One of the initiatives that most interested me comprised setting up Enterprise Facilitation Centres (EFCs) in every block in the state. It seemed like a direct counterpart to the Micro Business Centre (MBC) that I'm trying to pilot here in Orissa, except that it catered to rural communities while the MBC caters to urban poor communities. I'm grateful that their government was gracious enough to have me visit them, answer my innumerable questions, and give me the chance to get a rather thorough look (or as thorough as possible in so short a visit) at what they're trying to do.
The main points about these EFCs is as follows. First, the initiative is rather new, with only a few EFCs being even 2 years old. Most EFCs have been operational since just about a year ago. Next, the field team working with the core government team in the state capital - Shillong - consists of 25-30 youth who are primarily recent college graduates. They are enthusiastic, possess a variety of degrees (from MBAs to Masters in Agricultural Sciences), and spend their time doing research, following up with field representatives, and going out into the field to do community surveys and map rural livelihood sectors.
Each EFC is situated within the Block Headquarters, where in addition to offices of the block-level government officials, there typically also are the offices of the Agriculture department officials, the Horticulture department officials, a Livestock expert or a state-employed Veterinarian. As of now, the role of the EFC is primarily to link a community member to the appropriate official(s) for technical support with their farming or livestock rearing practices, to link them with the Horticulture dept. for access to new high-value crops (such as the successfully introduced strawberry cultivation), and to provide incoming community members with ideas about integrating hatcheries or piggeries into their existing farms.
The vision behind the EFC is similar to that behind my current MBC project - create a one-stop shop for aspiring micro or small scale entrepreneurs, who want to start a small side business / make an existing business more viable / need new business ideas. Thus the EFC aims to act as a "front office": its team maps the needs of the community member who has walked into their office with questions, shows the individual videos of the different kinds of farm-based enterprise possible in rural Meghalaya, and links the individual to sources of skill training / technical or financial assistance.
Of course, having just started, the EFCs are facing teething problems. I was guided to 3 EFC offices in 3 villages across 2 blocks in 2 districts (the East Khasi Hills, and the East Jaintia Hills) and I spoke extensively with the local team. The experience across the EFCs was similar, they had shared complaints, and many of them echoed my own thoughts from working here in Orissa at a similarly nascent project stage; my insights are noted after the following photographs.
EFC # 1
My second day touring the EFCs. This is in East Jaintia Hills. Every EFC has a similar sign outside. The team usually comprises 2 young women or men (shown above right), often from the local areas. There is a small front office, and an 'audio visual' room for interactive counseling sessions.
The purple tea cakes are made of pounded and steamed purple rice, a local rice variety. Typically eaten along with tea, or as a meal along with pork, it is a simple preparation but the chewy texture of this rice makes it quite tasty.
Above: Another EFC (left) and its surrounding block offices (right).
My second visit that day was to an EFC in the same district, but in a more remote area, the kind that justifies the meaning of the name "Meghalaya" (Abode of Clouds). Located in a wet and misty cluster of villages where everyone focused on traditional farming, the EFC here had faced difficulties in getting the old timer farmers to start integrating livestock into their farms, to adopt certain high value fruit crops (e.g. oranges), or to pursue skill training opportunities in farming techniques.
After my field visits, I also spent some time interacting with a large group of EFC staff at a workshop back at Shillong. Across the board, the problems were the same: community members typically came to the office to seek financial linkages for existing farms, or to inquire about agricultural subsidies. They were less interested in expanding their markets and searching for new supply chains or new business ideas. Since the EFCs as an institution did not yet have a bank partner who could work with them to provide business loans or financial incentives to enterprising farmers, the ideas provided to the farmers by the EFC team members were often not acted upon.
Of course this is not to say that financial assistance was the only thing required or even demanded. As the officials and field teams informed me, many of the more traditional communities in Meghalaya were averse to being in debt, and could not be persuaded to take bank loans. Many communities had approached government officials across this and other livelihood programs for technical assistance with setting up their piggeries and poultry farms, looking to start up these enterprises as cheaply as possible with their own funds (collective or individual). Thus the free skill training and skill upgradation modules that the program was providing to farmers, was quite successful and warmly received by the communities.
Another service that we discussed was that of business and financial management. The program management is currently piloting the idea of a finance advisory resource person, who can work with the farmers (or rural entrepreneurs) to assess their business, help them take stock of their business' finances, and over time, help them direct loans or their existing funds into the appropriate market linkages or business propositions.
One of the things I thought to share was the idea of basic business best practices, which small entrepreneurs, particularly those in the informal or rural sector, can often overlook. These include regular inventory maintenance, tracking time (and time cost) for anyone working on the business, differentiating between profit and revenue and assessing their business accordingly, and try to make informed and quick calculations about how much new enterprise set up (say a makeshift barn for the pigs) would cost and if taking a loan (versus investing existing personal funds) was worth it.
Another thing I thought to share was the idea of EFC local staff being a conduit for new design ideas in the case of communities that focus on traditional handicraft making. I am starting to see how even the urban poor women I work with appreciate the exposure to new designs for clothes, home furnishings, handicrafts, jewellery, packaging for tea and spices, and the exposure to the kinds of prices that these goods can command in the markets nowadays. This exposure at the MBC is being provided by helping the women navigate internet websites and tools (last year we focused on physical exposure, and gave small groups of women a guided tour of local upscale stores). If the local EFC office were to periodically browse the internet for design ideas, reach out to designers and design institutes across India, and bring these resources to communities with traditional skills (in Meghalaya this includes fantastic bamboo work, pottery, and some weaving), then that itself could be a very important service to provide in these rather remote and isolated areas.
Just as with my own project here however, I am starting to realise how much time such initiatives take to start achieving the final impact that it first set out to achieve. Entrepreneurship and enterprise development takes time, patience, and constant research into identifying the gaps and needs in the local ecosystem. The key first step is to set up a platform around which the community and the "changemakers" can gather.... this is the platform that the EFC currently is, and the platform that I very much hope the MBC also is.