Empowering rural India

Inspired by the movie Swades, Ronnie and Zarina Screwvala founded the Swades Foundation that operates with the single-minded focus of empowering rural India. Screwvala believes, “India cannot rise to its true potential without a fundamental transformation in the lives of people in rural India”.

“For over a year, we met other philanthropists, visited many villages and NGOs and realised that a lot of people were focusing on a single sector and within the sector, focusing on a specific area. And our dream is to eradicate poverty and one focus area will not do the trick because poverty is a complex web of material and mental barriers,” says Screwvala.

Swades has implemented a holistic 360-degree programme, focusing on community mobilisation, water and sanitation, agriculture and livelihood, and health and nutrition. “So when we say we reach a person, we reach the person directly, day after day, multiple times because of our multiple touch points, deep intervention model. And our dream is to scale this model up and lift a million people out of poverty every five years,” Screwvala says.

Over the past year, Swades has increased its reach from 160 villages to 1,000 villages and this year aims to expand to 2000 villages with a strong focus in Maharashtra.

Engagement model

Swades’ engagement model relies on four main pillars – engage, empower, execute and exit. Swades engages rural communities with corporates, young urban India, not-for-profit organizations and governments and empower them to execute programs that transform their own lives.

This self-sustainable model enables Swades to exit the programme and give community people an opportunity to serve as role models and change agents for others.

“Our strength lies in our team of specialists and professions both at corporate and grassroots committed to sustainable growth. Swades is primarily supported and sponsored by Unilazer Ventures Pvt Ltd and today, we are well on our way to achieving our mission of transforming the lives of 1 million people in rural India in 5 years,” adds Screwvala.

The empowered self and community

According to Screwvala, the ‘Swa’ in their name reflects ‘empowered self’ forming the core of everything they do. She further adds, “After four months of rigorous training, our first batch of 134 ‘Swarakshamitras’ (local community change evangelists) went ahead and organised four eye camps on their own within two weeks of finishing their training. That according us is change. So, if we can just make all these people our leaders, then it can definitely become a movement, where people take pride in rural India.”
In order to make the best of the unused land available, Swades is also creating community farming, where farmers can grow different crops such as mangoes and cashews. “While each farmer might have his own farm, they might be small in size. However, the unused land, community farm, can be utilised where the options for agriculture are enormous,” believes Screwvala.

Challenges and future plans

Money is always an issue according to Screwvala. “Despite having money, we have a lack of financial reserve. Our only and biggest asset is the trust of the community. Also, we do this full-time. Our team is phenomenal, sticking with us through all the ups and downs,” she adds.

Despite the challenges, over the past two years, Swades has reached out to over 275,000 people in the next one year, Swades plans to reach out to 600,000 more people. On the education front, Swades Foundation was present in 135 schools last year and this year it plans to be present in 590 more schools.

Screwvala attributes this growth to the team at Swades. “Across the board, we are able to scale our projects at this rate only because of the team, here in Mumbai and on the ground,” she says.

She concludes saying, “I am very hopeful about the world today. Once they know that the organisation is committed and not here to scam you, they pull together and give. I think the young generation is very different and they bring tremendous hope to the table”.