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Mumbai slum entrepreneurs mean business

Dharavi, India's biggest slum, is dotted with enterprises run by feisty women who are the primary breadwinners.

Last Modified: 18 Oct 2013 13:31
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Kalpana Shinde runs a small business in bangles and saris from her Dharavi home [Asad Hussain/Al Jazeera]

Mumbai, India: Renuka Shinde’s proudest moment in her life came last year when she travelled to the eastern Indian city of Kolkata from her home in Dharavi, a Mumbai slum, to buy handloom saris for her small business.

"I was always nervous about carrying cash on such a long journey. This time I went with just my debit card," she says.

When her supplier presented her bill, she simply asked her mother to put cash into her account in Mumbai and whipped out her card to pay.

"It felt so good," she recalls, eyes still shining from the memory. "I really felt like a modern businesswoman then."

Shinde had worked even before she was married, but was forced into the role of primary breadwinner when her husband abandoned her and their three sons. She picked up jobs as a domestic worker to supplement her government salary as an anganwadi [child-care] worker.

At the end of a month’s hard toil, she made around Rs 3,000 [about $48]. Now, with her small business selling saris and garments, she runs her house independently.

In the 65,000 rural markets that are held in India every week, nearly 75 percent of the vendors are women

Chetna Sinha, Founder, Mann Deshi Mahila Bank

"I make [a profit] of around Rs12,000 ($200) a month, that goes up during the festive season," she says.
 
Most of her customers are from around her neighbourhood.
 
"When I already have a market here, why should I bother going outside?" she says with impeccable business sense.

Shinde is just one among the many women entrepreneurs in Dharavi, for whom business opportunities are a tool to change their lives.

Spread over an area of around 2.3sq km in the heart of financial hub of Mumbai, Dharavi is home to approximately 700,000 people, many of whom are engaged in some kind of informal industry. 

It is India's biggest slum, overcrowded and densely packed, but it is where some feisty women like Shinde are sowing the seeds for a better future.

According to various estimates, there are reportedly around 5,000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories packed in Dharavi's narrow streets.

All of which have made Dharavi an entrepreneurial hotspot, churning out revenues estimated to be between $700m to $1bn a year.

For many women, these small industries are their first step towards financial independence. Pushpalata Chittikindi, who was struggling to support her two young sons without financial support from her alcoholic husband, is one.

"I started making metal buckles at a piece rate for one of the factories nearby, using my time between cooking and housework," she recalls.

The work was physically taxing, taking its toll on her frail health, but for the first time in her life she had her own income.

A neighbour suggested taking a loan to set up her own machine, but Chittikindi was wary of the high interest charged by commercial moneylenders, and had never stepped into a bank.

When she heard of a local NGO giving out soft loans to groups of women in her locality, however, she took the plunge.

"For one week, I was very tense, how would I pay back the money? But the interest was so low that I managed to repay, and started making Rs250 [about $4] per day."

When she reapplied for a second loan, the organisation suggested she try something less exhausting, with more potential to grow.

"So I started buying biscuits and snacks from wholesale stores in the area, and selling them from my own home, which is close to a school," she says.

Access to loan

Within a year, she has not only repaid her loans, but has rented a small store near her house. "It has shutters and nice tiles, all "chakachak" [super]," she says.

She will soon put up a sign at the front - Sagar Stores, named after her younger son, who enjoys pilfering treats from her stock.

Women managing small businesses are not a new phenomenon, but their contribution to India’s growth story remains mostly silent and unsupported.

"In the 65,000 rural markets that are held in India every week, nearly 75 percent of the vendors are women," says Chetna Sinha, founder of the Mann Deshi Mahila Bank, a women’s rural cooperative bank.

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"Access to credit is a huge problem for these women," says Saumya Roy, CEO of Vandana Foundation, the organisation that has provided low interest micro-loans to women entrepreneurs in Dharavi, including Chittikindi and Shinde.

“There are either moneylenders who lend at 10 percent a day or Micro Finance Institutions (MFIs) who lend at about 26 percent a month," Roy said.

"We give small loans starting from Rs5,000 (about $80) to groups of five to six women who take liability for each other, at 12 percent on reducing balance [the amount left after weekly repayment]."

The loans increase over time and with regular repayments. They also help women open bank accounts and provide basic training in bookkeeping and advice for growth.

"But it's important to know that women entrepreneurs often already have the skills needed to run their businesses," emphasises Sinha of Mann Deshi Mahila Bank.

"They simply need mentoring and support that will help them grow."

For some like Shinde, this comes with a family background in small business.

“I learnt the ropes from my mother, who also had to work to support us when my father left, and gave me all her contacts of suppliers,” she says.

Her aunt, Kalpana Shinde, pitches in to look after Renuka’s sons during the working day. And every six weeks, both women hit the road, travelling together "for security" to Kolkata and Chennai for saris, Sangli for bangles, Pushkar for chappals [sandals] and colourful suit pieces.

"We travel by trains without reservations and carry our baggage on our heads," says Kalpana.

"It’s a tough life, but we have to keep our costs low and our quality high."

A Rojji sells fresh, home cooked idlis near a school [Asad Hussain/Al Jazeera]

The Shindes' successful business challenges another stereotype: of Dharavi being a place of uniform and crushing poverty.

Renuka’s phone rings incessantly with customers shopping for the upcoming festival of Navaratri.

Familiarity with the customers - who mostly reside in the neighbourhood - is an advantage.

Other women follow another key principle of Mumbai’s business wisdom - location is everything.

Like A Rojji, who has lived in Dharavi all her life, but speaks only her native Tamil fluently.

She decided to play to her strengths and started a business selling fresh, home cooked idlis [rice cakes] from the roadside, picking a location next to a school. At Rs 10 a packet, her snacks sell like hot [rice] cakes.

But despite their hard earned successes, these feisty women face daunting obstacles every day.

"It’s still a conservative area. If people see we are doing well, they get jealous and start making trouble," says Chittikindi, who also struggles to ensure her earnings don’t vanish into her husband’s alcohol addiction.

Balancing business demands with housework is another challenge, as "eventually, looking after the children and the home is women’s work",says Rojji, who feels fortunate to have her daughter’s help.

Sinha points out that for women entrepreneurs, family support is imperative. "It takes so much effort and they may face losses also," she says.

Often families that enthusiastically invest in the lives and needs of their men are reluctant to do the same for women. But even against these odds, like all entrepreneurs, these women have dreams for their businesses.

With her next loan, Chittikindi hopes to buy a small fridge for her shop so she can sell ice cream and cold drinks. "Even with water, you know, you can get a good profit," she says excitedly.

And as her children protest her long absences, Shinde plans her own shop in Dharavi, which will stock everything needed for weddings. "It's not easy for women to run businesses," she says. "But I would not give it up now even if I didn't need to do it. I like the thrill."

This feature is a part of our ongoing special India coverage. To read more stories click here.

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