Soon after being uprooted from their home in Uganda by the Idi Amin regime in the early ’70s, Sheetal Mehta Walsh’s family relocated to Canada, where her parents set up the Alberta Gujarati Association. It was through this body that Mehta Walsh gained exposure to community life and saw beyond what life was like in the West. Later, she worked in the venture-capital funding sector (she has been director of venture-capital relations at Microsoft in the UK) and with international charitable institutions for close to two decades, eventually merging her learnings from both worlds to set up Shanti Life in 2009, in the UK. While the organisation has charitable statuses in Canada and the US, the operations and implementation take place in Gujarat.
Inspired by Bangladeshi social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus’ model of microfinancing, the crux of Shanti Life’s ethos lies in providing loans that are capped with low interest rates. The repayments are used to finance the beneficiaries of other female-run businesses in the villages that are looking to start entrepreneurial ventures. This way, the sustainable Shanti Life model ensures that money is replenished to move the communities further. Moreover, the organisation does not pocket any of the repaid interests, a characteristic that has won them integrity among the communities they work with.
Having found that most charities bear huge administrative costs, with funds often not reaching those who need them, Mehta Walsh’s organisation follows the ‘teach a man to fish’ philosophy, by focusing on training and assisting the poor to access resources. Moreover, the organisation focuses heavily on women empowerment; and since they have FCRA [Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act] status, they distribute the funds directly to women, and not through money-guzzling third parties. Not only do they uplift the lives of the poor but also integrate them into the system, giving them ownership and responsibility, which in turn, fosters empowerment.
Excerpts from an interaction with Sheetal Mehta Walsh:
On Shanti Life
“We provide skills training, financial literacy and access to capital to rural women, so that they can access safe sanitation. We also help them set up sustainable livelihoods. We work on a grass-roots level. So, we adopt a community/village and get to know the specific challenges they face. Together, through a collaborative approach, we ensure we can meet as many needs as possible and really learn about the issues facing the poor as a whole. We are based in Ahmedabad and have field operations in Surat, Surendranagar, Morbi, Panchmahal, Dahod, Mahisagar, Bhavnagar, Vadodara and Amreli.”
On financial literacy training and mentoring
“Most people who want to take loans do not know how to sign cheques or read the small print. Many loanees are illiterate and get stuck in the cycle of not being able to repay loans. Training and mentoring are key to responsible lending and borrowing. Success, from our point of view, is measured by social impact, not by the number of loans disbursed.”
On Shanti Life’s focus on sanitation
“When women are able to access safe sanitation, which is in the vicinity, it means they can eat on time, go to the bathroom safely and improve their overall health. Further, they can save the money they have been spending on medicines needed for illnesses caused by lack of sanitation, and retain their dignity. Resultantly, women are able to be more productive because they are safe and healthy.”
On how business inspires ownership
“Having enough money to buy an asset and build a business creates a sense of responsibility as the entrepreneur becomes a stakeholder. To give you one example, a woman takes a loan to purchase a rickshaw, so that her husband can drive it. The loan is in her name, he works for her and pays her, so she is both his manager and financier…not to mention, the woman of the house!”
On digital forays
“We are working on an online shop. We already have yoga bags designed by village artisans that we are in the process of producing. We are aiming to sell shawls and saris too. We hope to have the online shop up and operational in the first quarter of 2018. The funds made through the sale of the goods will go back to the artisans.”
On key learnings
“Accounting and transparency are key; without these two, nothing can work, especially when it comes to money. It is essential for the lender to lend responsibly (for example, ensure the recipients understand what they are getting into) and the borrower to borrow responsibly. It is important to take funds that are smart — money is more valuable when it comes from a source that cares about training and follow-on funding.”
Advice to those looking to enter the welfare sector
“I think everyone has to think about how their skills can actually make a difference. It’s one thing to have passion, but another thing entirely to apply those kinds of skills to really impact a community or an individual. Poverty alleviation has to come from a grass-roots approach and must focus on all parties involved. Also, one’s intentions and deliverables have to be realistic.”
In the pipeline for 2018
“We are working with several communities, but we want to adopt five to seven villages in the following year and really focus on specific issues related to them. We are working with a marketing agency, which will assist us in spreading our message to raise awareness — and in the process, we will hopefully be able to capture some success stories on film, too. The online marketplace to sell goods made by villagers will be key to measuring social impact.”