This article has been published in partnership with Arth
When Seema Devi lost her husband in 2016, her world fell apart. A mother of two, she had no support system to help her. Both emotionally and financially devastated, she had to take up the reins as the sole breadwinner to support her family.
A resident of Bela Gusisi in Uttar Pradesh, Seema Devi wanted to set up a small dairy business, which she could manage from home. But with no know-how about how to do it and no real access to funds, her dreams of running a business faced a serious challenge.
That is when ARTH stepped in.
In 2017, ARTH provided Seema Devi with funds, and trained her in digital literacy, to help her start her business and achieve social and economic independence. ARTH’s assistance went beyond a one-time capital for the business.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic hit Seema Devi hard. Not only did her own business almost reach a halt, both her sons lost their jobs due to the lockdown, and returned home.
It was hard to keep things running at such times. But a special relief policy by ARTH offered to its micro-enterprise customers (that allowed for flexible repayments), meant she could keep her loan going without the worry about bad debt.
Another livelihood initiative by ARTH, called ‘Sakhee’, helped Seema Devi further by facilitating access to government schemes like the PM Gareeb Kalyan Yojana and Widow Pension scheme.
Owing to this, throughout the lockdown period, Seema has been able to get various benefits such as LPG supplies, subsidies, food supply and direct cash transfers.
Seema Devi was able to continue, without giving up, during these critical times. Her inspiring story is just one among those of over 2,00,000 others, who have been getting consistent support from ARTH.
A social impact lending venture focused on delivering access to affordable credit and livelihood support services to millions of micro-entrepreneurs; here is how the journey of ARTH Digital Loans began.
The Rural Exposure That Inspired the Plunge
Born and brought up in rural Uttar Pradesh, Shweta Aprameya spent the early years of her career working in the Financial Technology sector, enabling digital financial access through innovative technology. During this time, she came to understand the potential impact fintech can have at the grassroots and began to weave a plan for building solutions for the masses.
She conceptualized and developed the first low-cost savings micro deposit machine (MDM) for the masses. The machine was meant to be deployed by banks in India to facilitate daily savings, where banking infrastructure could not reach.
Her first machine was deployed at the Dharavi market, Mumbai, in 2008 to help the urban poor make single note deposits, especially targeting women and daily wage earners.
It was a complete eye-opener to see both the challenges and the opportunity of bringing millions in the formal financial system. This was the moment of truth!
The big plunge came in 2010 when Shweta left a high paying corporate career in the UK for good and started working on developing innovative solutions for micro customers.
Her work in India began with Financial Inclusion as a key goal. In 2013, she worked on developing a mobile financial services platform to power micro banking and payments (including domestic remittance) for ‘the base of the pyramid’ customers. In 2015, she ventured into affordable credit with a focus on supporting the 13-million strong women micro-entrepreneurs in India.
“Over the years, I realised that for the country to grow, we would need to focus our efforts on micro-entrepreneurs. India’s masses are mostly occupied with micro and small enterprises, including agriculture and diary. Access to affordable capital is one of their primary financial needs. We have to move away from the passive banker model to a proactive wealth creator model, where one who is willing to engage the micro-customer” says Shweta.
This may sound ambitious but Shweta’s thought process on impact creation with a mainstream mindset was sown long ago.
“Post-college, in 2002, with a degree in Economics, I wanted to spend sometime exploring development sector projects. I was lucky to have gotten an internship at ITC agriculture division. The internship was part of one of the best projects of the company – e-choupal; which focused on using ICT & solar technology to solve the problems of farmers in rural parts of the country. And as part of the work, I had to do a case study which involved travelling to remote villages to understand the impact of e-choupal. That experience gave me exposure like no other and, in the latter part of my career, inspired me to take this plunge to work on real problem-solving areas for the masses,” says Shweta.
She adds how her upbringing also played an integral part in ARTH’s focus on empowering and enabling women entrepreneurs and balancing the scales of gender financing in India.
“I was born into a family whose values were always rooted in grassroots work. My father worked in the Indian Forest Services, while my mother came from a humble teaching background. It was both my parents, my mother, who inspired me to work on basics and my father who taught me to care for marginalized communities and to be a real change-maker,” she adds.
ARTH made great strides since 2015. It was later incorporated under a larger fold, also called ARTH that focused on micro-entrepreneurs, both men and women, with 2018 being a turning point.
In that year, Shweta went to MIT – which opened her horizons to global successful models of business, innovation and impact.
Where ARTH is Today
Today, Arth is a financial services company delivering access to capital to millions of Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises (MSME) across the services and agriculture sector.
There are over 60 million micro-enterprises in India that employ over 300 million people – which is 50% of the workforce in the country.
Arth focuses on supporting these millions of micro-entrepreneurs in their journey of struggle and success by providing them micro capital for their business needs, business tools, and livelihood support to set up and grow their businesses.
Spread across 500 city locations serving over 13000 pin codes and 600 villages, ARTH’s vision of using technology to implement comprehensive financial inclusion in the country is now seeing real traction.
ARTH is helping micro-enterprises, who do not have access to flexible credit facilities, discover various financial services in India to help them build a robust local economy in both rural and urban areas.
ARTH’s vision is to build a cluster and community-centric MSME ecosystem that will empower millions of Indians. Examples would be an embroidery or Chikankari cluster in Lucknow district or an Ittar cluster in Kannuj district or the growers of Metha & Lemongrass in Raebareli.
“I feel my greatest achievement is linked to the success of the lives we touch through ARTH. As they say, technology is just a means to the end. Even for us at Arth, while we deploy ‘high tech’, our approach to building good business is to have a greater purpose at the heart of the model. We have not built it all, but the beginning is already there showing positive signs,” Shweta says in closing.
When we say ARTH reached five lakh people and directly impacted two lakh, it is hard to digest that number. It feels statistical. But we must remember that it is not just a number. Each one of them is a person with a dream. There are several millions of Seema Devi’s across India.
Which is perhaps the greatest takeaway we can take from organizations like ARTH. That is, when you blend awareness, digitisation, and technology with the needs of the grassroots in a manner that addresses their needs, you can, and will, unlock the potential of a nation.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)