Building capacity in a financial inclusion sector innovative way

unmeshshethArticles, Projects, Uncategorized

Our journey with Self Employed Women Association (SEWA) picked up a pace 3 years ago, even though I am associated with SEWA for many years. SEWA is India’s leading Gandhian grass root organization, an organisation of poor, self-employed women workers, a whopping 1.75 million number.

January 2011, sitting in a room full of 20+ women leaders representing different trades (SEWA is a trade union), we were talking about varieties of challenges and appropriate technologies for each. Everyone had some major challenge: salt worker diesel cost, agriculture grain bank, solar lanterns and smokeless chulha. All these issues are unique and important in their own way, the major pain point, however turned out to be an expensive information system developed by outsider, which was gaining dust. It turns out this was a biggest eye opener for me as this information is supposed to be a nerve system for all the operations and service management and supposed to empower their leaders to better serve their members. Here I am in front of women leaders of 1.4 million grass workers (in 2011) and they are still struggling with a functional system to make operational decisions effectively. Though we solved an immediate technical problem, it is my subsequent visit in early 2012 gave me a clear understanding of how fundamental it is to develop a right kind of information system which not only solves their current pain point of membership enrollment, renewal and payment but also infinitely expandable to many of existing core services need for each members.

Ektta grew out of common understanding from young, professional technology volunteers from Silicon Valley who understood that if they want to solve some of the major challenges in social sector sitting 8300 miles away, they should invest their energy in building a platform to solve first mile issue of data collection with majority of developing country social sector organizations. They are experienced and passionate about role of technology in a social sector, so why not enable organizations who are already doing great work serving poor but do not have resources to manage their information gap. These organization more likely navigate themselves in a fog without data, whether they are healthcare delivery organization, financial inclusion organization, organization supporting millions of skill & capacity building for disabled, underprivileged, or lower skills sectors.

There are many social enterprises focusing on solving data challenges using mobile based field data collection. However, Ektta has taken a very different approach. Ektta is already actively working on a powerful mobile platform that leverages cloud/mobile technologies. However, this mobile solution, for large data collection for the size of SEWA was simply impractical. Ektta’s challenge was to enable organization such as SEWA where it is difficult to shred papers and go to mobile, just because of limited resource, job of training large field, sheer number of data, and disparate geographical locations. To fully understand platform goals, let’s closely examine, operational, program and technology deployment challenges.


SEWA is a distributed organization with a 1.75 million members (year 2013) located all throughout India (and capacity building al throughout SAARC countries). During last decade a large growth is coming from India’s most underdeveloped areas such as Bihar, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, part of Kashmir etc. Where possible, SEWA encourages distributed organization so that for example Bihar’s structure can take independent decision for their local trade issues but collaborate with parent organization when necessary (for example grass root training).

Most of these organization in social sector including SEWA have basic IT staff, which often do not have a strong professional experience in building robust information system solution. As a result there are several major challenges. They can define program goals but they cannot define requirements required for a serious information systems. This often creates a dependency with local IT solution provider companies who are used to be working in a different kind of engagement process, where requirements are defined by clients before even initiating an engagement. Frequently they end up recommending proprietary technology making it very difficult to maintain and making cost of ownership significantly high.

SEWA made an extensive investment in membership enrollment back in 2008. However, client/server based architecture simply hampers any evolving requirements, distribution and data collection accuracy, time and collection cost. Though it is easier for data entry operatorsto enter data near communities they serve, efficiency & integrity of data collection goes down due to restrictions from distributed client/server model. Program Organizationally SEWA is fairly complicated organization with many separate independent sister organizations focused on various domains such as education, healthcare, banking, sustainable energy, retail and so on. Like most organizations, each independent unit have have their own IT investment with some amount of coordination. At top level, SEWA would greatly benefit from a centralized system equivalent of ERP or CRM that closely resembles their operations. However, deployment of any such solution including Ektta must be made in a gradual manner. Our first phase includes base functionalities designed to extend many use cases identified and one the most important and immediate requirements of membership enrollment and data collection.

Membership Enrollment, Profile, Renewal and Payment:

The Self-Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA) is a trade union for poor, self-employed women workers in India. SEWA collects very small membership due from their members every year. SEWA in turn motivate, mobilize and strengthen the existing trade practices. Depending on location, they are in turn eligible for many services that SEWA may be providing. Enrollment process allows SEWA to collect profile, trade, and geographic information. The key challenges solved in this phase are membership management for offline/distributed users throughout difficult geographic locations, books management a paper based approach to manage data collection and reporting an analysis of complex hierarchical structure such as SEWA.

Ektta already provides a sound foundation for many SEWA’s need. In general, whenever there is a service that needs to be connected to members, SEWA should opportunistically consider adding following services in due time.

Program Data Collection

SEWA has many organizational roles and continues to evolve to meet a need for changing economic and social needs. Time to time, they would like to provide services and products to their members. Market & membership research are critical requirement but current manual approach of data collection are very lengthy. In addition, Ektta is working on a unique advance technologies designed to collect program data, poverty index measurement and resource and capacity management. Though more specific details will be coming along in next few months, you can find early details here and here. Estimated implementation time & cost: Variable, Simple data collection can be extended by SEWA IT staff. Another product developed by Ektta may be required, depending on use case.

Websites & Outreach Management

Ektta’s is designed based on Drupal, a very powerful open source platform designed for content management. From our first selection we want to ensure that SEWA grows their internal efforts and connects externally with various stakeholders. Drupal provides a wonderful platform to self-manage websites, fast website deployment with minimal IT involvement, connecting customers, funders, volunteers and event participants to join various SEWA programs. Estimated implementation time & cost: Low, Small website can done in an inexpensive and self-managed way. Converting existing sites with other benefits could be 1 to 2 months.

SEWA Training:

The SEWA Manager’s School is a capacity building institution within SEWA with the goal of facilitating economic self-sustainability through building a cadre of grassroots managers. With over 15,000 master trainers, they continuously offer hundreds of training throughout the year at headquarter training centers and districts offices. Managing their member training can be better streamlined through contact management based system which can manage training class, reservation, attendance etc. Estimated implementation time & cost: Low-Medium

Grassroots trading inventory & payment tracking

RUDI, is a marketing company for the rural producer groups provides direct market access to small and marginal farmers. It’s mission is to link up the small farmers to the end customers. Managing inventory and matching with demand is an important function. Ektta can serve as a hub to manage member specific inventory through mobile integration. In addition, a separate demand module can be developed to improve supply chain management for RUDI. Estimated implementation time & cost: Medium

Connecting membership with communication strategy

Ektta already has a built in support for communication such as Email, SMS and Voice Based technology. Our platform using MIT civic labs appropriate technology designed to reduce communication gaps for disconnected communities in an innovative ways. Platform can be used to connect to remind women leaders for an important event such as local meetings, trainings and mobilizations. Estimated implementation time & cost: Low

Building offline Strategy

SEWA has been centers which do not have a reliable data collection. Though, we understand offline data collection as an application use, our further understanding of SEWA’s need requires more thoughtful and careful approach. We also need to build new infrastructure services in our core CRM Core. Estimated implementation time & cost: Medium

Technology Challenges today and Ektta’s solution

Ektta has been engaged over 3 years to understand past system challenges, triaging them, and understand their real requirements. The process of collecting a requirements has been iterative, slow and consensus driven. Building requirements for an organization that represents unorganized sector has never been that easy and traditional approach of requirement collection would never have worked. In a non-profit (and selfless) spirit our primary motivation has been to make successful. Through trust building and continuous education, we were able to finally understand real requirement that SEWA’s large field staff would accept.

After extensive discussions, we decided that it is best to improve data visibility and proximity simply by improving their manual and arduous process of sending paper data collection through a large hierarchy of paper distribution. SEWA sends paper distribution through State, District, Taluka and Villages. As you can imagine it creates long turnaround time for data collection and injects inaccuracy, making it difficult for senior managers to run their programs effectively. Ektta is built on a robust CRM and CMS open source platform. However, most important innovations came from working close to field staff and data entry operators. As a result our key design objectives were:

Build an architecture that allows SEWA’s IT staff extend future evolving data collection, integrate them with various members information system and rapidly analyse information in a fast growing organization Improve data collection process to reduce data entry errors, re-entry, and design for reducing data entry time Design form for field workers with lower education and different language with minimum training requirements Though we encourage most locations to improve data connection reliability and speed as cloud based data collection avoids all the data integration issues, offline application will be developed for the area where internet connectivity is not reliable. Improve paper, books and slip management process through a better electronic & paper process improvement Data reporting and analytics which can roll-up various reports by geographical hierarchy and powerful filter/sorting. Data visualization & data collection platform that provides to power to less experienced IT team, allowing them to create a flexible analysis as their needs evolve over a time.

To better understand how Ektta makes a big improvement over existing information system, let’s look at how current system works today and our specific improvements.

Criteria Before After
Total Cost of Ownership Requires larger initial investment in hardware, staff and requires them to be installed in every location where data entry requires. Cloud based application reduces any dependency on server investment, and open source platform reduces software investment cost. Finally, our flexible design and platform allows us to continuously add extensions to meet future requirements. We believe that this implementation would be dramatically cheaper with significantly powerful functionalities.
Data entry at remote location Most data entry occurs in offline manner requiring many hours of painful synchronization and creating duplicate data entry with errors. Data always remains in sync at all the time as long as there is an internet connection. Data integrity remains much higher improving overall confidence from analytics and reduced time to manage data.
Data Accuracy
  • Data accuracy cannot be maintained easily as application is rigid.
  • Limited opportunity to improve once software is rolled out
There is still a chance of adding inaccuracy at the paper data collection or data entry level. But data entry accuracy improves significantly.
Application Update
  • Updating applications and keeping them in sync is a very challenging tasks for many of these organizations as any update needs to be sent in a physical format such as USB or CDs
  • Internal staff must have knowledge to carry forward application feature update & rollout
Cloud based application makes any application update at remote location redundant as all the changes are first tested in a cloud first and rolled out for general use when fully certified
Data Collection Time
  • Year around data collection of membership enrollment
  • Enrollment drive is repeated every year and every data is reentered in the system
SEWA literally has over 50000 books which needs to managed individually by field leaders or workers who faces complex manual data collection process. Once data are sent out to organization hierarchy, it could take in excess of 3-4 months to recover the data back and data entry. Ektta improves this process following ways:

  • Improve the way books are issued and collected by various organizational hierarchies.
  • Many design improvement reduces dramatic improvement in data entry time
  • Renewal of members reduces data entry, reduces inaccuracy and improves tracking
Books management & Membership Enrollment Managing books (issue, data entry, receive) a long and typically a long and arduous process. With current process, it is often difficult to get a visibility into enrollment progress throughout various geography, often it takes months Reduce book management time as current system improves books visibility. In addition, it is easier to monitor enrollment process and book management time.
Reporting & Analysis Currently most of the reporting is very limited for several reasons: excessive inaccuracy in data, long data collection period, and inability to track data (each data are independent unit) Ektta is designed based on relationship with geography, members, and time. Making it easier to view & track various operational reports. In addition, its use of Drupal makes really easy and powerful for data visualization. Drupal provides powerful framework so that organization IT staff can modify their data collection and reporting requirements without expensive IT staffs


Our collective work has shown that there is an immense opportunity to improve capacity in the social sector. We are aligning ourselves with three of Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Our focus is to provide a practical capacity building programs combined with technology solutions for 1000s of skill based development organization for

  1. Managing their resources, projects and member training and placement through various standard coding common in their domain (such as underprivileged, disability, senior and more specialized one)
  2. Provide a tools to measure internal and external social impact on their organization, programs and members. Though cloud and mobile based technology can play enormous role in solving many of use cases as most of the existing solutions fall short when comes to supporting need and use cases for bottom of pyramid (BOP) organizations.

Though there is a lot that needs to be understood, work hand-in-hand and explain our innovative approach to those who are seeking an alternative model of development. The work done by Ektta at SEWA is just a first stepping stone in a long journey ahead.