It was by a quirk of fate that I landed up with a course on economic development my junior year at Ohio Wesleyan. It was the year 2005. Quite to my surprise, when we reached the section on ‘microfinance’, aside from being overwhelmed by such a weighty term, I realized that its idea of group lending really did appeal to me! Simply put, under this system, if a single borrower in a group of five defaulted on her payment, in the next loan cycle nobody would get a loan. Through the process of group formations and peer pressure, there was suddenly no need for collateral as members borrowed against each other. It was an inclusive, collaborative approach towards ensuring to the poor access to financial capital.
After graduating in December 2006, I went to Uganda for three months to learn about microfinance at the grassroots level. Towards the end of my stint there, I made acquaintance with a journalist, Anita Sempa Mago from the Foundation for Sustainable Development, who was conducting interviews and taking photographs of the living conditions of a remote community outside the town of Masaka. She was using the audio/visual medium as leverage to garner monetary support from NGOs in Kampala so that she could bring the Millennium Development Goals to that village. The more time I spent with her as she documented on film the issues plaguing that particular village, the more convinced I became about wanting to use media as a tool for research and information dissemination.
Keeping this in mind, upon my return to India in 2007, I got my first job at CNBC-TV18. Over the next four years, I continued my association with CNBC, working first as a features reporter and producer, and later switching to freelance anchoring opportunities with the channel. In the midst of all this, I was also volunteering my time conducting oral history interviews of a community of elders from Sindh (now in Pakistan); contributed articles to a UK website, The Samosa, on culture in India; and held the position of Assistant Director on a documentary film about cashmere weavers in Kashmir.
In November 2010, I was given the opportunity to join a U.S.-based start-up company, MyMela, as their Country Manager in India. The founders of the company were keen to generate demand for Indian handicrafts through an online marketplace and simultaneously empower artisan groups with monetary assistance. I was brought on board as part of the core team to make this concept a reality.
Having researched the Kiva model as part of my senior thesis in college, I was able to extend that knowledge into practical application through MyMela, whereby online visitors could choose to lend money to artisans from a Loan List posted on the website. Lenders are reimbursed their loan amounts with 10% interest over a period of three months in the form of MyMela Credits which they can use to purchase handicraft items online or re-lend to a new artisan group. With such a model, MyMela not only empowers buyers to financially help artisans but also creates a scenario where the same artisan-borrowers could find an international market for their products. In April 2010, we extended $3,467 in loans to four artisan groups comprising of 52 artisans. By Round two, we were able to increase that amount to $5,292 in loans to six artisan groups comprising of 67 artisans.
Given my experience in the field of media, I also contributed to the marketing and social networking aspect of MyMela, producing 15 videos highlighting various artisan groups (that can be found on MyMela’s website as well as the company’s YouTube channel) and also compiled eight detailed blog posts, including innumerable artisan profiles. I am also responsible for more than 75% of the artisan and location photographs that make up the web pages of our website.
I have been exposed to an intensely strong cultural experience though my work with MyMela. From the hearty, first-generation women weavers of Kumaon to the fourth generation wood carvers of Saharanpur and the quiet, candle makers of the erstwhile French colony of Puducherry, I have interacted with and forged ties with underprivileged communities from all over India. The fact that I helped launch and run a new financial lending system (that is still a work in progress) is an experience few can boast of. With MyMela, I married my love for microfinance with my media skills and economics degree to make for a great learning environment.
This Fall, I started my term as a Ph.D. student in Cultural Anthropology at Syracuse University. My exposure to artisan communities, culture and modes of empowerment reinforced my desire to get into research again. I am keen to study the impact of microfinance on communities; to understand the dynamics governing corporations and their role in furthering development and hopefully come away with a better understanding of the juggernaut of globalization in the context of cultural identity. Ohio Wesleyan planted the seed of developmental studies in my head, CNBC and MyMela helped me hone my skills and now I am looking forward to formalizing my interest in this field through a thorough academic understanding of the dynamics of development.