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Observations from a Day with Buzz

Sonali Mehta-Rao, Co-Founder & Chief Growth Officer, Awaaz.De, shares her experience from her visit to Buzz’s training.

Having worked in financial inclusion in India for the last several years, and social sector for nearly a decade, I have visited many JLG & SHG group meetings, and village-level group training on financial literacy and other topics. So, when I reached out to Uthara Narayanan, Buzz’s Chief Changemaker, to schedule a day observing her training and learning from her field team, I expected something similar. What I found was very different than anything that I had encountered before.

Some background: Buzz Women has been using Awaaz.De’s Messenger platform for over two years to reinforce key financial literacy concepts through Kannada language voice messages that women can listen to on any mobile phone. These messages serve as an additional ‘nudge’, to encourage them to adopt positive financial behaviors. Uthara and I met through the Acumen fellowship, and since the time we met, she’s been patiently reminding me that to truly understand her work, I need to see it. She was right.

Two years later, I was on a bus to a village in Kolar district, Karnataka with Yashoda and Karpagam, two members of the Buzz Women leadership team. From the time I first met them both at the bus stand, I was struck by how confident, insightful, and kind they both were. In our 3-hour bus ride, they helped me understand the many levels of Buzz Women’s work, the history of how it has evolved and scaled up to over 1 lakh women, and interesting insights about financial inclusion and microfinance that they have gained with their many years of field experience.

When we reached the training venue, the trainers and the Buzz Women bus, which is used to transport the materials (canopy, chairs, table) had already arrived and the open-air classroom was set up. Given that Buzz Women was not offering any material or financial incentives or even loans, I was surprised to see every chair fill up soon after I arrived.

To my surprise, the training started with a song, call-and-response, with the women enthusiastically echoing the trainer with big smiles on their faces. The next two hours were full of questions (those who answered correctly were rewarded with candies), role-plays, case studies and women being called up to present real-life goals and challenges. No lectures! The trainer was one of the more charismatic teachers I’ve observed, high-energy but patient, and treated every woman with respect.

The content covered topics ranging from the importance of goal setting (taught through blindfolding one of the women and asking her to build a block tower) to assets and liabilities (explained by calling one woman up to the front and creating her personal ‘balance sheet’. The training also covered financial planning and responsible borrowing, illustrated by sharing case studies that were designed to be relevant and easy to relate to and asking women to break into groups and prepare advice for each situation.

On the way back, Yashoda shared with me that this is just the beginning. After 2 half-day, interactive training, Buzz Women doesn’t just disappear. At the end of the second training, 1 or 2 Gelathis, (‘friend’ in Kannada) are elected from within the group. These Gelathis support and encourage women in their village to maintain healthy financial behaviors. Buzz Women staff continue to support the Gelathis through monthly meetings. I’m hoping that on my next visit, I’ll get a chance to learn more about this part of the model.

When I last met with Uthara in Mumbai, she excitedly told me about a new layer to their approach – the idea that women who have benefited from the Buzz training and support (52% of women increase their savings by 50%!) would be willing to pay it forward so that another woman can benefit. The women will be setting aside 1 Rupee a day so that by the end of the year one woman saves Rs. 365, which can help fund the Buzz program for another woman.

For me, the highlight of the day was at the end of the training, when the trainer asked the women to raise their hand if they’d like to pay for another woman to go through the program. Almost everyone’s hand was in the air within seconds. It was moving to see this in person – to think about lakhs of rural Indian women lifting themselves and other women up, without depending on external material or financial support – a vision that I’m convinced Buzz will achieve.

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