Empowering Women Entrepreneurs in India’s Largest Retail Sector: USAID and Mastercard Partner for Small Business Acceleration
By USAID’s Digital Finance Team and Anna Tyor, Digital Finance Specialist, DAI
Project Kirana is currently training 3,000 women shop owners and managers in the cities of Lucknow and Kanpur, working to optimize business operations and leverage digital and financial tools to improve decision-making, personal agency, and revenue.
Small retail shops are one of India's largest and most dynamic industries and collectively account for over ten percent of the country’s GDP. Many of these shops—known as kiranas in Hindi—are small family-owned businesses that sell everything from groceries to cosmetics and are primarily managed by women. However, due to local gender norms in many small business operations, most of these women are not legally recognized as business owners—with only nine percent of the nation’s 16 million retail establishments currently owned by women, when in reality the number should be significantly higher.
To address this inequity, Mastercard and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) partnered to launch Project Kirana, a business development and digital financial literacy accelerator program for women micro-entrepreneurs. Implemented by ACCESS Development Services and DAI, Project Kirana currently provides training services to nearly 3,000 women managing small businesses in Lucknow and Kanpur, which both have a high concentration of women-owned and operated kiranas.
Project Kirana aims to support participating women entrepreneurs by providing them with the tools, resources, and knowledge to successfully own and manage small retail businesses, access financial and digital payment services, and strengthen their own agency in making household and business decisions. The program provides customized training to women entrepreneurs based on real-time needs, covering topics on business and financial management, digital payments, access to financial services, leadership development, and sensitization to address cultural and gender barriers using digital tools, applications, video content, in-person training, and peer networking opportunities to reinforce learnings grounded in real-life experiences. A portion of the training curriculum includes a BuddhiMoney YouTube series, which challenges gender norms in daily business life and covers a broad range of financial educational topics through accessible short videos, allowing women to quickly access information while juggling business and household responsibilities.
As Project Kirana strives to bring more women into the formal economy through greater agency in their business operations, the program identified several barriers limiting women’s participation in business, which is helping inform overall programming, including:
- Women in the retail sector are largely restricted to backend inventory and rarely touch money. Only 21 percent of program participants surveyed engaged directly with customers and handled payments. Most were relegated to back office tasks, such as inventory and supply management, namely placing orders and stocking new products. While 60 percent of women kirana entrepreneurs (WKEs) dealt with suppliers when issues arose, most were less engaged in activities conducted outside the shop, such as traveling to the wholesale market or picking up supplies. Although WKEs dedicated a significant amount of time to their shops, most did not manage the business’s finances.
- With business and household responsibilities competing for their time, women are consistently time poor, hindering their ability to expand skill sets and business acumen. Because women are often managing business operations and their households, many are unable to consistently access financial resources or attend training. For WKEs with access to a smartphone, lack of time was the most critical factor limiting their ability to use the phone for revenue generation activities like selling goods or services online.
- Connectivity issues and a lack of digital capacity prevents phone usage for business efficiency. Nearly 76 percent of women surveyed had a mobile phone and the remainder used their husband’s phone. A lack of knowledge and use of digital tools prevented women from taking advantage of significant business opportunities to modernize store operations through digitization.
- Women have bank accounts but do not use them. Close to 85 percent of women entrepreneurs surveyed had personal bank accounts but most had not completed a transaction over the last three months. Many were not aware that they could access their bank account through digital channels such as downloading an app on their phone. A lack of access to smartphones in addition to connectivity issues often prevented WKEs from using digital finance apps or banking tools that could enhance their money management and business skills.
Initial program research found that interventions aimed at enhancing the use of digital and financial tools through digital financial literacy training combined with enhancing access to financial planning tools and knowledge can help improve business revenue as well as strengthen the presence of women-owned-and-operated small businesses in their communities. By expanding women’s roles through digital upskilling and financial management, women entrepreneurs can become more self-sufficient business owners and ultimately, stronger leaders in their community.
Investing in digital financial literacy is vital to addressing an overreliance on cash for consumer and supplier payments in an increasingly digital world. Over half of women surveyed said that they need training on operating their smartphones, with nearly 77 percent stating that digital literacy was essential. Consumer engagement online presents a strong business opportunity once basic digital literacy skills are in place. Moreover, digital tools have proven effective in streamlining operations through digital payments and financial management.
Project Kirana recognized that lack of access to business bank accounts prevents WKEs from taking advantage of business-enhancing loans, credit, and government schemes. Over 90 percent of the WKEs had not taken any loans for personal or shop-related purposes in the last year due to high lending collateral requirements and a lack of named assets (as most business assets are under a male family member’s name). Among those who did take out a loan, banks were the primary source of borrowing money for nearly 70 percent of the WKEs. Subsequently, few WKEs have received benefits from different government schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY), the government’s flagship financial inclusion campaign. Most WKEs surveyed had a Voter ID or Aadhaar Card (India’s national identification card), and therefore were eligible to access government benefits including credit products. While nearly 25 percent of WKEs borrow loans from self-help groups1 , Project Kirana found that government schemes and formal financial programs are a reliable alternative for enhancing business growth.
What’s Next: Building Future Businesses One Women Entrepreneur at a Time
Based on these findings, Project Kirana’s training curriculum emphasizes digital literacy upskilling by encouraging a shift to digital business operations and supporting WKEs who would like to explore digitizing their businesses. The training builds women entrepreneurs’ knowledge and capacity regarding bank account management, digital platform integrations, and key banking tools for the optimization of their business.
By focusing on supply chain efficiencies and creating digital transaction histories to establish business creditworthiness, Mastercard and USAID are helping women entrepreneurs discover new avenues for accessing capital based on business performance instead of collateral, and increasing opportunities for women to more proactively pursue income-generating activities. By leveraging remote collaboration tools, in-person training, and creative video content, Project Kirana seeks to empower women entrepreneurs in India with the knowledge and skills to succeed in the modern digital economy.
- 1Informal groups that meet for common social or economic purposes