The recent Covid-19 pandemic has made it difficult to meet with people. Therefore, I call up Kavita before I go to visit her. ‘Aaj muskil hai — daakter ke paas jaana hai’ (Today appears to be difficult — I will be out visiting the doctor), she says over the phone. She tells me to come after a day or two as she is unwell. I reach her home on the agreed day and find her standing outside her house at a small stall (a handcart really) where she sells a few dry snacks, bottled water and aerated drinks.
Kavita is lean, almost thin and has a stoic look that betrays her present physical condition. She has a high forehead and cheekbones; and a strong jawline that makes her look almost regal. A red bindi dots her forehead and a smear of vermilion indicates her marital status. Today she is wearing a purple dress and has draped a dupatta over her head and shoulders; this is not how she normally dresses. We head indoors to chat — both of us are hesitant to abate the few paces between us brought about by the new rules of social distancing. Kavita sits down on a cot — I pull up a stool and she speaks to me haltingly. Her voice, softer than usual is undoubtedly so because of her recent illness.
Kavita was born 40 years ago to a family in the village of Naini near Allahabad. Although they lived in poverty she never really felt it and recalls her childhood as a happy one. ‘We were a large family and certainly not well off but our needs were always met’ she reminisces. Kavita completed her primary education and then dropped out of school as was characteristic of most girls of her village. She was married at the age of 18 to her husband with whom she has three children — a girl and two boys; aged 17, 15 and 14 respectively. She lives with her husband, children and father-in-law in a two-room house located in the outskirts of the city of Allahabad. Despite the fact that her house is made of bricks, she calls it a kutcha house. I do not disagree with her — stone slabs roughly laid down as flooring and a roof that leaks do not exactly say “stable structure”. The house is connected to electricity and the family has a television and a refrigerator among other belongings.
‘Kuch bhi nahi seekhe hai hum — silayi, bunayi ya kadhai bhi nahi aati’ (I have not learnt any skills — not even embroidery or knitting), says Kavita. After the wedding, Kavita embraced her role as a homemaker but a few years ago, expenses started to mount and she realised they were having money problems. Five years ago, she decided to work and supplement the family’s income. She took a loan from a microfinance institution and started her business of selling snacks and cold drinks outside her house. Kavita starts the day by taking stock of the supplies on her stall. Then she walks to the distributor’s store and replenishes her supplies. Sometimes her husband helps her. In the past they had a motorbike — which they used to travel short distances but had to sell it to meet medical expenses.
Kavita’s husband is a motorbike mechanic and works at a garage close by. He is paid on a daily basis depending on the number of motorbikes he repairs or services. His daily income varies but he would earn up to Rs. 2000 on a good work day. Kavita’s monthly profit ranges from Rs. 4–6000 rupees. But this was before the lockdown. Kavita admits the lockdown brought hard days upon the family but she says she does not wish to revisit those days in her memories, ‘Sometimes we had work, sometimes we didn’t’ she said in a matter-of-fact tone. ‘The police and administration harassed us a lot forcing us to shut shop,’ she recalls. Kavita has been a diligent saver putting away a fixed amount in Kaleidofin’s goal-based saving product as well as saving any extra cash in the bank. With their incomes almost nil, the family survived on their savings. Nobody told her about the virus but she feels that it spreads through touching surfaces or things used by an infected person such as cash. She uses a mask and keeps a bottle of sanitiser at her shop, using it a couple of times in a day. Kavita’s stall has seen a drastic drop in customers and her income has been halved. ‘Sometimes, I feel like shutting it altogether as I don’t know when things will get back to normal,’ she says. She tells me that the market remains closed on most days and it’s getting more difficult for her to source supplies.
Kavita’s household spends Rs.7–8,000 towards monthly groceries and utilities such as drinking water and electricity. They spend another Rs. 800 towards loan instalments. Kavita clarifies that their household has been taking loans from a microfinance institution recurrently. Mostly these loans are to meet expenses such as health or renovations for the house. The current loan was for Rs. 23,000 at an interest of 26%. ‘A few more days and the loan will end,’ she says. Her children study at a government school. Kavita’s father-in-law is aged now and does not work but he receives Rs. 500 as monthly pension from a government scheme. Kavita is a micro-influencer and has referred over a 100 persons from within her social circle to save towards their financial goals with Kaleidofin earning Rs. 2,700 as referral fees.
Kavita and her eldest daughter share a smartphone which they bought for Rs.10,000. Her husband owns a smartphone too and carries it with him to work. Kavita uses her phone predominantly to make calls while her daughter uses it to receive messages from school, for studies and to play games. Kavita does not use the phone for any kind of online transactions and even prefers to recharge it at the local store.
I ask her about her future plans and aspirations but she is unable to think of any. I start giving her examples; thinking she didn’t quite understand my question — educating her children, building a house, etc. ‘Aap jo bol rahein hain sab hamare mann bhi hai. Paisa hoga toh zaroor kar payenge. Us wajah se toh bachat kar rahein hai’ (Whatever you are saying is in my mind too. It will come to pass only if we have the money. That is why I am saving), she says pragmatically. She wishes her house looked better and that her children complete their education. ‘If the shop keeps running, I hope to get my daughter married properly’, she adds. Since the lockdown, income has been low and the family has been unable to save. I ask Kavita to share details about her illness but she brushes it off as ‘only a spell of weakness’.
The future of Kavita’s business appears to be grim yet every morning she makes the decision to open the stall and go through just one more day, hoping it would be better than the previous one.
This story has been developed in partnership with Kaleidofin. A portfolio startup of CIIE.CO. Kaleidofin is a FinTech platform that propels under-banked customers towards meeting their real life goals by providing intuitive & tailored financial solutions.
About the Authors:
Anita Srinivasan leads Kaleidofin’s business operations across northern India, working with leading institutional networks to enable goal-based financial solutions, credit health checks and digital payments for over 2 million low-income women entrepreneur-borrowers. A lawyer by training, she is passionate about building for the under-served and promoting gender inclusive finance. She tweets @anitasrinivas1.
Valerie Mendonca is a Research Associate at CIIE.CO, India’s foremost entrepreneurship centre housed at IIM Ahmedabad. Her research interests are women, entrepreneurs, society and storytelling. She tweets @ValerieHood17.