS) came into our room with a cake and a huge crowd of people behind them! I was genuinely surprised since I did not expect anything of the sort. I felt very happy and special :) Some of the Chidiya members even came out to celebrate my birthday with me, along with the hostel children of course! It was a very large group, and they all came to sing happy birthday to me. It was so wonderful. They put a bindi on my forehead, and a jewel head ornament on top of my head, along with a red shawl, all for my birthday!They dressed me up, Indian style, and fed me cake, also another Indian tradition. I was full of cake by the 5th or 6th person that wanted to feed me cake.

After cake, we went outside to where the hostel is, right next to our house. Mahendran had set up speakers and started playing music. Mahendran announced that this dance show would be on behalf of my birthday over the microphone, and a trio of girls was the first to perform. They were wonderful! And to think that these girls had never received dance lessons. After 10 minutes though, all of the children got up from their seats to dance themselves! A huge dance party commenced. I did not really know how to dance “Indian style,” so I had the children teach me. It was SO fun! The children all wished me happy birthday and told me I looked beautiful; they are the sweetest kids ever.

This was definitely a birthday to remember. I didn’t spend it like all of my other friends at a nice dinner or anything, but I think that spending it with this community of Indian gypsies made my birthday infinitely special. I mean, who can say that they celebrated their 21st with gypsies? :)

I’m so thankful for these people. They are truly wonderful, and I couldn’t have asked for anything more. They were willing to give, even though they have so little themselves, to make me feel special on my birthday. That was the best part; it was the epitome of the perfect birthday present.

This sweet little girl, one of the older hostel kids, who sometimes COOKS for us (isn't that amazing?!) got me a birthday present (shown below) 

I love it :)

This is one of the Chidiya member's younger sisters. It was her birthday only 3 days after mine! She's a year younger than me though :)

Birthday cake! That got fed to me 

The crazy, cute hostel children

My roomie and partner in crime throughout this whole experience. 

Angella, she shares my name! She is also in Chidiya and helps take care of us

Tougher than Tough Kanama :) She's the sweetest, so lovable

With Angella's family

With Kanavati, another Chidiya member, and her daughter

With Nithya and her adorable children :)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Acceptance, Adaptation, and Always Remembering your Heart

No matter how well put together a plan or model might seem, perfect implementation is highly unlikely. This can’t be more true for development work.   

This isn’t my first time writing about Chidiya’s internal struggles. I would be lying if I denied my disappointment, but as I thought through my frustration, I came to a rather unsatisfying yet telling conclusion: while doing development work, it is extremely important to open up your heart and mind in order to be able to withstand setbacks and be patient with the very people you are serving.  I admit that this wasn’t naturally easy for me.

First, let me preface this by explaining the inherent difficulties that come with working in a group, especially in a business setting where money is concerned. Think about the last time you had to work in a group for a project in one of your classes. Some people in the group will be more responsible and pull more weight than others. They will feel that it is unfair that they are stuck with more work, which could easily evolve into a serious conflict within the group. The group as a whole might not get as good of a grade because of the weaker members that did not put in all of their effort. The group might waste a lot of their time waiting for some members to show up to meetings, and they might not even show up at all. These common group scenarios that we experience, believe it or not, also occur in microfinance cooperatives in the developing world.

Chidiya, a cooperative composed of 11 women, has run into all of these problems since its inception and during my stay here. When only 3 women showed up to make samples for Yala, we encouraged the cooperative to hold an emergency meeting to discuss why the women were not coming. They explained that they had no real incentive to come since orders were so small and infrequent; they are able to make more money by making and selling their jewelry on their own. I was definitely able to understand their reasoning, but asked the women to trust in Nest’s help and to be patient. Nest has been working on building partnerships with for profit companies, like Yala, that are able to make larger and more frequent orders. It turns out that the women did not even have to wait long- only a week after Yala received the third round of samples from Chidiya, they made an order of 500 necklaces, soon after increasing the order to 900 necklaces. This is a drastic increase from the Nest orders that they are used to, of 100-200 necklaces. Since the women had said that the lack of orders was their disincentive from showing up, I had all the hope in the world that the women would be excited for their business and show up ready for work.

I was discouraged when some of the members still did not consistently show up to Chidiya meetings. Rachna and I started teaching Nest’s Business Curriculum last week that includes lessons from “Professionalism” to “Pricing.” I would say around 4 of the members would reliably attend and participate, while the others would walk in late or leave early and usually not contribute to discussion. 2 of the members are absent from the village, traveling to sell their jewelry and 1 member just had her baby, so these 3 have not showed up at all. Even when we have announced that we will be going through the designs for the 900 necklace Yala order, the same women who already know the designs since they were the ones there for the sample making showed up. This was not only frustrating for Rachna and me, but also for the committed members who always show up. There was a verbal altercation between a committed member and a member who did not always show up, and it got so serious that the committed member announced that she would leave Chidiya. And I thought the main problem was the lack of orders. Obviously, there is a larger organizational problem that Chidiya must deal with.

But how? This is when I started to get discouraged. Rachna and I have been diligently teaching the business curriculum, but if the women don’t implement what they have learned in their actions, then how are things going to change? This is the biggest order that Chidiya has ever received, and yet the problems persist. The other difficult part of this is the need for Rachna and me to be very careful of our role. We need to allow the Chidiya members to make decisions for their own cooperative, since it is not in our place at all to dictate anything. The women must take ownership of their own business. We are here to help, but we must all remember that Rachna and I are leaving in three weeks. I hope to make Chidiya stronger and help Chidiya receive more orders, but in a way that is sustainable.

Then I remembered that I was thinking in the Western way, judging Chidiya by Western business standards, not understanding that the women in this community do not have the same exposure to business like we do. Instead of thinking so negatively, I promised myself that I would broaden my way of thinking so that I can understand the women that I am serving. Once I began to accept that our work here will never turn out the same way it would in the U.S., I started to see the importance of adapting our plans to the particular group of women and their culture. Once I started to frustratingly wonder why the women could not, would not do this, or that, I realized how toxic this way of thinking is to the mission of development work.

On a lighter note, I had a wonderful 21st birthday in the village. I will update with pictures and more details in my next post J

Sunday, July 17, 2011


Rachna and I have been spending out free time with the Skillshare interns from the UK: blonde and lanky Andrew, sweet and freckled Chloe, and our fearless Becky who comes from a gypsy family in Scotland. Skillshare is an NGO that is based in the UK, and has been working with the Narikuravar community even before Nest! Skillshare is actually the driving force behind Nest's partnership with Chidiya, which was established with the help of a Skillshare worker named Sarah about three years ago. Sarah sought after Nest to work with the cooperative, starting with the interest-free microloan that Chidiya used to buy raw materials and the workplace to begin their business. Since the loan was given, Chidiya has allocated a portion of their profits from Nest orders to repay the loan- Nest's microbarter loan in ACTION, microloans repaid in product rather than cash. This, along with business training and secure access to an expanded marketplace, completes the three-pronged microbarter model that sets Nest apart from traditional microfinance.

The Skillshare interns have been a real pleasure to be around. It is especially interesting to hear about their work while we all sit down for lunch in the village. While Rachna and I are focusing on Nest's work with Chidiya, the UK interns are focusing on education and awareness raising on behalf of the five or six Narikuravar villages in Tamil Nadu. Quite a daunting task, if you ask me... especially because they seem to have run into a real fork in the road. Becky is a gypsy herself, albeit from the UK where the circumstances are different from the gypsies here in India, but she does have a unique perspective to offer. Becky is concerned about the future of the Narikuravar gypsy culture that can be lost with the sudden intervention of formal education and focus on getting jobs. The Narikuravar gypsies have always been outsiders, but education would mean assimilation into the mainstream society. This combined with their low social status could mean the loss of their culture and language with just one generation. The Skillshare interns need to grapple with this potential reality as they embark on their fieldwork, and I'm excited to hear about what they discover on the ground.

Other than work, Rachna and I have spent the last couple of weekends with our new UK friends exploring the city of Trichy and shopping. It is with them that Rachna and I got to experience the Indian public buses for the first time- oh, and what an experience they are! I have always believed that you can never really experience a country until you've ridden their buses, and I stick to my theory after having ridden an Indian bus. Our first bus wasn't that bad, pretty empty, but boy did the bus fill up fast! Some basic Indian bus etiquette: First, women in the front of the bus and men in the back. Second, if you want to save your seat for yourself on the bus before even getting on, throw your belongings through the window from the outside on the seat. Third, once you see someone getting out of their seat, push your way through with force if you want to take the seat. Fourth, when you want to get off and the bus is packed with people literally on top of each other, you have to physically wade through the mob of people to be able to jump off on time. There is no such thing as respecting personal space, whatsoever. What really amazes me is the bus conductor that is able to collect everyone's fares on the bus when there are so many people packed inside the vehicle like sardines. I've seen the conductor squeeze through the throng of people like it is nothing! Truly amazing...

Two weekends ago, we did some major clothes shopping in this store called Saratha's, apparently the largest textile showroom in India. The girls got some Indian ready made suits, and Andrew even got a dohty, which is basically a towel men wrap around themselves to wear as skirts. On the next day, Rachna, Becky, and I decided to treat ourselves to a nice swim at the local hotel. We enjoyed the water in the blistering heat that is South India, but were a little bothered by the sea of eyes, literally gawking at us in our bikinis. I guess it's understandable, considering women in Trichy are still very much traditional and don't ever show any skin. I was shocked to see another Indian woman in the pool, not because she was a woman but because of the full body suit she was wearing. A couple of fat, old Indian men were especially harassing us, trying to talk to us and constantly smiling rather creepily. Other than that, swimming felt amazing.

Andrew and Chloe! :)

Becky loves.. no.. she LOVES fruit :P

This is the center of Trichy!

Andrew buying his dohty, aka man skirt

This is "stinky market." We get around by recognizing landmarks, or in this case, by smells. 

At the pool, relaxing.

Felt absolutely heavenly.

Becky posing in front of the pool with the creepy old men in the forefront.  

Rachna and Becky :)
This past weekend, we totally went out of our way to find the only Domino's in Trichy. Oh, was it worth it! You couldn't have seen happier girls in the restaurant as we feasted on pizza, chicken wings, garlic breadsticks, and chocolate lava cake. We were so full that we decided to walk the 2 km to the bus station instead of taking an auto, and good thing we did! I was full until the next morning, definitely the fullest I have felt since I have been here.
It was like a bit of home.

We are oh so happy!

I miss home food very much. 
Until next time! We are continuing business lessons this week while we begin working on the Yala order of 500 necklaces/bracelets!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Delicate Partnership

Last week we were busy finishing up samples for Yala that ended up successfully shipped ON TIME (woot!) to Oregon. Rachna and I learned about the entire process that the women go through when an order for samples comes in- looking through the pictures of the products and comments about changes that the retailer would like to see before making an actual order, going through the stock to see which beads and thread they have already, making a list of the exact beads and thread/wire that they need to buy, sending Kanama off to get the materials (from Chennai and even as far as Delhi!), waiting for Kanama to come back so that sample making can begin, making the beaded jewelry products, making sure that the samples are of the right length and are identical to each other, putting each necklace or bracelet into its own separate ziplock baggy, and finally going into Trichy to the DHL office to ship the samples off to the retailer (in this case Yala)! 

It turns out that the samples were successful because Yala has decided to make an order of 500 necklaces from Chidiya, which they said was “starting out small!” This is exactly what the women need, and hopefully Yala can consistently make larger and more frequent orders from these women so that they can live less nomadically, traveling to sell their beads in order to survive. The work provided by Yala orders will also offset the losses that the women incur during the off-season; their necklaces are in high demand only during the religious festival season, which is from December-March. During the rest of the year, they struggle to make a profit off of their beads due to their undercutting of each other’s profits because of the drastic reduction in demand. When they can’t sell locally, they travel great lengths to find customers and bring back the money that they earn and did not have to spend on travel costs to their families, some with young children.

Last Friday, a couple days after we had finished making the samples, we encouraged the women of Chidiya to have a group meeting to discuss some internal issues. The driving force behind the meeting was due to the disappointing showing of members to do the sample making. Only 4 out of the 11 members showed up and if more members had, the samples would have been done much faster. It was also very important for more members to come so that they can get familiar with the designs. This way, when the order does get made, every member can be on board to know exactly what to do. I personally wanted to hear about why the women were not coming, and I found that some of the reasons were due to past misunderstandings that never got cleared up. However, in the end, everything came down to the fact that Chidiya has not been getting as many orders as it had when it first got started three years ago with the help of a Skillshare International (a UK NGO) worker named Sarah. Sarah worked with Chidiya in its first year and since she has left, a lot of the hope that the women once had for Chidiya to become a successful business diminished over time. Once orders started reducing, the women felt like they had less of an incentive to come to meetings. This makes sense for these women in the short term, but in the long term it does not. 

This is what I got out of the discussion and what I explained to the women: Orders might be small and infrequent, but if you do not come out to meetings things will stay this way or worse, Chidiya might stop altogether. Nest is working hard to build partnerships with for-profit companies that are able to make larger and more frequent orders, like Yala, but these relationships take time and many rounds of samples. Due to Nest's inability to support communities like this on its own (Nest can only order so many necklaces during the year to sell on its website), Nest is moving towards this model of ethical sourcing. In this way, Chidiya can get connected to a larger company in the U.S. who will want to place a larger order. These orders can be very profitable and can be the beginning of a long-term imprt-export partnership. Since these partnerships are hard to manage for Chidiya alone due to the cultural and language barriers, Nest helps to make sure that the right products are getting sent in at the right time as well as fair wages for the artisans' labor. 

It seems like the Chidiya members need to trust in the future of Chidiya and the help of Nest, but Nest also needs to be able to trust that Chidiya meets basic business standards. This means that members are coming to meetings and showing up when important orders are made! Nest has to be confident that Chidiya will be able to complete orders on time every time. This trust between both sides of the partnership- Nest and Chidiya- must grow if Chidiya as a business wants to grow. 

This order from Yala is a great start!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Pictures of the women in Chidiya and their work

Nitya and her beautiful baby boy, Nivesh. She designed a gorgeous bracelet for Yala, a U.S. company, and named it after him!
Longu organizing the beads
Poongodi getting started on the wrap bracelet sample for Yala!
Poongodi's personal work: traditional mala prayer beads
"Tougher than Tough" Kanima. She is an amazing, beautiful, and strong woman.
Hard at work!

The Metal Mala necklace that will be named for Poongodi, the designer.

Nitya working on the Nivesh bracelet

Isn't it gorgeous?

Sudah working on the traditional mala necklace

Seetha, the loan facilitator for Nest and the manager for Chidiya!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Rockfort Temple in Trichy

This is the entrance to the Rockfort Temple in Trichy. It's right in the middle of a busy marketplace, a place you wouldn't expect to find a temple right? Rockfort is actually the most famous temple in Trichy, and there are a lot of temples from what I've heard. This temple is built into a mountain and goes up very high so that you can see all of Trichy from the top. 

We climbed up over 200 steps to make it to the top! The view and the breeze up there definitely made it worth it. 

This is a famous Catholic Church that is located close to the Rockfort Temple, that is for a Hindu Goddess. 80% of Indians practice Hinduism but freedom of religion is wonderful to see! It is not like religious disputes never happen, but freedom of religion is more or less guaranteed in India, even if the vast majority of the population is of one religion.