The Madura Makeover: A Microcosm of Industry's Best Practices for Socioeconomic Transformation


You may not be surprised if ten to fifteen years down the line a dairy products company (or any other company) operating from a tiny hamlet in Tamil Nadu files for an IPO! If you dig a bit deeper, the company might attribute its success to Micro-Markets and Micro-Education initiative of Madura Microfinance Ltd. Madura does not seem to be a microfinance company anymore, 15 years into its existence (the new logo reflects its new beginning). It is just Madura, with its heart (call it vision) at socioeconomic transformation of the 4.5 lakh subscribers (called members) in its micro lending portfolio.Dr. Tara Thiagarajan, at the helm of affairs at Madura, is capable of only thinking big. When she spoke to YourStory first, she threw an analogy that would have made sceptics even more sceptical about Madura Microfinance: If C.K. Ranganathan with Rs. 15,000 investment can build a formidable FMCG giant, why can't a woman think of using her Rs. 15,000 to build something bigger instead of being circumscribed by a "cowish" mindset? [The loan size of Rs. 15,000 lent by Madura usually goes into buying a cow and making Rs. 1000 out of it and then coming to Madura for a second loan to buy a second cow.] With a slew of fast and furious initiatives after intense and meticulous preparations, Dr. Tara is inching closer to becoming a true catalyst of a multicrore rural enterprise or some enterprises.


If David Appasamy, Madura's Executive Director, is thrilled at the subtle transformation (grooming and appearance) of women from their first month meeting with Madura to their third month meeting, Sunder Thiyagarajan, Head of Micro-Markets, is ready to burden the tough challenge that lies ahead of him. You can see his heart calling in shifting from a high-profile media marketing job to a "social transformation" job and social transformation of 4.5 lakh people is a tall order by any standards. As he eases into a conversation, with his eyes brightening and enthusiasm soaring, he explains how Madura's Micro-Markets initiative is poised for a makeover. Madura's beneficiaries are circumscribed by a three-kilometre radius, as their studies have found. The women don't look beyond their villages. "There are three components – Print, Audio-visual, and Trade Shows – in the Micro-Markets initiative," points out Sunder. So, as a first step, to expand connectivity, a classifieds paper (Vari Vilambaram in Tamil) carrying advertisements of products or services offered by Madura women are circulated among the 4.5 lakh members. Its reach is 2000 plus villages. Launched six months ago, the paper has received raving reviews from the members and now their relatives also opting to place their ads in the classifieds paper to expand their business.

In addition to the classifieds, Madura publishes a newsletter (Seidi Malar in Tamil). This newsletter carries information on various activities of Madura with the aim of enlightening the members. Preparations are also in full swing to change the visual appeal of another initiative, a video magazine called Oli Malar. The video magazine features footages from various activities undertaken by Madura's management team, with the members narrating their success stories to Madura management team. An emotional connect with Dr. Tara is visible. [I saw a clip in which an elderly woman is thankful to Madura for enabling her to stand on her own feet and thinks of Dr. Tara as her daughter. This should be a huge change for Dr. Tara who was a researcher and used to modern, sophisticated urban settings.]

"Our aim is to link Members to Markets," says Sunder. Madura's set up has 10 regional offices in various parts of Tamil Nadu, aided by 70 cluster offices. The cluster offices in turn have 160 cluster centers. All the 160 cluster centers have a TV and a LED screen. In two meetings a month, the members can watch Oli Malar, the video magazine and also undergo micro-education. In the first meeting, the members discuss financials and repayments. [Madura’s members are in the self-help group format. Twenty members form a group and as a group, they repay their loans. Unlike other MFIs, door-to-door collection is not done.] The second meeting is for education and enabling. The second meeting features a "second meeting material," which can be anything from health tips, how to groom properly, to how to benefit from technology (using cell phones) and benefits of vegetables.

Sunder is quite excited about trade shows. Members from a regional office are notified of a trade show, in which they can exhibit their products to the general public in a bigger town. One such trade show was recently held in Kumbakonam. The promotion of the trade shows happens through paper inserts and autorickshaw ads. After the trade show, members are awarded for the best display, clean stall, highest sales, and unique product. "We plan to conduct two trade shows a month and institute annual awards later," explains Sunder.

Madura Mobile Micro Markets (M4) is the next ambitious plan of the Micro-Markets initiative. Sunder points out that "for us to connect to a member, we need to go through cluster offices and cluster centers. The cluster centers carry the information to the village level and then to the individual member." What if the member has a mobile phone and they are able to connect directly to their prospects. Such connections can help the member, say from Nagercoil, garner sales from Chennai. M4 is a suite of mobile-based services that will facilitate such market linkage.

The young, chirpy bundle of energy, B. Anand, who is the communications head and a key member of the micro-education initiative, is part of the team that offers mini-MBA to members. The mini-MBA pilot project was launched just a few days ago. Conceived by Dr. Tara and Madhu Viswanathan, Professor of Business Administration at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign [whose Marketplace Literacy Project was involved in the conception of the Madura's feature film Shakti Pirakkudhu], this course is offered in a digital format split into small convenient parts for the participants to understand. Anand says "although the course is offered in digital format, the concepts are not diluted." Using a narrative technique (a person explaining the concepts on screen to participants), the sessions are made interactive as they are interspersed with exercises to understand the concepts. The participants are split into teams and teams interact within themselves to form a conclusion or arrive at a consensus when they are asked to explain their understanding based on a film clip or what the narrator asks them to do.

Generous use of the film Shakti Pirakkudhu (another initiative by Madura as a teaching aid) is made in the course to explain various business concepts. For example, to understand how a customer need is important, various clips are shown from the film first. Then the participants are asked to explain what they understood from the clips and why the customer need is important for business. Then the narrator explains the concept after the exercise. There is a pause in the narration and timers are set so that the participants can interact within themselves as a team to brainstorm and arrive at answers. Team leaders are changed in turn so that all participants get a chance to lead and speak. "No formal qualification is needed to join this course," adds Anand. The first module sets the tone for the course by explaining business terminology like customer, sales, service, value chain, etc. Then through the course, business problems and various business scenarios are discussed.

Anand, who is also part of the team producing the video magazine Oli Malar, says changes are in the offing. Using celebrities, different sections are planned such as "A Day in the Member's Life", fun games, debates that involves members and moderated by a celebrity. Members are in for learning and fun through the video magazine. "A video library is planned to be set up so that members can access the archives," explains Anand of the future plans.

To sum up, Dr. Tara says "if we see a few big rural enterprises emerge out of our initiatives, we will be happy." This is no doubt a big, hairy, audacious dream. Now probably you can connect to the first statement of this article. "Our aim is just to create a spark in the members, provide them hooks to tap into markets and see it spread like wildfire instead of us prodding the members on a daily basis," tells Tara when asked if mentoring support will be provided later on.

Madura's makeover has just begun. It is going to last the whole year with 450 events planned to mark 15 years of Madura in business. Dr. Tara has retained the soul of her father Dr. K. M. Thiagarajan's initiative of an NGO that transformed into a microfinance company after she took over. She is using the Madura platform to achieve social transformation that is sustainable and real. Her neuronal connections can only bet big on something hugely impactful and life-altering like this. You can say with gusto that no other microfinance is exploring the territory that Madura is taking notice of. It is the path less travelled that excites Dr. Tara and her highly motivated and professional team and their exciting journey to social transformation using industry's best practices to expand business (print [classifieds, newsletter], audiovisual [video magazine], and education [second meeting material and mini-MBA]) has just begun.

Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy, chief evangelist, overawed by Madura and its social transformation agenda, files this report after visiting Madura's studio where mini-MBA course videos are shot and its office in Chennai after meeting Dr. Tara, Sunder, and Anand.