Route 4, ‘Pune Highway’, Maharashtra State, India: The signs for Pune start appearing miles before the city outskirts – an endless parade of towering, glossy billboards promising luxe apartment life in this boomtown of New India. “One Home, Numerous Wishes!” “Make Life an Occasion.” “Experience the Delightful Living!”

And my favorite, the simple and definitive, “This. Is. It.”

Our destination is far more modest – and much further still. Accion’s Usha Gopinath and Sachin Hirani, photographer John Rae and I are headed four more hours southeast beyond Pune, to Satara, and then two more beyond that, to Mhaswad. To Old India – or at least to rural India, where the imprint of modernity remains decidedly more faint.

I’m here to see Accion’s progress in client education. In 2007, Usha joined Accion to examine the feasibility of migrating ‘Dialogue on Business’, our successful business-skills training program, to India. With more than 700,000 Latin American entrepreneurs trained since 1999 and the program licensed to 51 Latino NGOs, universities, banks and city governments, ‘Dialogue’ was clearly in demand. But how would it work in a country of 28 states and no fewer than 22 official languages? What would constitute success?

A day later we stand on a flat, dusty plain, half an hour outside Mhaswad. Stunted, thorny trees shimmer in the heat. A line of ragged blue hills guards the horizon. Modest single-room houses of stone and clay, adobe-like, dot the landscape. The subcontinent’s version of the American Southwest.

“Indian country,” quips John.

In the middle of the plain, incongruously, sits a bus. Not just any bus, but the Mann Deshi Foundation Microfinance Bus. It’s the brainchild of Ms. Chetna Sinha, founder of Mann Deshi Mahila Bank, a regulated cooperative bank run by and for women and, today, with 140,000 clients, the largest microfinance institution in Maharashtra.

Impressed with Accion’s client-training work in southern India with the Muthoot Pappachan Group, Mann Deshi selected Accion for a pilot to see whether financial education and business-skills training could actually work in such a rural setting. A grant from HSBC pays for the bus itself; Accion’s role is to establish the program and train the trainers, with a goal of 1,000 clients trained in basic financial and business skills within the year. Usha tells me they’re at 600 and counting.

At first the bus looks forgotten, but it turns out we’ve timed our arrival perfectly. Within minutes, village women in blue, yellow and purple saris, bright as birthday presents, materialize through the haze. The bus fills rapidly, a score of eager entrepreneurs jostling for seats at its built-in desks. And so it goes once every week for 10 weeks, as female students of all ages spend three hours in spirited interaction with teacher and classmates.

Today’s lesson is ‘Cash Management’ – and for me, another quick tutorial in development practicalities. Where are the chalkboards and the pads and pens, I wonder quietly, as the facilitator demonstrates concepts of income and expense by moving red and green plastic balls between Tupperware containers.

“These women are innumerate,” Usha whispers. “This method ensures they understand it easily.”

Sadly, I’m a week too late to witness the evocatively-named ‘Self-Management’ class, where women are taught to begin thinking of themselves not just as mothers, not just as housewives, but as entrepreneurs, with creativity and value to add outside the home. But what I do see is just as compelling: a dozen giggling schoolgirls, neat as naval officers in their blue and white uniforms, waiting eagerly in the 90-degree heat for the start of the bus’s weekly class in computer literacy. They gather as early as 1:00; class starts at 4:00.

Two days from now we’ll be what feels like worlds away, in the tropics of Trivandrum, on India’s southern tip – a place where palm trees wave in humid winds and working elephants stroll the streets. Trivandrum and the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka mark the real measure of Accion’s progress with ‘Dialogue’ in India. Partnering with the Muthoot group to build their ‘Sthreejyoti’ – ‘Women Empowerment’ – program, Usha has helped launch more than a dozen training modules here, from Self-Management to Sales Strategies, in five regional languages. She has helped direct the training of more than 25,000 women in basic business skills, with a target of 100,000 by 2014. And, most recently, with the assistance of Citi Foundation and Friends of Women’s World Banking, has expanded ‘Dialogue’ to the state of Gujarat.

But that’s a whole other story. Right now, it’s all about the bus. This is what we do – these pilots, these trials and experiments in inclusion. The application of determination and philanthropy to modest and noble ideas, out here on the edge. This is what I came 7,500 miles to see.

And this, I am reminded once again, is why I work here.

Written for Accion’s bi-annual donor magazine, Ventures, November 2012.

Header photo courtesy of Google Images.

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