Many connected with the Indian financial inclusion space woke up to a rude shock on Sunday, learning that Vijayalaskhmi Das is no more. Regarded by all as the "mother of Indian microfinance", Vijayalakshmi Das or "Viji" to most, was only 67. She was the one who came forward and handheld some of the biggest names in Indian microfinance in their initial days, be it SKS Microfinance (now Bharat Financial Services and part of IndusInd), Spandana or Share Microfin, among several others.
Das, who featured in Business Today's list of the "Most Powerful Women", will always be remembered for her contribution to the Indian micro-lending sector. She was the founder CEO of the Friends of Women's World Banking (FWWB), India. FWWB, India, under her regime, became the first lender to provide credit supports to over 200 micro-lending institutions across Ahmedabad, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
FWWB, India is part of a global network - the Women's World Banking, which focuses on giving women access to financial services. In the initial days, the firm was largely about helping women collectives (such as self-help groups and co-operatives) in credit management, bookkeeping and governance, but under Das, it was doing the same by giving small loans and capacity-building support to small and marginal farmer collectives which were financially excluded. These include cooperatives and farmer producer companies.
In the last two years, FWWB, India has been able to support 80 farmer producer collectives across eight states, as against four-five two years ago. The company aims to help these farmer collectives to create a credit history and start getting bank loans. She once told Business Today, "this is a neglected sector and we found that they need nurturing." In fact, just after Union Budget 2020, she reacted to the government proposal to launch fish farmer producer organisations, she wondered how, they would be made viable. Referring to her experience with the agri farmer producer organisations, she said: "we find that becoming viable is still a challenge that most are facing. We have lent them to meet their working capital needs, invest in market linkages and to help them diversify income generating sources."
Das, a post graduate in economics followed by advanced courses in economics from the Economic Institute, Harvard Institute for International Development and the Women's World Banking, USA, was on the board of several institutions. She was all along passionate about building entrepreneurship among women. Someone who has known Das since her early days in Indian financial inclusion is Vijay Mahajan. The founder of Basix, back in 1996 and today the CEO of Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, Vijay Mahajan regarded Das as a funder and mentor. He recalled the huge impact she has had in incubating and handholding a large number of MFIs, what began as non-governmental organisations (NGO) MFIs. Many other leaders in the space, like Jayshree Vyas or Jayshreeben to many, the managing director of SEWA Bank, who has known Das closely and was with her family at the hospital in Ahmedabad, was still trying to sync into the new reality of not having Das around.
M S Sriram, a financial inclusion expert and professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, who has known her for several years, says, "for many in Indian microfinance and leaders in the financial inclusion space, it is like losing a kind-hearted mentor and mother, who put her faith in people rather than the balance sheet. She had played a crucial role in the evolution of this space in India."
Praseeda Kunam, CEO of Samhita Community Development Services Microfinance, who co-founded Samhita with her husband Balachander Krishnamurthy, were both among the key architects who played a role in building SKS in its initial days. Kunam, who has known Das closely for several years is still trying to process the news about the loss, To Kunam, Das stood out for several things as a person but as a professional, it was largely for her astute approach to risk-taking and the ability of nurture players in micro-lending.