Chai Breaks in Odisha & Manipur (Part I)

By Irene Fung | KF19 | India

Eileen and Irene are both fellows in India.  Eileen is living in Imphal, Manipur and Irene is in Bhubaneswar, Odisha.  While in conversations with one another, we have been struck by how different the cities are.  We’ve compiled these observations to share with you our experiences of the rich and diverse culture of India.  In Part I, we start with Irene in Odisha and continue with Eileen in Part 2.

Top 3 things that you always notice while roaming your neighborhood.

1. Inner City Cows.  As people familiar with India will know the sacred cow is as popular in some urban dwellings as it is in rural areas.  The other day I saw two bulls fighting in the middle of a major road, stopping all traffic. It was such a dangerous situation but everyone, including me, stopped and watched.  Cow protection laws and traditional reverence for the sacred animal have created an interesting relationship between humans and cows.  While many complain about the danger and nuisance that street roaming cows are creating, many cows visit their preferred store fronts each morning to demand breakfast and the store workers happily oblige.

2. Sweets, sweets, sweets!  There are shops selling sweets everywhere.  The sweets are arranged immaculately in glass showcases.  I especially love the traditional Oriya cake called Chhenapoda.  It’s a homemade cottage cheese cake that is baked for several hours producing a nice brown color on the outside.

3. Wedding signs. In the villages, new couples draw a wedding announcement on the wall in front of their homes.  They are always really colorful and beautiful.   It’s a kind of a public declaration of their happiness.

When you need a “comforts of home” experience, what do you do?

I love coffee and people mostly drink tea here.  While there are no major coffee chains like Starbucks, there is an increasingly popular Indian chain called Café Coffee Day that I like, and their lattes are pretty great.  It’s also the young and happening place to be where groups of friends and couples hang out.  I love the mix of Hindi pop and American Hip-Hop.

I’ve been missing authentic Chinese food, especially dumplings.  I found the Indian equivalent, called Momos.  They are served in chili sauce.  It’s a great snack and incredibly delicious.

What type of work is common in this region for Kiva borrowers?

The region is very diverse in geography and culture.  The state borders the Sea of Bengal in the east and is home to Asia’s largest brackish lake, Chilika Lake. It is the source of major business activities for the surrounding villages.  Many villagers work as fishermen, and women also help to prepare, dry and sell the fish in local markets.

Other common businesses include agriculture and dairy production.  Many of the Self Help Groups (SHG) invest in sugarcane and rice cultivation, purchasing cows and goats and selling the milk.  Another interesting category is religious and temple related businesses.  A number of Kiva borrowers are stone and mud sculptors, making gods and goddesses statutes for temples and festivals.  People’s Forum trains SHG groups to make crafts with coconut coir, bamboo baskets, and flower wreaths for temple worship. On top of all these are the ever-present variety shops.  A number of loans have been provided to these small shops that offer essentials such as washing powder, soap, sweets, cookies, etc.

What are the main strengths of your MFI and how have you experienced these in the field?

People’s Forum has been operating in the state of Odisha, one of the poorest states in India, for almost 20 years.  What struck me is their dedication to serving the most marginalized in rural communities.  People’s Forum is committed to serving widows, single mothers, people living with physical disabilities, and persons living in leper colonies.   I met a Kiva borrower in a small village outside Bhubaneswar.  His disability made it difficult to travel long distances which was essential to purchase spare parts for his bicycle repair shop.  The Kiva loan allowed him to stock up in bulk and minimize the number of trips he had to make; he can now focus on serving his customers.

People’s Forum understands that there is no single solution to alleviating poverty, and that microcredit must be a part of a comprehensive set of economic and social services.  The organization has consequently introduced other products and assistance to their borrowers, such as microinsurance, financial education, technical assistance, value chain studies, and connection to larger markets.

Irene is a fellow currently serving in Odisha, India with two microfinance organizations.  Support our Indian partners here, join the Indian lending team, or get a holiday gift card for someone special!

About the author

Irene Fung

Originally from Hong Kong, Irene grew up in Los Angeles, California. She has worked with several non-profit organizations that provide financial services to vulnerable groups and she is committed to building economically equitable and sustainable communities. She is especially interested in financial inclusion issues to the most marginalized. Irene received a master's degree in Urban Planning from the University of Southern California and a bachelor's degree in Economics from the University of California, San Diego. Irene has studied and lived in China, Indonesia, and England and is excited to be adding India to the list. She served with KF19 in India and will be working with two partners in Indonesia.