When Madura Microfinance’s Dr. Tara Thiagarajan conceptualised the idea of teaching business lessons to micro entrepreneurs, she knew it had to be through a medium that low-literate entrepreneurs were familiar with. She decided that producing a business film was the way to go. She turned to Usha Rajeswari, a documentary filmmaker, to write and direct the film. However, there was one more element that had to be added – the business-related curriculum had to be subtly merged into the film. For this, Thiagarajan partnered with the Marketplace Literacy Project (MLP) – an initiative dedicated to creating educational curriculum for the low-income ecosystem.
Madhu Viswanathan, a professor in the College of Business at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who founded the Subsistence Marketplaces Initiative, is the person at the helm of MLP, and his vision for the project is not very different from that of Thiagarajan’s. “Why is so much of management research focused on one segment of society?” he asks. It’s a question that had captured his imagination almost 15 years ago. In 1997, Viswanathan started observing and interviewing low-income households in the U.S. In 2001, he expanded his scope to study subsistence marketplaces in India to suggest solutions to poverty, through teaching and education. “It wasn’t enough just to do research. The project is about making things happen by implementing the outcome of the research,” he adds.
“We definitely don’t start at the macro level or at the ecosystem level. For us, it’s about people, consumers and entrepreneurs in a low-income household. We interview them, understand their needs and aim to make them literate about the marketplace as consumers and as entrepreneurs”
Viswanathan tells us that the thought behind MLP is very bottomup. He explains, “We definitely don’t start at the macro level or at the ecosystem level. For us, it’s about people, consumers and entrepreneurs in a low-income household. We interview them, understand their needs and aim to make them literate about the marketplace as consumers and as entrepreneurs. In addition to money and a market to sell a product, understanding the marketplace in which they operate is crucial for a micro-entrepreneur.”
The primary goal of the project is to enhance skills, self-confidence and make them aware of their rights as a consumer and an entrepreneur. Today, training the low literate community is focused on vocational skills and to a lesser extent the know-how. It focuses on how you can start a small food stall and make money out of it. But Viswanathan believes that, it is the know-why that is crucial. He says, “Micro entrepreneurs should know why they should choose a particular business, why they should be customer-oriented, why they are pricing at a particular level or why they have certain food items in their menu and don’t have some others. Such know-why would enable them to adapt to changing marketplace circumstances.”
The original five-day marketplace literacy programme piloted in 2003 is complete with pictorial representations and simulated marketplace interactions, practical sessions in which low literate consumers and entrepreneurs are taught about everything from the idea of a marketplace and an exchange, and even about how not to get cheated in a transaction. “Practicality lies at the core of this project,” emphasises Viswanathan. It even goes to the extent of helping a prospective micro-entrepreneur identify the right business to be in.
The curriculum is fairly in-depth. As a part of the programme, there is also a module on product design. If an entrepreneur is making and selling pickles, the details of why certain ingredients are added and how to procure these materials at the right price are discussed. The customer is at the centre of the whole programme. Micro entrepreneurs first learn how to be smart consumers, before starting on the entrepreneurial literacy part of the programme. After a pilot project, Viswanathan went back to participants in the programme to gauge its impact. He definitely noticed a positive change as low-literate consumers and participants learnt several practical lessons on running a business. In partnership with a local NGO, marketplace literacy education was offered in different configurations in a face-to-face format. Meanwhile, the program was fine-tuned for different audiences and documented in the form of a book.
Building it up
The crucial question gripping Viswanathan for the past few years is scaling up in terms of reach. His initial efforts in this direction started with a partnership with the Byrraju Foundation in Andhra Pradesh. The original goal was to come up with a ‘train-a-trainer’ module, so that these programmes can be run with facilitators with the help of voiceovers. Over time, this developed into a video-based approach using nine episodes of women learning about the marketplace as bases for educational sessions with facilitators. The partnership with Madura Microfinance to embed the curriculum into a business training film is a step in the same direction. Viswanathan says, “The project can probably scale with a self-administered video-based approach.” The professor is also looking at subtitling the video curriculum in multiple languages. The work itself is administered through the Marketplace Literacy Communities, an NGO based in Chennai founded by research associates of the Subsistence Marketplaces Initiative. This NGO works directly with approximately 100 self-help groups, assisting with day-to-day activities, providing linkages to financial institutions, and, over time, providing marketplace literacy education.
Viswanathan summarizes progress in terms of being program-centric to scaling-centric and now community-centric as a means to be deeply embedded in communities and to learn continuously. Viswanathan says he’s comfortable with how the curriculum has shaped up. Video lectures and a business training film will be played to an audience of about 20 people. The protagonist in the film will conduct market research, design a product and will also make several other business decisions after careful analysis. Viswanathan’s belief is that people attending the programme will put themselves in the shoes of the central character in the classroom and then apply the learning in their local context.
But the curriculum, in Viswanathan’s mind, is only the first step. As he gets ready to build scale with a regional launch for the video-based curriculum, he’s thinking through several questions: “How can we recruit more participants into the programme? How do we manage the logistics of delivering it over a large-scale?” “How do we provide support to entrepreneurs and enterprises as they adapt to changing circumstances?” He adds, “I think the most important element to make this project work is patient human capital. One needs to keep the programme’s integrity intact, stay at it and continuously measure its quality and impact.” For the sake of the low-income entrepreneur, let us hope Viswanathan’s project can reach a vast majority of people who live at the sustenance level.
Idea in brief
With so much of management implementation focussed on one segment of society, Professor Madhu Viswanathan conceptualised the Marketplace Literacy to help low-income groups with limited literacy better understand the practical aspects of running a business. The primary goal of the project is to enhance skills, self-confidence and make them aware of their rights as a consumer and an entrepreneur. Viswanathan conducted localised research within such an ecosystem and combined this research with generic business education. The outcome is a structured curriculum on the know-whys and know-hows of being a consumer and/or an entrepreneur.
Currently, the programme has been offered in a small scale in Tamil Nadu and work is underway to launch it over a wider scale, initially in south India, and later across the country. The five-day programme is complete with pictorial representations, business films and practical sessions in which low literate consumers and entrepreneurs are taught about everything from the idea of a marketplace and an exchange, and even about how not to get cheated in a transaction. The curriculum, loaded with practical examples, simulated marketplace interactions and simple explanations to various business exchange scenarios, is embedded into the programme. Viswanathan does understand that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. His current focus is on scaling up the programme to reach a larger audience, invest in human capital and iron out the delivery process for the programme. One thing is for sure; the impact that it has created at the pilot stage has convinced the professor about the need for a programme of this nature.