Cover photo: Sadashiva Das operates a food stall in the market area of Khurda in eastern India

Twenty years ago, Sadashiva Das started cooking and selling panipuri, a popular street food made of fried flatbread and flavorful fillings. It took several years for him to build his reputation in the bustling market area of Khurda, located in the Odisha province of eastern India. As his panipuri business took off, Sadashiva was able to feed and provide for his family. The income he earned from his business also allowed him to send his son and daughter to college.

Like other street vendors across India, Sadashiva had to close his panipuri business — the only source of income for his family — when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Because coronavirus is highly contagious, he was unsure when he would be able to restart his business, if at all. Without the income from his food stall, the lack of cash became a major problem for him, and he recalled that he nearly slipped into a depression. He didn’t have enough savings to last for another few months, so he picked up a job as a daily wage worker to make ends meet.

After six very challenging months, Sadashiva learned that he could apply online for a loan to give his business some relief during this crisis. Although the online registration process is fairly easy, Sadashiva struggled because he doesn’t have much experience using technology. As a client of Annapurna Finance Ltd., a microfinance institution and Accion partner in India, he received support through the loan process and Annapurna’s staff walked him through the online registration process.

Annapurna recognizes that technology can help their team to reach more clients, provide better customer support, improve the efficiency of their operations, and launch digital products that help microentrepreneurs stay in business. The pandemic has accelerated their focus on digitization. But many of their clients — especially those living in rural areas — need extra support to learn how to use digital tools. To build digital products that work for Annapurna’s clients, we surveyed Annapurna’s small business owner customers to understand their experience and confidence using technology, how gender gaps affect digital access, the role of misinformation, and more. Through Mastercard and Accion’s partnership, we’re working with Annapurna to develop new digital loan products for the micro, small, and medium enterprises they serve.

One month after he applied for the street vendor loan, Sadashiva received the disbursement he needed to restart his business. He reopened his panipuri stall while following the government’s pandemic safety measures, and his sales slowly returned. But while vaccines have rolled out and infections have dropped in countries like the United States, India is still facing devastating COVID-19 outbreaks. Skyrocketing cases have overloaded India’s health system and new lockdowns have left small business owners out of work again. Digital financial tools can help small business owners to weather this crisis, find a way to reopen their businesses safely, and help us to create a more inclusive recovery for all.

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