By forming a network of women collectives that enable credit access, livelihood support, and leadership development, Sanjay Sharma is creating a platform for women leadership, gender equality, and economic transformation for women across rural districts of North India.
The New Idea
Sanjay believes that women across rural India have the power to be catalysts of change. His vision is to create networks of women federations that can self-replicate across rural India and will be champions within their communities for economic and social development. He saw that the traditional approach of Self-Help Groups (SHGs) as a mechanism for rural development had its limitations. Mainly, the over-dependence of villages on external development professionals, the lack of access to markets, and the inability of SHGs to integrate back into their communities as change agents.
Sanjay worked with PRADAN led by Vijay Mahajan (Ashoka Fellow) for over 15 years in Dholpur, Rajasthan. His model is designed to create massive social transformation for women across these villages in a mechanism that self-replicates. Women are formed into a three-layer system. At the base, a local group of 10 to 15 women. In the middle, a village organization comprising of 10 to 15 local groups, with 300 to 400 women. At the top, is a federation comprising of 20 to 30 village organizations, between 3000 to 4000 women in each federation. By the formation of these federations that are women-owned and led at every level, it enables greater leadership potential and market access for women with provision for credit that can finance small industries (around $5m to $7m).
The idea behind this collectivized network is to build a platform for women to grow in their leadership as they become members at each level, pool resources together to form large market linkages in trades like animal husbandry, dairy, textile, etc., and finally, to build a movement of women that can challenge the status quo in their villages and address the social issues of these areas. Through the formation of these networks, women from these villages have been able to get access to credit, develop livelihood opportunities at scale and be able to correct market inequalities.
Sanjay’s vision for this network collective of women enables both economic development through livelihoods and credit, but also in social aspects like improved access to education, leadership development, healthcare, and local leadership. Right from the start, Sanjay designed this network model to be run and multiplied by the local women at all three levels. He saw the potential for this model to scale because it is fully owned and governed by local women leaders who have a better understanding of the regional contexts and can engage with each village community for a longer duration. Overall, while women learn the ropes of leadership through the basic function of credit linkage and market mechanisms the thrust is for women to take up issues of their own concerns, and of their communities.
Manjari Foundation’s innovation lies in the enablement and replication of these women federations by designing the structure and methodology for these networks, enhancing financial literacy, livelihood development, and access to markets for the collectives. They are providing training resources to women leaders who then deploy them within the network of collectives. Thus, setting up a self-perpetuating cycle of transferring leadership skills through role modeling and handholding to other women in other regions. The Manjari Foundation has local leaders in every village that they work in that are employed by the federations to mobilize, set up and equip new collectives that are formed until they are smoothly running.
Poverty across rural India is a systemic issue. It is rooted across multiple interrelated social problems like poor quality of education and healthcare, lack of policy and government intervention, and social inequalities within the region that finally lead to weak economic and social development. While both government and civil society have had a tremendous focus on rural development in India, sustainability and overdependence on external support have been a core issue. Long-term impact has been difficult to create on account of an emphasis on program delivery and interventions rather than enabling empowered communities across rural areas.
Remote rural areas in India struggle with low economic opportunity and coverage of financial institutions, often relying on local money lenders to help support local livelihood trades. However, the terms of credit borrowing, and the likelihood of exploitation are high, especially towards women.
The districts that Manjari Foundation work in have some of the highest levels of gender inequality in India (measured by sex ratio, literacy %, workforce participation, and education %). Sanjay believes that these gender inequalities are the root cause leading to a variety of social issues that finally result in poverty. Most poverty alleviation and developmental programs don’t adequately represent the poorest of the poor, the marginalized women of these districts. Sanjay sees addressing gender inequality as the cornerstone to solving the other systemic social issues of these regions.
Self Help Groups (SHGs) have been a common model for rural development in India, however, one of the main limitations is that they are often disenfranchised from the communities and overly dependent on external development professionals for continuity. It allowed for women to rise incrementally in terms of income through access to credit, but socio-political conditions or economic downturns would push them back below the poverty line. Women across these districts experienced improved conditions of their quality of life through the former programs, but the empowerment for them to be change agents within society and provision of them to be owners of their collectives was often missing.
Along with this, the traditional SHG approach was a vehicle for credit saving to support local livelihood and micro-entrepreneurship for women with a very fixed ceiling to how far a woman could rise up. Often this became a mechanism for other household members to access credit through the woman, leaving the women in greater debt and worse off.
By enabling an ecosystem of local women leaders that owned the federations, they then become market leaders and changemakers within their communities to challenge the cultural status quo and bring to the forefront economic and social development. This breaks the glass ceiling both socially as well as economically with women having full ownership of their collectives that can scale to over 4000 members.
Since its inception in 2015, the Manjari Foundation has enabled a network of 93,000 women in 13 districts across Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. Their goal is now to scale to over 700,000 women in federations in the next 5 years.
At the core of this model is the development of women leaders and the innovative strategy of growing the network organically. Women leaders belonging to an existing collective are elected as Community Resource Person (CRPs) who become multipliers for expanding the number of collectives.
They conduct community mapping and mobilization to reach a “critical mass” (around 30% to 40%) of women from each village. Sanjay saw that setting up isolated local groups with only 10-15 women in a village does not have enough momentum to create change or sustain the group long term. He envisions building an ecosystem network rather than just many independent support groups.
Once a village community is mobilized, the CRPs train women in financial literacy, collecting savings together, conducting weekly meetings within the group as well as creating a platform for personal and livelihood development. From these groups, women are able to expand their livelihood opportunities locally and get access to credit as well as support for their ventures, otherwise having to depend on local money lenders that charge over 30% interest rates.
Sanjay sees the necessity for every woman to join a local collective that then ties into the larger federation. This creates an opportunity for integration and upward mobility for women to become organization and federation leaders, manage large enterprises and oversee the governing of large groups across many villages. Through this larger collective integration, women are enabled for both livelihood and entrepreneurship development leading to economic development, and opportunity for women to be leaders in the community in areas like education, healthcare, resource management, and local leadership has been a big driver of social development.
Mohini Dangi is a woman from Giraw village in Rajasthan. She joined a local collective after her husband passed away in order to be able to provide for her family. She was able to access an initial small loan to purchase livestock for dairy farming. Years later, she is now a leader within the Manjari federation network that sells raw materials to women-owned enterprises, Katori and Upaya, and helps manage enterprise divisions. Apart from economic growth, women like Mohini are empowered within their communities as well. Starting with improved gender equality within the household through the joint decision-making and the division of work responsibilities like managing the home and raising children. This then leads to larger decision-making within communities for education within the village, voting on panchayat leadership and broader aspects.
Katori and Upaya are two large-scale enterprises enabled by the Manjari Foundation that are fully owned by the local women federations, selling a variety of food and textile products through in-store retailing and eCommerce.
From the setting up of collectives at a grassroots level, all the way to managing multi-million-dollar enterprises and federations consisting of thousands of women, everything is run and owned by local women that are part of a collective. This has allowed women to become empowered citizens within their societies and create significant economic opportunities, without having to migrate out of their villages for this.
To date, over $15M has been generated and dispersed through collective credit savings from the women within the Manjari network. Over 93,000 women are active members in the collectives and have grown as local leaders and economic generators.
The initial pull factor for women to join a collective is the opportunity to save and have access to credit, soon enough, members experience growth as leaders within their household and community and report back on the improvement of the status quo and gender equality. This has led to redefined norms within these communities for the father and family members to support a woman in the responsibility of managing a household and raising a family. They are encouraged and supported by their families as their roles within collectives enable them to become high-earning members of the family and are able to have decision-making power for matters related to the community.
A majority of the women in these collectives have not had the opportunity to complete high school. From the growth they have experienced with the collective, many have been able to pay for their children to go to school and college. Sanjay sees this as a larger inter-generational impact and sees improved gender balance in terms of education and workforce participation.
Sanjay has replicated his model in Mali and Senegal by partnering with PASECA, run by Alou Keita (Ashoka Fellow). He sees the similar social and economic conditions in many parts of Western Africa to the rural conditions of North India. Women from villages in Rajasthan flew to Africa and trained the organizational leaders and women collectives there for over a month and continue to consult in the running of their federations. Sanjay sees this model as having global potential across many regions in South Asia as well as parts of Africa where federation networks can thrive and become a catalyst for change.
Manjari Foundation measures its growth and social impact separately. Growth is typically measured in terms of new collectives created, regional expansion into new districts and states as well as the multiplying of federations, enterprises, and credit resources. Through a scaled expansion, the opportunity that can be created is large. Going forward, federation networks that have been enabled by the Manjari Foundation can go on to become large industrial centers and even rural banks that become catalysts for economic development.
At the heart of the model, Sanjay measures impact through the improved gender index of these regions. The thousands of stories collected of women that have been able to be leaders in their families and community, experience freedom for themselves and their children, and shift the needle on gender inequality in some of the most affected districts in rural India is what Sanjay sees as success.
Sanjay Sharma grew up in New Delhi in a family where he was the oldest of his siblings. He is the first college graduate in his family and saw firsthand the social dilemmas and struggles experienced by lower-income groups in society.
After completing his BTech in Engineering, Sanjay decided to go to shift to Rajasthan and work with PRADAN, an NGO that pioneered the work of rural development in India. Despite his family’s hopes for Sanjay to stay in Delhi and get into a corporate profession, he shifted to Dholpur and spent 15 years working at a grassroots level with his family. During this time, he got elected as a Ford Fellow in 2006 and completed a Masters’s in Sustainable International Development from the Heller School of Social Policy and Management, USA.
During the two-year experience of the Ford Fellowship, Sanjay became aware of the gaps and issues related to sustainable development and the overdependence of villages on external development that didn’t empower and enable local change-making. Sanjay started Manjari Foundation in 2015, becoming the first entrepreneur in his family, with the focus to create empowered networks and collectives of women that would drive change and address the poverty and social issues that he related to growing up.