Manjulata and Charan’s home is filled with color. Brightly painted masks and figurines of gods and animals line the floors. Clay molds, unpainted works in progress, and paint supplies await their attention. The married couple are sculptors, and their traditional art form is their family business as well. They shape each piece from paper-mâché in a mold before drying, polishing, and meticulously painting it with vibrant shades of yellow, red, green, purple, black, and white. A typical piece takes two days to finish. They can make two to three larger items or five to six small ones in a day. The work is entirely, lovingly done by hand in a method passed down from generation to generation. “Since making art has been passed down from our family, it’s like part of life. Just like how you wake up in the morning and brush your teeth,” says Manjulata.

This couple lives in Karadagadia, Khordha, Odisha, a village of artisans in rural India. Many of their neighbors make similar traditional art forms. This is their regular livelihood that keeps them engaged all around the year, but buyers only make the trip to their village twice a year. 

The risks to such a business are substantial. Besides pursuing an age-old form of handicraft, which may lose its relevance because of low marketing and exposure, these businesses also experience critical financial challenges.  One sale needs to sustain a household and business for months at a time. If the price of food or materials changes during that time, the artisan households must compromise their quality of living to survive. In good times, it’s difficult to grow a business without cash reserves, and cash can be lost or stolen. Moreover, as more businesses, buyers, and shoppers transition to digital payments, cash-based operations risk being left behind.

Financial services, from digital payments to microcredit, can be a lifeline to entrepreneurs like Manjulata and Charan. Mobile money is safely stored in a bank account; credit can help them bridge lean times and invest in growth. But because of the size of their enterprises, their rural location, and lack of credit history, many micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises have been unable to access financial products that would help them thrive. Annapurna Finance Pvt. Ltd., an Accion partner, is a microfinance institution that provides financial credit to the unserved and underserved populations in India — microenterprises, women-led businesses, rural entities, and others who have been left out of the formal financial channels.

Manjulata and Charan in their workshop in rural Odisha, India

In recent years, Accion supported Annapurna to digitizing loan repayments, introducing digital emergency credit products, and helping the organization to restructure its risk policies, processes, and internal incentives to create an environment with a lower footprint and optimized human efforts to maximize customer-centric offerings. By building our partners’ digital capacity, we can help them reach more customers with tailored products, leading to more growth opportunities and increased adoption of digital financial services among the smallest businesses.

Manjulata is one of them. Over the past decade, she has received five group loans from Annapurna, which she used to buy materials for her business. The loans arrive in a mobile account managed by one of her sons. She makes her monthly payments in cash, and she values the convenience of working in both forms of transactions. As part of solidarity lending practices, group guarantee plays a pivotal role for Manjulata and her neighbors to access credit from Annapurna. She is the leader of her group, and her business’s success has allowed her to help other members manage repayments during difficult times. Ultimately, she plans to apply for individual loans; group loans are an important step towards building the credit history that will qualify her for additional financial services. 

Accessing higher-ticket individual loans is just one of the ambitions Manjulata and Charan have for their business. They want to hire employees to increase their output. Soon, they hope to pass the operation along to their adult children. In an increasingly competitive and digital economy, their investments in their business’s financial health and the steps they are taking to adopt digital technology will help sustain the business for the next generation. Manjulata and Charan’s small art business has enabled them to provide for their three children. Now that their children are getting married and their family is growing, they are using what they have earned to expand their home to accommodate their growing family. “It makes us feel proud that we have come this far,” says Manjulata. 

Manjulata and Charan in their workshop in rural Odisha, India

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