Bringing dignity to Rickshaw Drivers

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Meet Team SMV 2. Joy

Second in the series, we'll hear from Senior Finance Manager Joy Jauer about her interaction with rickshaw drivers in her first few months on the team.

"Remembering my first day in the field"

Today is my three month anniversary with SMV Wheels. Now that I’ve been with the company for a quarter, it’s interesting to look back on what I’ve learned and how we as a team have progressed. I did a lot of listening and learning at first, and, while I continue to do that, I really enjoy seeing the difference in how I’ve really become a part of the SMV family instead of a spectator.

One of the things I love about this company is how much we take care of each other. When I asked about the office culture in my interview, Naveen said something like, “Oh no, you don’t need to worry about anything like that—we’re a family, we’ll take care of you.” They do, too. From finding me packaged “dahi” (yogurt) to searching for my lost packages at India Post, everyone has done their best to include the new gal. This is one of the things that makes us a great business—our focus on taking care of each other and our clients.  

While we’re still perfecting our operations and supply chain, SMV works hard to put our clients first, striking a balance of viewing them as consumers of our service and co-creators of the business. We provide a bit of wiggle room with repayment when “it’s too much cold” or when someone has a family emergency. At a brainstorm in one of our staff meetings, a team member pointed out that we should show more hospitality to our clients by offering them a drink when they come in. This mindset is what is going to make SMV shine as we scale. At a social entrepreneurship conference, a gentleman representing an NGO questioned the priority sector lending approach to rickshaw loans, arguing that banks don’t know enough about rickshaw drivers and the problems they face. It’s true; actually helping this community is contingent on knowing them. And knowing the community is something SMV does well.

I love getting to know our clients. They have wonderful smiles; they work hard; and they are so glad to show you their vehicles. But it wasn’t until the second week that I had the opportunity to go on collections rounds with our field staff. Here is what I remember about that day:

“We started the day with our mechanic’s workshop. I saw the workers assembling a traditional rickshaw: the detailed painting and designs on the carriage, the bolts that connect it to the chassis, and the gears that make the machine move. It was great to see the how our rickshaws are put together so that I understand how they work and what maintenance needs to be done. Having just had my bike tuned up at home, I could follow along with the braking system and construction. I was surprised to learn that it only takes 4 hours for a rickshaw to be fully assembled. I was also surprised (and at the same time, not at all surprised) to see the workshop to be in what I consider to be a disarray—some of the work was being done on a median in the middle of the road and the tools were scattered about the walls and floor. And somehow the work is done masterfully. Amazing.

Then we went on the collection route. A few weeks back we started to allow a designee to pay on behalf of our client so we travel around to their homes and someone like a wife or father provides the installment. It was great to see where our clients live and meet their families. Most of them are delighted to have a new visitor and were happy to meet me. A few wanted me to come in and see their homes.

Our collections process is designed to ensure accurate reporting as well as help the client keep track of his progress. The client gives the field officer a wad of cash, which the latter then counts and makes sure is the correct amount according to that day’s collection route list. Then the field officer writes out a receipt with the expected amount, the paid amount, and the client’s name which the client (or designee) then signs. The original stays with the client, and a carbon copy stays in the receipt book. Then the field officer makes an entry on a blue installment card that shows each payment so that the client can track their progress. By the end of the day, I was accepting the cash and making the receipts myself! 

On our way home in the Varanasi traffic (which is out of control, by the way) we were going very slow as a jam was clearing and I saw something that made me so thankful that I’m at SMV Wheels. There was an altercation between a rickshaw driver and a car driver. I’m not sure what caused it, but it seemed like the rickshaw driver had run into the car while trying to make a right turn across traffic. There was no visible damage to the car, but the car driver had gotten out of his vehicle and was both verbally and physically assaulting the rickshaw driver. The image is burned into my memory.

It’s plain to see that rickshaw drivers are one of the more marginalized members of society here. They earn about Rs.250 a day. They work long days of physical labor and suffer abuse from fleet owners if they don’t own their vehicle, from police officers if they don’t have the proper licenses, and even from patrons. In the community, there is a high incidence of communicable diseases like TB and HIV as well as a high incidence of malaria; they suffer from malnutrition, tobacco addiction, and alcoholism. Perhaps this rickshaw driver was at fault, but he was half the size of the car driver, who looked like he had had a few too many doses of protein powder and muscle milk, was wearing designer western clothes, and had been driving his own vehicle. The power imbalance was striking.

One of the things that attracted me to the company was the vision to not only increase the livelihoods of these folks but also give them dignity as well. Just like anyone, I can imagine how asset ownership could provide as sense of pride, but now I get to see it. Our clients are so happy to have their *own* vehicle that they can take home with them at the end of the day and decorate as they like. Usually, they return the rickshaw to a fleet owner and pay a daily rental fee that cuts into their earnings. SMV’s clients pay a little bit more than what the daily rental fee would be with a fleet owner but with the ability to have their own asset at the end of their 54-62 weekly installments. I’ve had our clients stop me in the street to say hello and show me their rickshaw. I can’t wait to see delivery day—our workshop partner says they are so excited. Sometimes they bring their whole family or bring treats or go to temple straight after to give thanks. Something to look forward to!”

In these twelve weeks, I haven’t gotten to spend as much time in the field as I would like given the financial reporting requirements, human resource needs, balanced scorecard tracking, and external relations management responsibilities I have. Last month we had a celebration when some investors came to visit. We had just finished fabricating some new modern rickshaws, so we distributed them at the event. It was fantastic to see our clients gathered together and the happiness in the faces of the men who received a brand new vehicle. I look forward to each time I get to spend with our drivers as it gives me renewed energy to press on with the administration side of the business. Our clients give me a strong sense of why I’m here and what I’m doing—why I moved to the other side of the world to help scale this company.

Looking back, I feel the same as I did my first week about how glad I am to be working in this space. We are uniquely positioned to assist our clients as they climb themselves up the socioeconomic ladder because we specialize on the subset of the Bottom of the Pyramid associated with rickshaws. I’ve seen how our work really does change people’s lives for the better. I can’t wait to roll out further value-added services and increased income stream ideas we have in the pipeline. And I can’t wait to demonstrate these outcomes quantitatively as we track our clients Progress out of Poverty. 

Joy is a Piramal Fellow for Sustainable Business from San Antonio, Texas, and joined SMV on 21 November 2011. She holds a Master of Public Service and Administration from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University in College Station where she studied nonprofit management and international economic development and led consulting projects for OneStar Foundation and Capital Area Food Bank. She studied social anthropology as an undergraduate at Harvard University after which she worked in personal financial advising in the U.S. at Ameriprise Financial, a Fortune 500 financial services company. When she's not working on spreadsheets, Joy likes to sail and dabble in photography.