Sprng Energy: boosting women’s economic empowerment

Region

South-East Asia

Sector

Energy

Investment date

2021

Status date

Current

Across India, job options for women are often either limited or non-existent – and this is an issue that particularly pervades the country’s rural communities. In fact, United Nations figures[1] show that women account for just 17% of the country’s GDP (far lower than the global average of 37%) and that nearly half do not have a bank or savings account in their own name. So when Actis portfolio company Sprng Energy (Sprng) established its community investment strategy, women’s economic empowerment was an important area to cover, according to Amit Gupta, the renewable energy platform’s Head of ESG.

After gaining approval for its first renewable energy project in Rewa in the state of Madhya Pradesh, the company spent a year learning about local challenges and building trust with the community. “We knew we needed a level of maturity before engaging on the subject of women’s economic participation,” says Amit. “We wanted to build a relationship with local people and to understand in more detail what we could do and how we could help most effectively.”

With a belief that communities are significant stakeholders in its business, Sprng started working with local people to establish free weekly medical camps in villages close to the Rewa project, improve infrastructure at a school and provide year-round safe drinking water, in partnership with PRERANA, a non-governmental organisation in India. Sprng interviewed c. 30 implementation partners before selecting PRERANA, which has over twenty years of rich experience working with development agencies and institutions, civil society organisations, corporates, research institutions and community-based organisations.  The business also held community consultations, through which it became apparent that women in the region had limited employment opportunities, with young girls often left with nothing to do after completing their secondary education but wait for marriage.

Through PRERANA, Sprng promoted a series of Self-Help Groups (SHGs), a well-recognised form of community mobilisation that enables members (often women) to pool resources, improve skills and promote enterprise. Starting with 104 women from 100 households, 10 SHGs were established in 2019.

PRERANA, with Sprng’s support, provided the women with training to run SHGs, including financial management and decision-making, and each participant committed to contributing INR 50 (c.US¢ 70) per month into the SHG savings plan. In addition, it offered 54 women two months of training in stitching and tailoring. “We conducted a needs assessment,” says Anup Kr Singh, the Operational Head of development programs at PRERANA. “It became clear that the villagers were paying others to sew garments for them and that there were few who had these skills, so it was identified as a good area to focus on.”

Yet gaining sewing skills was just the start for the women. With the aim of helping participants build tailoring businesses, PRERANA helped organise an exhibition featuring participants’ work as a market research activity, followed up with factory visits and connected the women with garment distributors and retailers to support their efforts to win trial orders.

Gradually, 31 women of the first cohort of 54 trainees established sewing businesses – a figure that far exceeded original expectations of a 25% success rate. Covid-19 interrupted planned training programmes for the rest of SHG members, which were delayed to November 2020. However, by January 2021 a total of 79 women had been trained in tailoring skills, of whom a total of 42 women had started sewing commercially. Between them, these women earned a total of INR 88,503 (c.USD 1,220) between February 2020 and January 2021.

Another 15 SHG members had also completed beautician training of which eight started offering their services to the local community. Overall, the enterprise promotion program for SHGs has had a 49% success rate so far.

This is particularly impressive, given that it has been achieved during a pandemic. While the original plan had been for women to work together in groups, the need for social distancing has led many participants to set up their enterprises individually for now. Indeed, some SHG members took the initiative to raise the profile of their business while helping the local community by making and distributing hundreds of face masks to villagers for free. Once it is safe to do so, however, many of the women intend to re-form groups so they can take on higher quantity and industrial orders, which will boost their incomes further.

Much of this would not have been possible without access to additional credit. To assist with this, PRERANA connected the SHGs to a government-backed scheme, the National Rural Livelihood Mission. Of the 10 SHGs, eight were awarded an A rating, which enabled them to receive revolving loan facilities totalling INR 84,000 (c.USD 1,160). The SHG rating is based on five parameters: savings, internal lending, repayments, account audits and weekly meetings. The loan has financed new sewing machines and there are plans to increase the SHGs’ credit lines through formal bank funding – indeed, four SHGs have already been sanctioned loans of INR 600,000 (c.USD 8,300) at concessional interest rates.

“These SHGs have been a real catalyst for change in the villages,” says Anup. “Women’s movement has traditionally been very restricted and their opportunities limited. The women we speak to are so happy to have something to do as well as earn money. The impact on the communities has been very broad – we’re now being asked to start programmes for young boys, too.”

After the success of the SHGs in Rewa, Sprng, together with PRERANA, are looking at establishing similar schemes at its other project locations over the next few years. “For these initiatives to be successful, we must build trust with local communities,” says Amit. “In Rewa, for example, there was some resistance initially to what we wanted to do, in part because of the patriarchal character of the society, but also because other groups had previously set up SHGs fraudulently in the area, so many people were suspicious. However, what we’ve achieved here will help us as we establish SHGs close to our other power plants.”

 

[1] https://in.one.un.org/unibf/gender-equality/