Many in the financial inclusion space look up to her as the "mother of Indian microfinance". Vijayalakshmi Das, 66, was after all involved in handholding some of the biggest names in Indian microfinance in their initial days, be it SKS Microfinance (now Bharat Financial Services), Spandana or Share Microfin, among others. In the mid-1990s, sums of Rs2 lakh to Spandana and Rs10 lakh to SKS meant a lot to them. The best part is that this led to banks agreeing to lend to them. After this, they really took off. Today, these are behemoths, with each having loan outstanding of over Rs3,000 crore and some lending as much as Rs2 lakh every minute now.
Friends of Women's World Banking, or FWWB, India, was, in fact, the first lender to over 200 such micro-lending institutions in Ahmedabad, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Most of these entities were driven by passionate young men and women and structured as NGOs.
Vijayalakshmi Das, or Vijji, as she is called within the industry, has been at the helm of FWWB India as its founder CEO. It is part of a global network - the Women's World Banking, which focuses on giving women access to financial services. While then it was largely about helping women collectives (such as self-help groups and co-operatives) in credit management, book keeping and governance, today, at FWWB, she is doing the same by giving small loans and capacity building support to small and marginal farmer collectives which are financially excluded. These include cooperatives and/or farmer producer companies.
In the last two years, it has been able to support 80 farmer producer collectives across eight states, as against four-five two years ago. Here, it is the first lender, much like it was with women collectives in microfinance earlier. The aim is to help these farmer collectives create credit history and start getting bank loans.
"This is a neglected sector and we found that they need nurturing," says Das. Also, this is not exactly like microfinance; you have to do a lot of modifications to reach out to the needy. For instance, they need a combination credit product that is both short-term and long-term, something which banks do not have. Again, it is largely about women, as about 65 per cent of the workforce in small and marginal farmer households is women. They do not have the ownership of the land and are, therefore, denied access to credit. The other thing she is involved with at FWWB is building entrepreneurship among women.
"We want the micro-borrower women to acquire business skills and graduate to becoming entrepreneurs. Last year, we trained 10,000 women in rural areas in business skills and hope to repeat that this year too." It could be a group enterprise or a small business that will employ five to 10 people and need working capital in the region of Rs1 lakh to Rs5 lakh. It could be a shop or, say, a weaving centre.