Q&A Discovering India: Salt Farming, the Taj Mahal, Carbon Markets and More

Posted on January 12, 2012 by Comments Off

Rhian Rotz, Manager, WE Citizenship — Interview with Devon McGill,  WE-Seattle

Devon McGill is a human resource benefits analyst at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide (WE) in Seattle, Wash. She is pursuing her MBA from the University of Washington and recently, as part of her course, she visited India to carry out a project with a nonprofit organization called Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). In December, Devon took advantage of WE’s 16 volunteer hours benefit and used her personal leave to explore cultural gems such as the Taj Mahal and fell in love with Indian food, chai and the head bobble! I  interviewed Devon to learn more about the trip.

Can you summarize your trip to India in 140 characters or less? 18 days: glimpse into a salt farmer’s life, soaking in the Taj Mahal, learning about carbon markets and inspired by the work of SEWA.

Before we move onto the important stuff, what is a head bobble? The head bobble is an important communication tool in India. It can be used to convey understanding or happiness or to say “it’s no problem.” Basically it’s the most infectious and endearing part of the Indian culture. Spend a couple of days in India and you’ll find yourself involuntarily performing the head bobble.

What struck you most about the people and culture in India? That they can be so happy with so little. The salt farm workers we visited uproot their lives for eight months out of the year to live in a straw hut with no running water or electricity so they can make a meager living for their family. The entire family, including the children, must work to produce the salt. The family we visited with had a little girl who was helping to build a well, and the entire time she was running around with a smile on her face. Her parents expressed how hard it was for them to make a living this way, but how grateful they were to be able to take care of their family.

Working with SEWA was a focus of your trip. What is SEWA’s mission? The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA, http://www.sewa.org) is an organization of 1.3 million self-employed farmers, laborers and entrepreneurs based in Gujarat, India. SEWA has designed a solar- powered lantern and a clean energy cook stove that will extend the workday of its members — most of whom do not have electricity — to ensure them safe, energy-efficient cooking. These products are currently in the testing phase, and now SEWA needs a strategy for financing the sustainable production and distribution of tens of thousands of these products to be sold at a low price through the use of microfinance and carbon trading.

How much progress did you make on the project with SEWA during your visit? I spent a good portion of my time at the SEWA offices working with its partner organization Grassroots Trading Network (GTN, http://grassnet.org/). GTN is tasked with the logistical challenge of delivering a solar lantern and energy efficient cook stove to the homes of all 1.3 million members over the next two years. SEWA has secured financing that will allow it to issue the products on credit to the members, and the women will make monthly payments for a year to pay for the cost of the products (plus interest). They have successfully piloted the products in the village of Manpura and are looking to expand as soon as possible to the many villages where they have members. While in India we were able to conduct on-site research to help us understand the problems the women are facing and the ways that these products can help. The information we gained there will help us create a much better solution for SEWA.

What is the next step in the SEWA project? Will you be returning to India anytime soon? Over the next three months my team will provide SEWA with our recommended process strategy, social metrics and methodology and carbon market strategy for the project. My main focus on the project is to determine what the social impact of the solar lanterns and cook stoves will be and to define the quantitative measures of success for the project. I will also provide SEWA with a methodology for collecting the data from the members. We have a lot of hard work in front of us, but are motivated by the chance to make a small difference in the lives of the SEWA members. No future trips are planned yet. We will provide SEWA with biweekly updates and a final presentation via Skype. The wonders of technology!

Do you plan to publish the results of your MBA project with SEWA? This project is the first of its kind at the University of Washington, so we are still looking at options for publishing the project. We have a blog where we posted pictures from the trip and will continue to post updates on the progress.

What was the highlight of your trip? Other than the food (and yummy chai), I really enjoyed our village visit to Manpura. We were able to see the cook stoves and lanterns in action and talk to the women about how the products impacted their lives. We got to experience what life is really like for the SEWA members, and their stories brought our project to life.

Do you have any advice for individuals contemplating an international volunteering experience? If you get the chance, do it! It was an amazing experience and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

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