The chosen life of Frances Sinha: empowering the poor through financial access

October 19, 2015

Cross-posted on Ujjivan’s website as part of their on-going series on women leaders in financial inclusion

Frances Sinha is versatile entrepreneur who has worked extensively in the Social & Development Sector in several countries across the globe. She hails from United Kingdom and is a graduate from Oxford University and the London School of Economics. Frances is the co-founder of EDA Rural Systems, one of the leading social enterprises in India and EDA’s associate companies, M-CRIL and EDA Rural Artha Vikas. Her experience is noteworthy as she has been working in various capacities viz. Consultant, Advisor, Project Director, Trainer, Team leader and the like for a host of other institutions and committees functioning in this space.

Her First School: Family

Frances Sinha Frances’s parents played an instrumental role in providing an environment for her as an individual & professional. She gathered the essence of ‘Equality’ from her parents who always treated her on par with her brothers. ‘My parents never made me think I am less important. I had equal value and equal investment was to go into my future’ said Frances. Her mother was a Civil Service Professional after the 2nd World War & a very inspirational woman of her times. It was an era when there was low acceptance of women working professionally in Government. ‘She had to face huge challenges on how to be professional. There was little understanding on work-life balance and women of her generation had to fight for that. It was then that I realized that life is not easy, it is not straight forward but whatever you chose to do, you have to do said Frances. The motivation given by her father took her a long way in her professional and personal life. She says, ‘My father was very thoughtful and reflective. He was someone who would always push us to do things, think about what we wanted and what we were doing’.

Venturing into the Social Space: a Choice rather than Option

Young Frances was completing her graduation when the economy in UK saw a transition. The economy was showing early signs of recovery after the 2nd World War and there were different work opportunities. ‘I could try for the Civil Services like my mother, or become a teacher or get into the field of Computers which was growing then. But I felt that the real issues for development were happening elsewhere. They were in the countries of South Asia and Africa where development really meant ensuring a decent quality of life for people’ said Frances.

EDA Rural Systems: Conception

EDA – Economic Development Associates was the brainchild of Frances and her husband, Sanjay Sinha whom she met in the UK when completing her higher education. Sanjay was committed to returning to India after completing his education. ‘Both of us were fundamentally interested in applying our education & skills for development and being based in India for that’ said Frances.

Started as a partnership firm in 1983, based out of Lucknow, EDA was dedicated to practical research, training, capacity building, and professional management and implementation services for development. In the 1990s, and by now relocated to Gurgaon, EDA developed a consultancy focus on livelihoods and enterprise support, and expanded into the emerging field of microfinance, registering as a private limited company in 1997.

The choice to establish EDA was made when development projects in India were being questioned for their effectiveness and results. There seemed to be a gap in these projects, undertaken by NGOs and funded by Indian Government and other International Agencies, in whether they were able to deliver tangible results. This triggered Frances & her husband to work in this field. They started as individual consultants and worked in Evaluation, Research, Capacity Building, and Training in the social & development sector. They gradually moved into the field of microfinance which was catching buzz in India then.

‘We established EDA as an enterprise and private limited company rather than an NGO since we wanted to earn our way and wanted it to grow. We wanted the business to be sustainable and not be dependent for funds on government or any other source’ said Frances.

Frances Sinha

Key Contributions in the Field

Apart from laying the foundation for one of the largest social enterprises in India, Frances has made manifold contributions to the Social Sector by being the founder members of EDA Rural Arth Vikas & M-CRIL. EDA Rural Arth Vikas is a wing of the EDA Rural systems which is dedicated to undertaking livelihood promotion activities and implementation of livelihood programmes. Frances also laid the ground for one of the contemporary rating institutions known globally, M-CRIL. The development of Social Performance Rating Tool through M-CRIL can be earmarked as one of the key initiatives in the history of Microfinance. The Social Performance Rating tool evaluates the contribution made by Microfinance Institutions to achieving development goals. It complements financial rating, and incorporates the standards in social performance that have come to be defined by the global initiatives –the SMART Campaign & Social Performance Task Force (SPTF). Frances believes that the introduction of Social Performance Rating Tool has contributed to bring about positive changes in the sector with MFIs becoming more conscious about their social accountability apart from profitability, and providing investors with a tool to assess this. She however felt that the concept should be accepted by other Financial Institutions as well and its scope must not just be restricted to MFIs.

‘One of the challenges particularly in India is that Bankers don’t seem to be interested in Social Rating. They are interested in Client Protection but bottom line is more financial ‘said Frances.

Truelift: Beyond ‘Ethical’ Financial Services

Frances played a pivotal role in designing the Seal of Excellence for Poverty Outreach and Transformation in Microfinance for Microcredit Summit Campaign, 2011 which was later branded as Truelift. The seal aimed at recognizing institutions with optimum outreach to the poor leading to notable transformation in their lives. Watch a video of Frances talking about her views on the seal and the idea behind its conception.

An Experience Close to the Heart

One of the experiences that Frances said was close to her heart was the work she did for the National Dairy Development Board and Operation Flood. She was on the research side and was asked to look at the role of women in dairy co-operatives and analyze whether there was a future for women dairy co-operatives. As a part of this project, she actively interacted with the households – and women – engaged in dairying. .Astoundingly, she found that the role of women in this sector was much more significant than it appeared outwardly.

‘Typically the work of looking after the buffaloes is done by women. But when it comes to managing the money and being a part of the institutions and co-operatives, women were nowhere to be seen because as a rule there could only be one member from each household in the co-operatives and that was invariably the male. When given the opportunity, and with the support of their husbands, women could however play a leadership role’ said Frances.

She gives a key message from her experience – field work is key to success for any entrepreneur, interacting with people is very essential to develop a perspective about things & gaining a deeper insight on every aspect will help unveil the facts which may be far from the initial thought.

Hurdles along the Way

When asked about the challenges that she faced, she said that coming to live in India and being part of an Indian Family was something really challenging to start with. Besides that, all the challenges that an entrepreneur faces were incidental. However, for her challenges were only opportunities to grow better and learn further.

‘When we started EDA, we were operating out of our flat where we also lived. So work-life balance had to happen right there. We had our children there and work there. I learnt that when you are in a work space, you have to focus on work and when you are with your family, you have to focus on family. Both are important and both deserve equal space’ said Frances.


Frances, throughout her corporate journey has strived to make a difference to the lives of women and people at the bottom of the pyramid. She visualizes a better tomorrow with inclusive growth & equality in status of women.

‘I still see, despite some economic growth, the same sort of development issues that I saw when I first came to India, especially in certain pockets like Eastern UP. There are still lots of issues- There aren’t toilets in rural areas, security is still a concern for women in the country. Women should be safe and respected-Not just as a country but also in our day to day lives’, said Frances.

Message for Young Women Entrepreneurs

‘It is absolutely fantastic for women to be entrepreneurs. All I would like to say is- Have goals in your mind and be a go-getter. Along the way you will have different sources of support – your parents, husband and your family. Take your family along with you and at the same time maintain your individuality.’

Post Script from Ujjivan CEO, Samit Ghosh

Frances & Sanjay have been sentinels of the microfinance industry especially in the areas of: responsible lending practices, customer protection, unwavering focus on the mission of poverty alleviation and impact. Look when they started their work in the development area: 32 years ago! Frances is the gentle and unflappable guide. I have had the privilege to know them since I started my work in microfinance over a decade ago. I have tremendous respect for the tireless work they perform for the sector. The irony possibly is that their contribution is more appreciated internationally than in our own country. Without such Pretorian Guards we would have had a much rockier history.

Samit Ghosh with Frances Sinha at an industry conference