Each morning, Laal Kumari Singh rises early to feed her herd of cows, milk them, and leads them to a pasture to graze. As the sun begins to set, she leads them back home for another feeding and milks them once more. When her regular customers arrive to purchase fresh milk – an important source of protein and nutrients — throughout the day, Laal carefully measures the milk that her cows produce, saves exactly what she needs for her family, and sells the surplus both to people in her community in Raipur, India and to larger suppliers.

There are millions of small business owners like Laal in India, each working hard to support their families and fulfill a need in their communities. When these enterprises thrive, so do the families and communities that depend on them. That’s why our partner Sub-K set out to bring financial tools to underserved businesses in India, particularly the last mile where no financial services have reached before. Sub-K uses its large network of agents to reach people in rural communities in India and connect them to banks. “It’s really critical for us to have the touchpoints on the ground to interact with these communities that probably have never had a banking relationship. So to that extent, our agents play a very important role in introducing these communities to the banking system,” explains Sub-K’s CEO Sasidhar Thumuluri.

By working with Sub-K to purchase additional cows for her herd, Laal has expanded her business dramatically. When she first started her milk business, she only owned five cows. Now, her herd of cows, calves, and buffaloes has grown to nearly 40, producing 30 to 40 liters of milk for her to sell each day. Because of Laal’s success, she’s been able to support her three kids: two sons and one daughter. She uses her increased income from the expansion of her milk business to help pay for her children’s education. She’s thinking of the future, too — she’s already invested in buying a shop in nearby Sarura to further build her family’s financial security.

Continuing to serve small businesses during the pandemic

As the coronavirus pandemic leaves its impact on communities, the entrepreneurial dream that led Laal to build a better life for her family is in danger. To help small business owners in India overcome this devastating financial shock, Sub-K is introducing emergency loans and accelerating digital solutions. Even before the crisis hit, Sub-K recognized this opportunity for driving financial inclusion. “Digital is the way to go to reach the large-scale masses and the last mile,” says Sasidhar.

Despite the clear advantage in connecting small business owners like Laal to digital services, Sasidhar also knows the great challenges this presents. Many of Sub-K’s clients have never had a formal bank account before, much less access to any digital banking services. So Sub-K is used to giving clients extra support to learn about products and become comfortable with new platforms. Their agents have typically done this work hands on in local communities, but as face-to-face interactions are halted, Sub-K is offering digital payment options on their mobile phones. Only 20 – 30 percent of Sub-K’s clients in rural areas currently have smartphones, but even those without online access can utilize digital services through Sub-K’s call center or by reaching out to local agents. As Sub-K works to quickly expand their digital platform to address new challenges from the pandemic, they are taking a multichannel approach that will continue to meet these clients where they are. If clients are given what they need to use digital financial services, this shift could make it possible to reach even more financially excluded people in the longer term.

Sasidhar stresses the importance of rebuilding from COVID-19 in a way that brings the most vulnerable microbusinesses into the digital economy: “Let’s not go back to our old normal, and let’s not wait for the situation to get normalized and then get back to the old way of doing business. Here is an opportunity that we need to grab. Let’s develop tools. Let’s educate them. Let’s make sure we build a new normal, which to me is a [digital] ecosystem play. It is possible. Let’s get together, collaborate, and make this happen.” With the right tools and support, entrepreneurs like Laal can grow their businesses and build stability for themselves and their families. The future of these small businesses — under threat from the pandemic — depends on their ability to access the financing they need digitally. Learn more from Sasidhar by watching our recent webinar, Going digital: An essential move for MSMEs in a post COVID-19 world.