This week, Hindustan Coca-Cola Bottlers Beverages, Ltd. (HCCB) welcomes eight mom bloggers to India for a first-hand look at Coke’s innovative efforts to empower women throughout its value chain. Over the next several days, the bloggers will visit five cities to observe how an estimated 131,000 women in local communities are benefitting from Coca-Cola programs. Check back for daily reports.

Day Four: A Second Chance at Life

This is exactly what 40-year old Salma said when asked how the Self-Help Group had influenced her life.

In her early years, Salma had a burning desire to become literate, however financial and other constraints prevent her from doing so. Fate threw Salma a chance when she was introduced to the HCCBPL’s Self Help Group initiative and she grabbed that chance with both hands.

Mom bloggers dance with women from self help group.
Mom bloggers dance with women from self help group.

She saw it as a chance to finally fulfill her longstanding desire to become literate. So she formed a group with 17 ladies wherein each put in a sum of Rs100 a (roughly $1.6)  month to create a kitty pool to either lend to someone who needs it or invested into entrepreneurial enterprises where profits are either given out a dividend or then added to the original kitty to grow the sum.

Salma not only became literate but, today, she leads the field office appointed by the Government of India to keep track that the Polio Vaccination and it is going seamlessly. “For me nothing could have been a prouder moment. Today, I can teach both my children English.” Her dream is that her son (12) and daughter (9) go on to become a doctor and a teacher, respectively.

There are hundreds of Salma’s whose lives the SHG transforms every day. Initiated with the objective to empower women, the initiative has grown to 40 SHGs in 9 villages across Dasna reaching over 480 women. Of these, 23 of the SHGs are bank linked – meaning they can take loans on very easy terms and secure credit based on their account management.

Bloggers meet with CDC team.
Bloggers meet with CDC team.

Skills such as sewing, candle makings, embroidery, crochet work, bead work and jewelry making as just some of the skills they learn and then use to earn money. Today, the SHGs help their members buy cattle, raw stock, wholesale items and make a living. Today, the SHGs collective kitty is more than $1600.

Besides teaching skills, the SHGs are also creating mini enterprises and bringing out the entrepreneurial spirit of those around. “Now, when they see me getting recognized by government officials, all the women want to come and learn something that will add value to their lives,” she says. So didn’t the men in the village have an issue? “Initially yes, but when they saw the change and the inflow of money, they were more than willing to lend a supportive hand.”

Day Three: A Splash of Joy

Today, the U.S. bloggers had the opportunity to see the intersection of 5by20 and the business imperative in India. The visited Splash bars in India, and here is one of their stories.

Jyotsna Ben, 50, lives in a hamlet off Goblej on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

Splash Bar operator Jyotsna Ben and blogger Cheryl Contee share a laugh.
Splash Bar operator Jyotsna Ben and blogger Cheryl Contee share a laugh.

Every day, once she finishes with her house work, she puts on clean clothes and a happy smile to go to work. She walks across the street to her brightly colored Coca-Cola Splash Bar kiosk, where she sells various brands at 5 Indian Rupees per glass to her fellow villagers.

This wasn’t always the case, however.

Jyotsna participates in Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages’ (HCCB) Splash Bar initiative, which aims to create opportunities for the poorest of the poor to engage in HCCB’s value chain. Under this initiative, Coca-Cola products are made available at affordable prices to the people historically ignored in distant hamlets where incomes are low and every expense is scrutinized.

The Splash Bar initiative not only takes Coca-Cola products to a historically underserved communities. It also gives poor rural women an opportunity to become entrepreneurs. Today, life has turned 180 degrees for Jyotsna. She was selected from her village of 1,200 residents. This initiative dovetails with The Coca-Cola Company’s global commitment to enable the economic empowerment of 5 million women entrepreneurs across the company’s value chain by 2020 – a.k.a. 5by20.

Widowed when her two sons were very young, Jyotsna lived in abject poverty, barely earning enough to get by. She took up any work that came her way, most of which involved a lot of physical labor such as plodding her mud for six to eight hours every day to ensure it was even and ready for sowing of seeds.

Her son, Lalji Bhai, is in his 20s. His excitment for his mother’s new business is apparent. He is thrilled she doesn’t have to toil in the fields anymore. “It used to be disturbing seeing her up to her knees in wet mud every day, plodding away so we could eat. I am so thankful to Coca-Cola for have given her a better life.”

Jyotsna was a gracious host to the U.S-based bloggers and can today afford to offer all her guests a glass of their favorite beverage, a gesture that would have been unthinkable for her a few years ago.

Prior to her leading her own Splash Bar, Jyotsna earned a meagre 1,800 rupees per month (less than $30), but today her income has more than doubled to a healthy 4,500 rupees per month.

“It is amazing to see her spirit,” said one of the visiting bloggers. “She has dealt with so much in life, and yet today all one can see on her face is the pride at being able to earn a livelihood in a dignified manner.”

Day Two: Soda Gets its Fizz Back

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Chhavvi Rajawat addresses the #WomenoftheWeb bloggers.

Chhavi Rajawat's passion made The Coca-Cola Company take notice of the plight of her village and its people. Since becoming Sarpanch (mayor) of Soda, a village 60 km from Jaipur, she has relentlessly pursued solutions to problems ailing her community.

For example, drinkable water in the drought-prone village was scarce. In March of this year, Coca-Cola agreed that restoring Gunjan Batra’s main water body – the Swarn Tal – would ensure there would never again be a shortage of water in the village. De-silting and reviving the water body began in May and was completed by August, just before the monsoon season.Today, just a month later, the reservoir is full. Every villager beams at the thought of enough water for the next two years even if there is no monsoon next year.

Soda comprises 900 families who subsist on small landholdings and the livestock they own. However, a surge in population and livestock over the last few decades has depleted resources. The only water reservoir dried up and became an eyesore collecting silt, and groundwater levels dropped. As a result, fluoride from the surrounding layers of rocks seeped into the water, impacting both lives and livestock. Until two years ago, water samples contained almost 30 to 40% fluoride. No family was was spared the effects; at least one member per family was afflicted by Down’s Syndrome or fluorosis.

Cattle and livestock were affected, too. “In fact,” says Chhavi, “65% of the cattle and livestock have died because of the lack of water and fodder over the past decade or so.”

Chhavi recounts how, in 2010, villagers begged her to return to her “roots and do something about the sad state of affairs there.”

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Blogger Roxanne Davis with villager, Asha Kanwar.

“Given my family’s roots in the village, they considered me the daughter of the village,” she explains. “More importantly they felt they could trust me.”

It didn’t take much to persuade the management graduate to leave her job with a leading telecom company and take up the challenge of her life.

She was elected Sarpanch in February 2010, and Soda hasn’t looked back since. Today the village boasts Anganwadi workers, who ensure all expectant mothers and infants are immunized and vaccinated. They also maintain properly navigable roads and ensure a toilet is provided in every home, and that children receive clean water and an education.

Chandrakala and Asha Kanwar, two Anganwadi workers (town council members) in their 50s who’ve lived through the ups and downs of the village, say, “Earlier, we had to walk two kilometers to fetch water. It was backbreaking. Today we just pull water from the wells or turn on the tap. This gives us the flexibility to work.”

The reservoir not only serves as a catchment for rainwater. It also acts as a feeder to the 70-odd wells in a 15-km radius around it, ensuring the hamlets surrounding the main village have access to drinkable water. Groundwater levels are back to a healthy 20 feet.

“Seeing the women realize they have a bright future, because of Chhavi’s leadership shows us that India is on the right path,” said two of the #WomenoftheWeb bloggers, both Texas residents. “Them sharing their experiences with our group makes us realize that, despite our distance and circumstance, all we need sometimes is a role model.”

Day One: Reputation Before Prosperity

Students at Thimmareddy Government School
Students at Thimmareddy Government School

As the mom bloggers began their day in Bangalore with a Q&A session with T. Krishnakumar, CEO Coca-Cola Hindustan Beverages, he reminded his guests that “Reputation before prosperity” is the mission he strives for every day.  With that, the bloggers set out for Thimmareddy Government School to meet some of the students who are benefiting from The Coca-Cola Company’s Support My School initiative.

Bharati was almost 13 when she dropped out of school last year. Her reason for dropping out was one none could argue: She did not have a toilet.

Though her school made provisions for adolescent girls, Bharati was very disturbed at having to make do with the unsanitary toilets in her school. Finally she just gave up and stopped.

However, she was lucky. Shortly thereafter, the toilets in her school were refurbished under the Support My School Campaign, and her teachers went to her house to convince her to return. After two months of persuasion, she finally relented, and is glad she did.

Sign at Thimmareddy Government School welcomes Support My School delegates.
Thimmareddy Government School extended a warm welcome to visiting Support My School delegates.

“I am very happy,” she said. “My teachers convinced me to come back, and today I know that there are clean toilets in my school so there is no hesitation and I feel comfortable.”

Her older sister, Durga, wasn’t as fortunate. She dropped out of school after passing Class 8 in 2012. She simply couldn’t face the “no toilet” situation in school. Described as a bright student by her former teacher, she now works to bring in some money in the household. Their father, a mason, works at construction sites, and their mother provides house help. So inspired is Bharati by her teachers who brought her back to school that she wants to be a “Miss” (a teacher) when she grows up. And her “Miss,” Chandrakala, is quite sure she’ll be successful in whatever she wants to as she’s among the top of her class.

Muskan, 13, is an 8th grader whose father is a daily wage earner and mother a housewife (so she can look after Muskan and her three siblings). She loved school until she started puberty a couple of years back. She progressively began to feel unhappy about school. The reason for her unhappiness was the absence of a proper toilet in school.

“During my monthly cycle I would hate going to school,” she said. “I soon stopped using the school toilet altogether. I’d wait ‘til I got home. On days I couldn’t hold myself, I’d go home to use the toilet and then stay at home for the rest of the day.”

In other words, Muskan had to either wait eight hours before she could use the toilet or then miss classes on days she “just couldn’t wait” She was on the verge of giving up when The Coca-Cola Company stepped in and began supporting her school under the Support My School Campaign. Today she’s happy and chirpy at school again. “I love school and have nothing to worry about now. If I need to go to the toilet, I can just go and not suffer,” she adds.
An intelligent student, she aspires to become a software engineer when she grows up.

Bharti and Muskan are both students of the Thimmaiah Reddy Government School on the outskirts of Bengaluru. Established in 1984 as a primary school with 36 children, the school added a higher secondary wing in 1991. Short on funds the school had fallen into a state of disrepair and dropout rates escalated, especially amongst the girl students when they attained puberty.

The school was adopted into the Support My School campaign and received a makeover – a “pucca” ramp to enter the school, new toilets, proper wash areas; a tiled, clean area for washing utensils and a smart new coat of paint that brightens the whole school.

Students at Thimmareddy Government School benefiting from The Coca-Cola Company’s Support My School initiative.
Today 1,000 students benefit from the Support My School initiative at Thimmareddy Government School.

From having broken, run-down toilets no one could even enter as the stench got to the children before they could get to the toilet, today they have smart, clean hygienic toilets with privacy and running water. This refurbishment has led to a drop in the dropout rate of girls in the early teens. In fact, almost 10 percent of the girls who had dropped out citing no toilet as the main reason have been convinced to register back.

Coincidentally, this morning one of the paper’s here published the results of a survey revealing that students’ retention rate is directly proportional to sanitation infrastructure in schools. The sanitation metric for Himachal Pradesh is 76.13%, and their retention rate for 2013-14 has been over 99%. On the other hand, in Arunachal Pradesh the student retention rate was as low as 43% as its sanitation metric was just about 39%. At an all India level 17% of the students who enrolled in Class 1 in 2009-10 did not enroll in Class V in 2013-14. (Source: DISE Reports, as reported in The Times of India)

Today the school has 1,000 happy students who love coming to school. With clean toilets, safe drinking water, free mid-day meals and a group of passionate teachers/supporters determined to turn their lot around, they have a lot going for them. And they all are extremely grateful to Coca-Cola for having come to their aid, a fact that was reiterated many times over by Vimala, the principal.