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IDEAS Discussion Series

Sustainable Approaches for building resilient systems in Emerging Economies

by Abhishek Ajmani, Rachel Gehr, Romika Kotian and Danielle Nicole Wagner

In this conversation, Pallavi Gupta, Asst. Director of Shah Lab, speaks with Reema Nanavaty, Secretary General, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), India, to discuss methods, program design considerations, and strategies that SEWA has successfully employed in their work over the past five decades. The conversation focuses on approaches for building resilient systems in the wake of COVID 19.

Founded in 1972, SEWA is the single largest trade union of informal sector workers in India with over 1.9 million women members distributed across 18 states in India and other neighboring countries. SEWA has strived to empower women by organizing them for full employment and self-reliance by helping them achieve income security, food security, healthcare, childcare, and shelter.

SEWA is both an organization and a movement guided by Gandhian values. Reema Nanavaty describes the organization structure as that analogous to a Banyan Tree; wherein, the leaves are its members, the main trunk is the parent SEWA, and the branches are services or support organizations that then take roots to further reinforce and strengthen the structure, so that it can withstand upheaval and challenges as in the case of COVID 19. The branches of the Banyan Tree encompass eight principle services, which are – financial support through cooperative banks (SEWA Bank), women-centered healthcare, integrated insurance schemes (VimoSEWA), legal services, childcare, capacity building training for members, and a platform to voice social issues through Video SEWA. The unique organizational structure of SEWA along with its culture of community ownership and engagement and co-creation not only builds a collective strength among its women members, but it also imparts overall strength and resilience to the organization itself. Even in the harsh conditions of a pandemic, SEWA’s model has shown to be resilient and sustainable.

SEWA is these 1.9 million members and we organize around the needs and issues that our members are facing.. this brings a sense of ownership and mutual accountability”
Reema Nanavaty

The community-driven model of SEWA provides it a unique position to identify opportunities and gaps in the community needs and convert them into employment opportunities – converting the adversity into opportunities in many instances.

Problem Statements and partnership opportunities:

In one such instance, as the lockdown began, SEWA quickly identified new needs in the local community and helped establish new businesses by connecting local producers to local consumers, whether it was in the area of packaged food, or locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables, or in the local garment design and manufacturing. The opportunity that SEWA identified was the strength and benefits of local supply chain model.

In their own organization, several businesses suffered, as many global supply-chains came to a grinding halt. This was mainly true for businesses relying on centralized supply-chain as they lacked resiliency to work smoothly during disruptive times. Thus, the need for a more blended system, consisting of decentralized supply-chain and catering to the requirements of local communities, was identified as a potential solution, which could make the organization even more dynamic and flexible and thus increase its overall resilience. This was built on the model that they have practiced in multiple rural areas, where groups of women produced consumables apt for the local demand. Over the years, SEWA has supported hundreds of such enterprises, and Ms. Nanavaty believes that it is time to create “SEWA BAZAR” – an online e-commerce platform to bring all their products under one umbrella, thereby consolidating their brand.

This could connect SEWA members to each other, but also collectively reach the outside market.”
Reema Nanavaty

SEWA’s core operation is built on utilizing technology to support and empower its members, whether through inclusive digital services or through education and training. Technology has proven to be very valuable in the lives of SEWA women as it has greatly enhanced communication, engagement, enrollment as well as the planning and management of various tasks. The decision-making capability can be further decentralized by combining technology and data analytics. Such a decision-making tool in the hands of SEWA members, and community leaders will further strengthen their resilience, as communities can make decisions that works for them. Thus, there is a need for systematic data collection, analytics, and database creation that can be used by the grassroot leaders to analyze processes and deploy and improve targeted initiatives.

In a SEWA project in the Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, the organization installed solar parks with the help of the local government to increase the power efficiency of the salt-making process and reduce the financial burden on some of the poorest communities in the region. While these solar parks are utilized most of the year, they remain utilized for approx. 3-4 months each year. There is an opportunity for the surplus power generated during this off-season to be sold off to the grid, transmitted to the local villages to enhance energy self-sufficiency, or utilized in some other way that can be the most beneficial to the local people in the village. SEWA has identified the need for a Learning Lab that can ascertain viable socio-technical solutions that are also economically beneficial to the local population such as extracting valuable elements like magnesium and phosphate in the process of salt production.

Purdue’s Involvement

Ms. Nanavaty identified several achievable innovation gaps that would advance their existing support systems. As outlined above, one that is most familiar to many scholars- lies with the need for data collection, analysis, and application in everyday tasks that the women perform to improve their techniques. The other is tying in policy with the intersection of health, agriculture, and artisans. As agriculture is a means of livelihood, of nutrition, and income.

There is a need to think about mechanisms that can bring forth mainstream physical health into the lives of agricultural workers as well as artisans. There is a need to systematically identify important policy areas in the organization that can better feed into ongoing initiatives and help the organization run more effectively.”
Reema Nanavaty


Progress is a process that takes time, effort and support.

By emphasizing the agency of its sisters, SEWA has empowered millions of women and continues to works towards a self-reliant and resilient society, but this process is long and is built on trust. The lifecycle of identifying gaps, training and empowering women, supporting them is creating enterprises and handholding in scaling those enterprises for larger impact is critical and needs organized long term support from donors in form of blended pool of finance – ‘Livelihood Recovery and Resilience Fund’

Instead of a short term grant for a specific project, we will benefit greatly from a partner in our journey.”
Reema Nanavaty

Additional Links to SEWA’s work:

Presented by

Purdue College of Engineering and Shah Family Global Innovation Lab