Inaugural Post from the 2008-2009 Fellows, by Michael Yau

Welcome readers to the AIF Service Corps 08-‘09 blog. This blog was created as a forum for the Service Corps Fellows to share our experiences. After a packed orientation in Delhi at the beginning of September, we have spent the last few weeks settling into our respective placements and beginning projects with our NGOs. I thought I would provide some background on my projects, how they are going, and what it has been like settling into my placement.

Work:

Seva Mandir

My placement is with an NGO called Seva Mandir in Udaipur, Rajasthan. I am sure most of the Fellows are beginning to get attached to their respective cities, but since I get to write the first blog entry, I’d like to this the best placement ever.

Seva Mandir has been around for around forty years and works in variety of development projects throughout Rajasthan. Unlike many of the other NGOs that I have encountered, Seva Mandir has a very active volunteer program. They have over one hundred volunteers that come through during the year and there is a coordinator who helps to structure projects, assign mentors, and plan general logistics. I am currently working on two projects: one with microfinance program and another to develop a livelihood project with the natural resources group.

SHG Program

One of my main interests when I started looking for opportunities in India was to gain some exposure into microfinance. Seva Mandir uses a SHG model for microfinance (as opposed to the Grameen Bank model for example). SHG stands for “Self-Help Group” and is basically a collection of village women who meet regularly to address issues that are affecting them or their community. The SHG is also used as a microfinance vehicle for savings, loans, and income generation.

For example, a group of ten women will meet monthly and each member will be required to put 10Rs (about 25 US cents) of savings into the SHG fund. This pool of money then grows until they have enough to open a bank account, which generates some interest income. The savings pool is also used for internal loaning, but the SHG as a unit can also go to banks and get external loans. There are a variety of uses for these loans such as consumption, income generation, or emergencies. Unlike Grameen or many of the other microfinance institutions, Seva Mandir does not actually handle the savings and loans, but rather facilitates the SHG program by offering financial literacy training, accountants, etc.

The problem with the program is that though it has grown to well over 500 SHGs, there is no tracking of how the various groups are doing (how much they are saving, loaning, etc.). The “accountants” are usually village people with at best high-school level education and are often not completely proficient in math. This past week I met an accountant who stopped his formal education after the fifth grade.

I have been working with another Seva Mandir volunteer and one of the regional managers on some capacity building initiatives for the SHG program. We have created some basic tests to assess where the accountants are having issues and are in the process of developing a training module and reference manual for both existing and future accountants.

During the next month, the three of us will be visiting each of the regions and offering training sessions for all the accountants. We have already visited two regions and despite the session being conducted in another language, it is rewarding to see our work begin utilized and helpful to talk with the accountants about where they are having questions or problems.

After we complete the training sessions, we plan to hire some external accountants to go through each village/SHG and check the books with the ultimate goal that external accountants can audit the SHG program on an annual basis. We are also working on a performance measurement tool to analyze how the SHG program is doing using various quantitative and qualitative methods but that part of the project will not begin until after we have made some progress with cleaning up the books.

Custard Apple Livelihood Program

Along with the SHG program, I am also working on a livelihood project. As a very basic overview of the current situation, local villagers collect custard apples (a local fruit that I will talk more about later) and sell it to a regional collector for about 2Rs/kg. By the time it reaches market, custard apples are sold for at least 20Rs/kg. Based on our initial assessment, there is limited value-add from the regional collector and with some basic training, the villagers will be able to cut out the middleman and increase their productivity and livelihood by three to four fold.

We have found an NGO in a nearby state that has done a similar capacity building project with their local custard apple pickers. I contacted them about providing training for our villagers and we are scheduled to go the first week after Diwali. During the past week, I had the opportunity to visit the village where the custard apples are grown and talk with the local farmers. It was great to be “in the field” and though there was a language barrier, I really enjoyed meeting with the villagers, seeing their homes, and the best part, trying custard apples for the first time.

The custard apple is about the same the size as an apple but that is where the similarities end. On the outside it is bumpy and almost looks like an artichoke. The meat is soft and fleshy and the fruit is filled with big seeds. The custard apple is extremely sweet and has quickly become one of my favorite fruits.


Udaipur:
Settling into Udaipur has been a lot easier because of the other volunteers at Seva Mandir, especially my flat mates. When I first arrived, there were three other volunteers, but one moved on about a week after I moved in. It was sad to see a new friend leave, but I was able to move into my own bedroom and we turned the extra room into a living room/lounge. We used extra mattresses as seats, a bed frame as a dining table, and covered the room with bright posters and Christmas lights. It’s quite a nice place to have dinner, watch a movie on somebody’s laptop, or just hang out and read. Alvaro and Fizzy (my two remaining roommates) spent an afternoon building a swing outside our porch with a piece of wood and some rope. Alvaro is quite the handyman and his latest project was to build a ping-pong table out of a bed frame, sticks, and tape. Both projects came out much better than I could have imagined.

I hope everyone enjoyed learning about my projects and what I am doing in Udaipur. I hope everyone had a Happy Diwali.

-Michael Yau

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