A small business or micro-enterprise can pave the way to a comfortable living, more so when regular or well-paid jobs are in short supply. This is especially true for individuals and families living below the poverty line. A vegetable cart, a roadside kiosk selling household items, a small home-based tailoring business, or a street food stall—even with a thin profit margin, can offer an escape from hardship for those at the bottom of the pyramid.
The major challenge that micro enterprises face is arranging for seed capital to set up their small-scale ventures. This can be a daunting task for the poor. They typically operate at a low scale of economy, lack loan collaterals or satisfactory credit histories, and have little or no access to relevant information.
Two organizations, from United Kingdom and India, have joined hands to tackle this problem. Their solution: giving one-time in-kind support to the poorest and most vulnerable people, to help them start their own micro-enterprises. This transformational initiative is named Unnati (advancement, prosperity), after a suggestion from one of its first beneficiaries.
The Road to Parity, a UK-based charity, and Learning Links Foundation, an Indian NGO, launched Project Unnati in October 2019.The pilot phase was implemented in slums of Delhi. The first batch of recipients was chosen after careful screening on parameters such as per capita household income; household size; number of people dependent on the sole breadwinner; and educational levels. Women-led households and people with disabilities were given priority. The candidates’ business plans and commitment levels were also evaluated.
The selected aspirants were given trade-related tools and materials, of a maximum value of INR 5000 each. Over the next three months, the project team monitored their progress and helped them surmount challenges they were facing while plying their trades.
One of the early beneficiaries of the initiative is Renu, an illiterate factory worker, who was struggling to run her household on her small daily wages after her husband got disabled in an accident. With support from Project Unnati, she acquired a push-cart and started selling vegetables, leading to an instant increase in her income. “Getting the start-up support has been a life-changing opportunity for me. I was worried and struggling hard to provide for my family but now I’m confident that in a few months I will be able to expand my business and do better for my family,” says Renu.
The project has witnessed an increase of 65% in the average household income among the recipients. Moreover, the emerging entrepreneurs display a natural resourcefulness and drive to succeed, overcoming obstacles like lack of education and harsh living conditions. One beneficiary, for example, switched to selling boiled eggs instead of vegetables when she found that this brought better profits.
The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted economic activities across the world, and the Unnati beneficiaries, too, were affected by the sudden crisis. Most of them got housebound as their slum localities were declared to be ‘red zones’. Others, who had gone to their native villages, were unable to return.
With time, as restrictions have eased, some of them have been able to resume their trades, even if earning less-than-usual. Says Ajay, a fast-food stall owner who was among the first batch of beneficiaries: “It was a tough time for all, such ups-and-downs keep coming in life, but I am sure that this opportunity has come to me for a reason and I will work hard to make the most of it. I feel confident after this little success of mine, and someday I am sure to make a good fortune for myself.”
The project has benefited and changed many lives for the better and even more are hopeful of launching their ventures with support from Project Unnati.