In 2023, 43-year-old social entrepreneur Deepa began the community fund Maitri Money, which provides small amounts of money to those who need it, instead of loaning it to them.
Deepa’s journey towards the idea began during the pandemic, when she called for volunteers to accompany her on a cycling trip from Delhi to Tamil Nadu. She cycled 2,400 km with Calvin, a musician, in 61 days in 2021, without any money or even a phone on them. But the two got food and shelter on every single day of their journey. They often slept in public places like a park or temple. They showed their pictures to the villagers, who were quite happy to share their food with the travellers. She had also run a “purple sock” experiment, where she kept a sock filled with money that she had found on the street. “I decided to lend it interest free to whoever asked and verbally promised to return it. The sock would always come back and this went on for a long time,” she says.
In 2022, she went to Brazil to carry out a “gratitude experiment”, wanting to experience a life based purely on the kindness of strangers. Deepa did receive a grant, but for a year, she lived in strangers’ homes and traded her skills—teaching English, helping with cleaning, writing letters, gardening—in return for meals and lodging. While there, she envisioned starting a collective fund to provide money to some who needed it. And thus started Maitri Money, in 2022, which promotes microgifting, based on a system of mutual support, and not at all like microfinancing.
Deepa, a zero-waste coach, slow travel planner, and sustainability consultant, reveals that she has received an abundance of gifts. During her time in Brazil, in the middle of the Atlantic Forest, she looked at her “uncountable blessings”, she says, while she came up with the idea for the fund. “If I could raise money for myself, why not raise money for others too. In its first year, Maitri Money went, among other things, towards the dental fee for a single mom, medical expense for a trans-person, supporting persons who were in between jobs, made monthly contributions to an animal shelter in Gurugram and a learning centre for school drop-outs in rural Madhya Pradesh.”
Speaking from a friend’s permaculture farm in Sirsi, Karnataka, Deepa says, “Maitri Money is offered as a gift with no hidden expectations of paying it back, paying it forward or joining the corpus. I believe the circle of gift is abundant and shall take care of itself. After experimenting for over a decade with other forms of capital like gifts, skill exchange, barter, time, presence, love and more, I felt like exploring micro-gifting, the opposite of microfinancing.”
Maitri Money was started by inviting people to pledge ₹120 (or more) per year (or more often) to be shared as a gift with whoever asked for it in the form of trickle funding. The idea was to extend small capital to people in need, instead of offering loans. In the first year, Deepa collected over ₹2,25,000. In its second year now, it invites 3,000 or more people to contribute ₹1/2/3/4/5 per day for a year (or more often), with Deepa also adding 50% of her own earnings and donations to the fund. Of this, 70% would trickle down to anyone who requests funds for personal use or projects, and the rest would sustain Deepa and her “alivelihood projects”—projects that help not just her but many others to live with purpose, with trust and love towards each other and in tune with nature.
Deepa’s projects are many. The turning point in her life came when the recession of 2009 pushed her out of her job as an assistant manager with an airline company in Mumbai. She soon realised that she had gotten lucky. “Since the rent for the flat was already paid, I had two months to do things slowly—watch movies and plays, read all the books I did not earlier have time for, spend an hour on breakfast instead of gulping it down…” says Deepa, whose formal education was in hospitality management and English.
This downtime started her journey into experimenting with living life on her terms, using only what she had, borrowing or swapping what she needed, making some things for herself, like a dry toilet, and buying things only if these did not work. She travelled to many places including Iran and Nepal, discovering skills within her that helped her earn—as a gardener, teacher, event planner, yoga instructor, travel planner and content writer. At one point, drawn by the smells of Pumpernickel German Bakery in Leh, Deepa offered to work there. She was hired as a “meet and greet person” since the owner wanted someone to converse with the foreign patrons. Moving closer towards minimalism, and zero-waste, she realised that “refuse” had to come before “reduce, reuse, recycle or rot”. “How many pet bottles turned into planters can one have? I believe we have to move towards finding a way to be able to refuse bottled water,” says Deepa.
This lifestyle led her to start a Facebook group called Dariya Dil Dukaan. Almost a decade old, the group encourages its 14,000 members to gift unused items or ask for whatever they need—whether in the form of material things, or a skill, or a service like giving someone a lift to the airport. The other online forums she has started with the help of like-minded people are Zero Waste Lifestyle-India, Buy Nothing Challenge-India, and Piplika (for those interested in slow travel).
As Deepa and her team (volunteers who help with transactions, design, communication and accounting) raise funds for Maitri Money, she continues to explore many questions about money. When asked if it is possible to bank on the goodness of people, she asserts, “I am banking only on that!” Her life experiences, including the few that were toxic, become tips that she shares with clients during her one-on-one consultations on happiness, relationships, creating harmonious spaces, decluttering and many other facets of life.
Deepa’s travel dreams include taking a boat to Sri Lanka and working there to make lodges more ecologically sustainable, living with strangers in Japan, and learning with the shamans of Bwiti in Gabon. Through her ongoing experiment, Deepa hopes to show that people’s lives are transformed when they receive small gifts that they actually need.
A freelance writer and editor, Mala Kumar has earned much goodwill for having written the Rupaiya Paisa series, which can be read for free on Pratham Books Storyweaver.