Category Archives: News

Who will question the relentless pursuit of growth?

At a recent conference on sustainable development, the Group Head of Sustainability at IKEA, Steve Howard, said the consumer in the West had reached ‘peak stuff’ including ‘peak furnishings and peak curtains’. A controversial statement for someone who works for one of the world’s largest furniture retailer. Howard was quick to add that this new reality did not stand in the way of IKEA’s target of doubling sales by 2020. The solution – IKEA would churn out more environment friendly products that helped consumers make better choices, or what Howard, referred to as the ‘circular IKEA’, where repair and recycling are served up as part of one big happy buying cycle. In other words, Western consumers who had hit peak stuff could be nudged to buy more so long as it came with a ‘green’ Kool-Aid to wash down the guilt!

Maybe Howard was being politically correct or maybe he truly believes that these two seemingly conflicting realities can and should co – exist, but a question worth investigating is whether sustainability within companies will always have to bow at the altar of growth? Can sustainability chiefs steer their bosses away from chasing higher growth targets without risking their jobs or being cast aside as dreamers? Because at some point, no matter how green your stuff is, it’s still ‘stuff’, and more stuff, necessarily means more drain on finite resources, more energy consumption, more waste and more of the same unsustainable behaviour loops.

But is there really a world outside growth for modern day organisations, beholden as they are to shareholder and investor interests? Enter Benefit Corporations – legal corporate entities in the US, whose stated mission, purpose and obligations extends beyond generating value for their shareholders, to include consideration for environmental and social impacts. This legislation opens a space for companies that are not driven by the single point agenda of higher shareholder returns.

Often mistaken for Benefit Corporations, another breed of companies called B-Corps are slowly making their way into the world of business. They aspire to the highest standards of environmental and social performance, transparency and accountability and place people and planet ahead of profits. The list of B-Corp certified companies is growing each year, but most of them are sole proprietors or small and mid-sized businesses. In 2014, Natura, a Brazilian beauty brand, became the world’s largest public B – Corp and in late 2015, multinational giants like Unilever and Danone have begun to engage with the B – Corp movement. These developments point to a different way of imagining growth and is definitely a positive trend.

An interesting example of an outlier brand is Patagonia, a US-based, popular outdoor clothing and gear designer and manufacturer, who has actively pursued an anti-growth strategy, asking consumers to buy less of their products. In 2011, the B -Corp certified company published a New York Times ad, with a photo of their jacket and the caption, ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ – advising consumers to consume less (and subtly hinting at the long life of Patagonia jackets). Ironically, the tag ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ showed up on the Black Friday winter clothing line the same year, and consumers flocked to buy the jacket, handing the company a 30% sales increase! A Bloomberg article reported that the ‘buy less’ marketing mantra has resulted in a surge in Patagonia sales, with new stores mushrooming across the US. Maybe the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Notwithstanding how the story unfolded, it was certainly a worthy attempt to question the premise of endless consumerism and growth.

In India too, conscious corporate behaviour is seeing the dawn of light with young start-ups taking the lead. Delhi-based Korra Jeans makes organic denims, with locally sourced materials, tailored from start to finish by a single tailor, thus departing from the ‘mass manufacturing’ model of fast fashion and embracing a model where work, craftsmanship, environment and social sustainability are all rolled into a pair of jeans!

But Patagonia and its ilk are still a blip on the radar. And while movements that give corporates a conscience are welcome, they remain Band-Aid solutions, in so far as they operate on the fringes. For most companies growth and profits are still the umbilical cord they cannot sever. And this makes things difficult for those sustainability professionals who are interested in crafting an alternative narrative that is not fixated on chasing ever higher growth targets.

One thing is clear – given the looming environmental and social crisis, there is no shying away from unpopular conversations, including those questioning unrestrained growth; and for better or worse, CSR and sustainability teams need to lead these discussions and forge collaborative partnerships to arrive at solutions. Acceptance and solutions will not come overnight, assuming they come at all, but the stakes are so high that we have to give it our best shot!

The fact that ‘anti-growth’, however limited its scope and effect, has seeped into the business lexicon, is in itself a progressive step. Besides, no matter how you view the solution Howard proposes to the problem of ‘peak stuff’, he did point out to a very important shift in consumer behaviour, and gave a warning of sorts. Perhaps for now the consumer will be satiated with green products, and IKEA and others can continue on their growth path unhindered, albeit in a greener avatar; but soon, that won’t be the case. Whether or not consumers come to question consumerism in all its colours, the Earth definitely is reaching ‘peak stuff’ and when that happens, the growth option will be off the table. The question is whether we act now and participate in shaping our future and collective destiny or we simply react to what destiny sends our way.

Antaash Sheikh is a communications and CSR professional, based out of Bangalore. The views expressed here are her own.

K.C Mishra: transforming India through the use of ICT and eKutir

KC Mishra (KC) is a veteran social innovator and Ashoka fellow, who has 30 years of leadership experience in areas like rural banking, microfinance, agriculture development, education and technology services. An Ashoka Fellow, KC has many certification and accolades under his belt. He is certified in “Innovative Organizational Model of Farmers” from Graduate Institute of Co-operative Leadership (GICL), University of Missouri, is an honorary trustee to Global Knowledge Partnership Foundation (GKPF), and an Advisor to BoP (Base of Pyramid) Hub.

In 2009, KC founded eKutir (eKutir Rural Management Services Private Limited), a socially focused venture engaged in innovating new products, services, and sustainable models of development at the BoP market. While eKutir is inspired by the Hubli Sandbox model philosophy, and is part of Action For India’s (AFI) Vision 2020 project whose goal is to create 20 Hubli type sandboxes by the 2020, it is different, because all its initiatives are for-profit.

Currently operating out of Odisha. It works in three areas: agriculture (Krishi Vikas), sanitation (Svadha), and social finance (One Acre Venture). It also operates a e-commerce venture called VeggieKart. Broadly, eKutir acts as an incubator that validates ideas, tests them in the field, iterates if necessary, and after validation, packages and releases them into BoP markets.

KC decided to choose the Hubli Sandbox model, because he believes that the Sandbox as a concept is a good initiative, that brings together young talent and ideas, where their ideas can be accepted, and they receive the required guidance. Since the Hubli Sandbox has demonstrated success in scaling, he believes, that following the model was a good idea. “Orissa needs good initiatives to create social impact. Lots of youngsters, have ideas, but need a forum to experiment, and need the help of experts take it to field. When AFI wanted to popularise the Sandbox model, I said yes,” says KC. KC has been busy popularizing the eKutir idea in among individuals who have ideas to solve problems of society.

One of the key things that eKutir offers is the strong mentoring, provided by a network of partners including: AFI, BOP Hubs (Singapore), Ashoka group and Headstart.
They have already incubated two ventures. “Svadha was formed when Garima Sahai resigned her job and wanted to do something in social entrepreneurship. Ekutir had a bunch of ideas. We incubated Svadha together and it is doing exceedingly well now,” adds KC. Svadha is a subsidiary of eKutir that works in the area of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).

The idea to form VeggieKart came from linking farmers to consumers. They adopted a new design and co-designed innovations, these designs and ideas in terms of product portfolio, price, packaging and last mile delivery solutions were validated in the last mile lab. It is doing really well, KC wants to replicate in India across the globe: already different organizations in Africa and even US have shown interest.

Through Krishi Vikas Initiative, eKutir offers ICT enabled tools to farmers for soil nutrient analysis, seed selection and farmer portfolio management. In addition, they support local farmers by setting up franchises and local hubs, and provide training to local entrepreneurs on agricultural advice and trade information.

The role of partners is very important at eKutir. They have 32 partners including foundations, think tanks, universities and corporates. Some of them include Unilever, National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), Intel, Ashoka, BoP Connect, BoP Hub, Grameen, Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA) and Yunus Social Business.

The impact so far has been encouraging. “With agriculture, we are working with 1000 farmers, and by linking farmers to cities, we are encouraging more than 100 micro-entrepreneurs to sell directly to consumers. In sanitation, we are engaged with 126 entrepreneurs and have built 10,000 toilets so far, that impacts close to 50,000 people: We have touched 20,000 individuals through information and communication technology (ICT) for which we won a Facebook innovation award,” says KC.

eKutir is currently welcoming social entrepreneurs and offers full infrastructure support, human resources, legal advice, mentoring, supply chain support and investment help.

Please contact +91 674 255 5550 ( for more.

This article first appeared on the Facebook page of Action for India.

Meghshala, a school on the cloud that looks beyond textbooks

Here’s a fact.

In India, one in every five primary school teachers in India, lacks the stipulated minimum academic qualifications to teach a class. A group of intellectuals decide to fix this problem using technology. The result is Meghshala, which literally means ‘a school on cloud’. Meghshala is a charitable trust that creates thought-provoking learning experiences designed and delivered using cloud computing.

The problem that is that teachers and students in government and low income schools lack resources, motivation, and skills to be effective. This results in poor teaching outcomes with students not proficient in basic math, language or science knowledge and skills. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2014 report shows that barely half of children in grade 5 could read a grade 2 level text.   “The dire need for reinventing our teacher training system in the country got us to start Meghshala,” says Ullas Kumar, VP Education Operations at Meghshala.  The founders of Meghshala— Jyoti Thyagarajan and Sridhar Ranganathan—decided to equip teachers with advanced tools to create an engaging classroom experience for the students. Meghshala aims to accelerate student learning and ease classroom instruction by using technology as a medium.

The Meghshala team comprises of an enthusiastic bunch of eighteen people who have deep expertise in multiple fields, ranging from digital media and graphic arts to content writing and education. “Most of us have been teachers in government, private and international schools,” says Amrutha Murali, the implementation and partner manager at Meghshala. “The one common thing that binds us together is our innate drive to bridge the education gap.”

The name Meghshala aptly portrays the way this social enterprise operates. In Sanskrit, ‘Megh’ means cloud and ‘Shala’ means school, Meghshala, therefore, stands for ‘a school on the cloud.’ The name encapsulates idea of delivering thought-provoking learning experiences using cloud technology across different schools.

The charitable trust is currently based in Bengaluru, working with 15 classrooms and is planning to reach 219 classrooms, 520 teachers, and 6570 students in Karnataka by the end of this year.

Creative learning process

Meghshala believes in creating a classroom where students and teachers enjoy the process of learning. “Curiosity and fun are an integral part of any classroom,” says Ullas Kumar, VP education operations at Meghshala. “Our lessons are built to bring the ‘AHA!’ moments in the classroom for both the teachers and students.”

The unique initiative provides an adaptive learning solution called Teach Kits. This learning solution incorporates a deluge of multimedia content such as videos, images, real-life stories, activities and powerful questions. These Teach kits are hosted on a cloud-based learning management system which can be accessed by teachers across different schools. Through Teach Kits, Meghshala transforms prescribed list of topics into an exciting, informative and thoughtful curriculum.

“The virtual platform allows us to scale across borders and impact the maximum number of teachers,” says Ullas. “Our impact is gauged using data collected through phones and tablets used by our implementation managers.”

Meghshala trains teachers by supporting them with ‘virtual master tutors’ in class. “The support will be in the form of instructions which are customized to the level of the teacher,” says Ullas. “Teachers will also be provided physical support in the classroom to ensure better adoption of our material.”

The Meghshala cloud is populated with lessons on every chapter—from Grade 1 to Grade 10. All these lessons are taught with the skill of a master teacher, a person who has deep knowledge in the field of education or a specific topic. The units help students learn and recall facts understand the process, think about applications, analyze data, evaluate answers and envision creative solutions to authentic real life problems.

“Each unit will be informed by a set of basic values and ethical stances. Supported by our instructions, teachers will execute these lessons in class. Teachers will initially follow these instructions but will later be encouraged to customize and create new lessons according to their requirement,” says Amrutha.

Meghshala team encourages students to actively participate in debates, discussions, while showing powerful videos with relevant questions. “These kinds of activities help students hone and develop other skill sets,” says Amrutha.

Looking beyond textbooks

Meghshala has paved the way for students and teachers to look far and beyond textbooks. The Meghshala lessons give access and exposure to information to teachers and students which are not available in textbooks. The teachers who are working with Meghshala have been highly receptive and understand integrating technology within education is the way forward.

“The students enjoy learning this way. They like the videos and the activities the teach kits provide. They specifically ask the teachers to use the Meghshala lessons to teach,” says Amrutha.

Meghshala has conducted pre and post tests during its pilot project and witnessed tremendous increase in test scores. The company could see the growth in as less as four months. “Going beyond the marks or the scores, we see a huge change in the classroom atmosphere. Kids are engaging in discussions, teachers are conducting activities to improve understanding. It’s an engaging, vibrant learning environment we see,” says Amrutha.

Creating social impact

Unlike other reputed institutions that educate students with an individualistic approach, Meghshala aims at creating social impact by incorporating ‘learner profiles’ which push students towards realizing their responsibility towards society at large.

“For example, during the implementation of one of our Grade 8 Mathematics lessons on Simple Interest, the teacher delivering the lesson also created the space for students to empathize with struggling farmers and the farmer suicides prevalent in rural Maharashtra. The Teach Kit guided the teacher to ask powerful questions and propelled students to critically examine about the community around them. This whole exercise was completed whilst learning a basic concept of Grade 8 Mathematics,” says Amrutha.

Meghshala motivates teachers to create rich learning environments which in turn help where students become aware of existing social issues and collaborate to find solutions. The company makes an effort to inspire students to be a helping hand and bring what they have learned to their community and grow up to become responsible citizens. “We believe that a population gainfully employed in finding solutions to social problems will have positive impacts on the global economy and conscience,” says Amrutha.

Broadening horizons  

This unique initiative has received positive response from both the teachers and students in its partner schools. Meghshala aims to impact 100,000 teachers by 2020. The company further plans to expand its operations across the country and abroad. “In the coming year we are planning on expanding into Kenya and few other African countries,” says Amrutha. “We see our self as enablers of human resources. We dream that we can help set the stage for India to be a true leader of the global economy.”


Forgot your child’s vaccination date? vRemind is here to help

Nagesh Chukka, Assistant Vice President from Wells Fargo in Hyderabad, was shocked when he realized he had forgotten about the vaccination appointment of his child. On checking with his friends, he was told that this was a prevalent problem, as there was no good way of tracking vaccination schedules. According to WHO, in India alone, every year, 100,000 kids (aged under five) are losing their lives to vaccine preventable diseases. Even though the government, under Universal Immunization Program (UIP) provides free vaccination, the reach and coverage of this program is very low.

Nagesh decided to use technology to help solve this issue by founding vRemind, a social not-for-profit organization, which is committed to reduce child mortality by offering a simple and handy solution to the mobile driven community. “vRemind was started based on the personal pain I dealt with after I missed the vaccine appointment for my child,” says Nagesh. He and his colleague Srinivas Alluri got together to find a solution for an issue that is wide spread amongst the urban and rural population.

vRemind is a mobile-based health app that gives timely vaccination reminders to parents with children up to the age of five years by sending out one reminder seven days before the appointment, and one more, a day before the scheduled vaccination date. To increase the reach of this solution and not limiting it to just smart phones, the reminders are sent out as an SMS.

Nagesh and Srinivas are leveraging the low-cost tools of the digital revolution to provide simplified solutions that make an impact on the healthcare sector by hopefully saving the lives of thousands of kids in India.

Currently vRemind has more than 10,000 plus subscribers (parents/caregivers) and close to 31,000 SMS reminders have been sent out till date. Since its launch, the app has been enhanced to include multiple channels of registration (along-side the already existing SMS program) like partner networks (hospitals and other birth places) and through website registrations. Nagesh claims that parents using this service are very pleased with the service and that most of them are now relying on this to be alerted in vaccination schedules. Currently the organization is tied up with LifeSpring Hospitals, a chain of twelve branches in Hyderabad, providing low-cost maternal care for the urban poor. They are also in discussions with three more low cost maternity/pediatric clinics.

A similar service in India is currently being provided by IAP-Immunizeindia. When parents opt-in to the service by sending a text message to the national shortcode 566778 from any mobile phone in India, they receive text message reminders for the next twelve years with the vaccination schedules for the child.

The founders point out that their major challenge is frequent SIM changes and penetration of mobile phone usage in the rural areas. To handle the diverse population in the country, many among whom are uneducated, there is also a need of a multi-language support, and an IVR. vRemind wants to address the accessibility issue by tying up with other health networks like ASHA (Accredited social health activists) and Anganwadi who currently have a good reach in the rural sectors.

vRemind is currently self-funded and is looking to work with hospitals to provide subscription models and white labeled solutions to generate revenue and sustain the operations, however, SMS reminders would continue to remain free for all the parents registered with the app directly.

Along with establishing partnerships with local communities/NGOs and low cost clinics, vRemind is looking to partner with government organizations and international NGOs like UNICEF and the WHO. The vision of vRemind for the next few years is to be the go-to mHealth providers in prenatal and postnatal care for the mother and child, which would also include their nutritional requirements. With the data they collect from their subscribers, there is also a plan to provide effective insights, and analytics to improve the supply chain management of vaccines. As the solution is scalable, it has potential to expand globally, to all the countries with mobile penetration.

PARI—a journal and archive of India’s ‘voiceless’

A screenshot from the PARI website (P.C.- PARI website)

A screenshot from the PARI website (P.C.- PARI website)

By Supriya Kumaraswamy

“This country and this society runs on the labor of very poor people, not on yours and mine,” P. Sainath, the founder-editor of People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) and veteran development journalist, said at the launch of the website on Saturday.

PARI comes into the picture at this juncture. It tells the everyday tales of the trials and travails of these everyday people. It is an encyclopedia of rural India—or at least is attempting to be one—with an ever burgeoning collection that features audio, video, texts and photos. PARI now boasts of the only collection of its sort, with about 8,000 to 10,000 black and white images of rural India.

While urban India surges forward towards a more easy way and style of living, the ones oiling the wheels of this urban society are often ignored and pushed under the carpet.

However, Sainath said it was not a case of the forgotten poor, but a case of a blind urban India.

PARI hopes to perform a two-pronged role. On one end, it is an archive of India’s so-called dark underbelly that people conveniently ignore and the media doesn’t give due coverage to and on the other end, it functions, in many ways, as a living journal—a diary of-sorts to record the unique experiences of rural India.

The “highly hetereogenic and diverse” rural India is currently in throes of one of the most brutal transformations in history. Some of the most ancient cultures are breaking down, and many of the languages are going extinct.

Rural India, as Sainath puts it, is “a continent within a sub-continent.”

While PARI can be often mistaken for an extension of or something similar to the Humans of New York, the two don’t really have very many similarities beyond an extent.

PARI is attempting to make the people of the country not just aware but also appreciate and educate the back-breaking and herculean efforts made by these very ordinary people of the country.

PARI does not just focus on the rural population. It also focuses and highlights the plight of the rural migrant in the city and what he brings to the table in terms of ensuring the city is in motion.

“I am not trying to speak for them,” Sainath said about PARI. “I am just telling you that they have something to say. Do you want to listen?”

Sainath through PARI is trying to bring into media focus the bottom five percent of India’s population.

In a nutshell, PARI aims to capture the ugly, the barbaric, the beautiful and the to be cherished stories of rural India and its wide diaspora.

Notes from Sankalp: Identifying the Value of Social Enterprise Incubators

Picture courtesy: Eleanor Horowitz

Last month, I had a chance to attend India’s largest and leading impact investing and social enterprise conference, the Sankalp Unconvention Summit, in Mumbai on April 17th and 18th. The conference, which attracted 1,000 attendees, plays host to several social impact awards, serves as a venue for entrepreneurs to meet investors, is a massive networking opportunity, and offers a quasi-think tank environment through panel sessions that bring together thought leaders from all ends of the world.

One of the buzzed about panels that I attended addressed the topic of “Incubating the Incubators” – a title aimed to stir up debate about the value proposition of social enterprise incubators in India and the efforts needed to scale them up. India’s leading social enterprise incubators include Dasra, UnLtd India, Villgro, IIT-Madras’ Rural Technology Business Incubator and the relatively new Khosla Labs.

Speaking on the panel were Dave Richards, Founder and Managing Partner of Unitus Seed Fund (USF), Ross Baird, Executive Director of Village Capital, Manfred Haebig, Head of Private Sector Development for Germany’s international development arm GIZ, and Umesh Sachdev, Co-Founder of Uniphore. The panel was moderated by Villgro Innovations Foundation COO “Guns” Ganapathy Pr.

The general feeling was that a successful incubator will take you on a journey of growth, exploration, and un-learning. A valuable incubator will help you fill in specific business gaps and expand your professional network into a strong peer-to-peer support system.

Here are some of the highlights from each panelist:

  1. Representing the voice of the entrepreneur and a former incubator participant, Uniphore’s Sachdev provided the advice that incubators can guide, help and mentor, but at the end of the day the success or failure is the responsibility of the entrepreneur.
  2. According to USF’s Richards, India is on the cusp of an incubator bubble. Many incubators will be launching and expanding in India in the coming years, which is both a blessing and a curse. Over time, incubators will differentiate and leaders will emerge, but in the near term, entrepreneurs need to enter incubators with defined goals in order to maximize the value of their experience.
  3. Manfred Haebig from GIZ emphasized that the key to successful incubators are good filters. Realistically, he said, not all aspiring entrepreneurs are destined to succeed, and not all of them should be incubated. The weakness of new incubators is that they are still incubating themselves. As a result, many struggle to get enough applicants to be selective and don’t restrict their programs to the strongest and most promising entrepreneurs.
  4. Through the experience of running 18 Village Capital incubator programs across six continents, Ross Baird and his team found that residential incubators focused on a “sage on stage” were often too inspiration-heavy, leaving participants moved, but not changed. Instead Village Capital aims to be a “guide on the side” providing constant feedback to constructively improve the business plans of the participants at all times.

Overall the feeling was that incubators are neither one size fits all, nor a passport to success. Entrepreneurs need to be smart in selecting which incubators to participate in, and cannot just assume that having a badge of “being incubated” will guarantee either investment or revenues.

A quick summary of this year’s conference highlights:

(This guest post is written by Eleanor Horowitz, who is currently a Frontier Market Scout with Unitus Seed Fund. Previously, she built a clean water business in Ghana and worked in the corporate sustainability office of a Chinese supply chain manager. Eleanor received a degree in Chemistry and Environmental Studies with a minor in Global Health from Middlebury College. She also holds a graduate certificate in Enterprise Development and Impact Investing from the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Follow her on Twitter @eleanorhorowitz)

Paul Basil: A true pioneer in the world of social entrepreneurship

Pic courtesy:

Paul Basil, founder of social enterprise incubator Villgro (previously called Rural Innovations Network or RIN), is a giant in the world of social entrepreneurship. Trained to be a mechanical engineer, Basil had his first taste of the hinterland when he went to the Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM), he joined the Kerala Horticulture Development Program thereafter, where he worked on several innovations. He launched a “farmers’ market”, kick-started a franchising system and introduced the sale of fruits and vegetables in supermarkets.

From his experience in rural areas Paul realized that there was plenty of innovation in rural areas but hadn’t been commercialized because of a lack support. This inspired him to found RIN, in 2001, a non-profit incubator focused on mentoring and funding rural innovations.

Basil’s career highlights include incubating 60 companies, launching the social enterprise conference Unconvention | L (UL), setting up the Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at IIT-Madras and championing the India chapter of ANDE (Aspen Network for Development Entrepreneurs). He was made an Ashoka Fellow in 2002.

In a freewheeling interview, Basil spoke candidly about his origins, motivation, current state of the social entrepreneurship ecosystem in India, inspiring students and his future vision for Villgro.

Here are the edited excerpts.

What inspired you to start Villgro? What has kept you motivated all these years?
Very early on, I asked myself. If one is educated, makes enough money, and lets say not greedy, what should one be doing at a very high level? It was to take up causes, and make a big difference to the poor, but not by doing charity. Not because I didn’t like that, but I’m more kicked about models that are sustainable, economically. While it is about being market friendly, its not all about market forces, but also about innovation. If it were just about the market, then private enterprises would have served that purpose.

We need new solutions to century old problems of malnutrition, illiteracy and power. Villgro stresses a lot on innovation: what has been done in the past has not worked, its not just the idea or execution. Innovation is really required and Villgro is all about innovation. Younger entrepreneurs, their energy and enthusiasm are a source of constant inspiration.

Would you want to help create a billion dollar company or impact a million lives?
I am respectful of wealth creation. If Jerome Lemelson hadn’t created wealth, he wouldn’t have been able to fund these pressing problems, through his foundation. Somebody has to be rich to create a positive impact on a million people.

The question is how to create these companies. At our incubator, we incubate a lot of companies. Some will fail, and a few will become successful. This collective investing is exciting and has far more chances of survival as you de-risk your portfolio. The idea is not to stop with impacting a million lives.

When gunning for scale, how to manage investor aspirations and what’s good for the enterprise? The SKS Microfinance controversy showed us that going for scale doesn’t always end well, more recently, the founder of Rangsutra questioned the timing of Aavishkaar’s exit, which she claimed resulted in an increased valuation and thereby made it more expensive for their artisans to buy shares.

All of us are trying to crack one problem at a time, but a lot has been taken on. There are these dual or blended goals of for-profit, building scale and stakeholder interest. In the case of SKS Microfinance and Rangsutra clearly these goals were not aligned. Venture capital investing only works with certain entrepreneurs and business models. The question is whether Rangsutra was ready for venture capital and the VC model was good for them.

Compatibility between the companies and VCs may have not matured enough. But this is learning. There will be uncertainty and acrimony, before progress will be made. It will take some time, what’s needed is open communication without negative implications.

Larger networks like Global Impact Measurement Network (GIIN) GAIN and Ande (Aspen Network of Development Professionals), have the agenda to spread the message on impact metrics. The question is how fast can they reach the message.

What is the vision for Villgro?
I think there is large capital available like Aavishkaar, Grassroutes and Lok capital and it needs to be bigger because when companies become big mainstream funds wont cut it, social VCs need to invest at this point. Therefore we see impact investing has started seeing scalable business models, going forward, more funds will be required.

What’s needed is investment in the $100,000 to $200,000 (Rs 54 lakh to Rs 1.08 crore) range to prove new business models. We need to make economic sense of markets for poor. Most business models are about cost cutting or upping the quality of life, when we are working with the poor our concern is also how to improve incomes through livelihood creation, like Amul did. We need plenty of investments to enhance incomes.

If I had a pot of money, I would use 60-70 per cent to build scale and the rest of the 30-40 per cent should go into high-risk models.

We need investments in the early stage because funds are 10-12 year funds and they close in 3-4 years, so ventures need to grow so rapidly so that they are able to absorb $1 million.

Investment is important to incubate diverse business models that are innovative and different. If there is a lack of investment at this early stage in experimental ideas, there is a danger that the sector will run out of ideas even if there is more capital coming in the next few years:

What are Villgro’s future plans?
We dream of building a fleet of incubators that maybe Villgro branded that will be launched in India first, and then in other countries like Latin America and Africa.

Both in terms of quality and quantity, there are not enough incubators. We envision a network of incubators; we shall provide incubation services like capital, mentoring, and right talent.

Not exactly sure on how will it pan out; whether it will be giving them money, know-how, the challenge is the model. Currently our customers are entrepreneurs, as we enhance our scope, incubators will become our customers. We will be clear about the model by the end of next year.

The other piece is an entrepreneur-in-residence program for early stage budding entrepreneurs. The middle-class doesn’t understand villages, the needs and thereby lack customer insights. What we do is to take a bunch of younger entrepreneurs who are inspired to create change but not investment ready. This program may take sometime to launch, we are piloting something and have started seeing applicants.

How do we motivate more students to consider social entrepreneurship as a career?
In the world of student entrepreneurship, the culture is not supportive and parents are not encouraging.

Students are influenced by faculty, we should show people who have just graduated and have been successful in social enterprises. The problem is that faculty does not understand social entrepreneurship. Parents are also not convinced, as they don’t see it as a way to make money.

They need to nudge them in the direction of taking up a career in social enterprise. Changes are needed. Educational institutions need to support social entrepreneurship. There has been a start with business competitions like iDiya at ISB, the Global social venture competition (GSVC) and Eureka! at IIT Mumbai and also social entrepreneurship related courses at colleges like Loyola Institute of Business Administration (LIBA), IIT-Madras, Xavier Institute of Management- Bhubaneswar (XIM-B) and IIM-C. We have been doing our bit, the course we helped co-design at IIT- Madras in social innovation and entrepreneurship is one of the most sought after minors.

We need for these courses to spread, the faculty to understand what social entrepreneurship is about and engage in more research related activities. Currently consulting companies are doing research, this is the role of academics, whatever is being done currently is shallow, what’s needed is committed faculty focused on research. We are slowly engaging with faculty motivate them to do more research.

How is UL progressing?
There have been a few conferences; it has been helpful to all stakeholders. UL is a great brand, which is building the sector, but not everybody has the opportunity to make it and if they don’t then they have to wait for a full year. We felt that we needed smaller formats and thereby we had them at cities like Lucknow and Bhubaneswar. The focus is to create a deep platform on capacity building, creating awareness and interest among youngsters about what social entrepreneurship, and create a pipeline of new entrepreneurs.

This is a great opportunity, smaller towns are closer to the problems, we don’t need to sensitize entrepreneurs there are the problems, and they are more realistic and not very idealistic.

When we organized an UL in Bhubaneswar in association with TiE (The Indus Entrepreneurs) and National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN), 90 people turned up. We need to be patient, it takes time to become a platform, we can’t do it with brick and mortar, a tech platform would be apt. It needs to be scalable like a TED platform; UL could be the TedX of the social entrepreneurship world.

By the end of 2013-14, we hope to conduct 10 events, with 100 people attending each and discovering 20 such entrepreneurs.

Bangalore-based MSME lending company Kinara Capital raises $1 million Series A funding


Source: Kinara website

Bangalore-based micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSME) lending company Kinara Capital (Kinara), has raised about Rs 5.4 crore ($1million) in a series A round led by Sorenson Impact Foundation.

The other investors are John Ayliffe of 1to4 Foundation, Halloran Philanthropies and Kinara Capital Holdings, (a special purpose vehicle constituted in Singapore). Two of the investors, Halloran Philanthropies and John Ayliffe, were part of an earlier seed round of over Rs 2.7 crore ($500,000) that included the Unitus Impact Fund and private investors based in the US. “Majority of the capital raised will go towards funding small businesses; we also plan on building our operational resources and expanding our current team of four to 10 by the year end. This is a recognition of our model and the social impact we have created,” said Hardika Shah, Kinara’s founder-CEO. “

Kinara provides debt capital in the range of Rs1 lakh to Rs10 lakh with credit products such as short-term working capital loans and receivables discounting. Kinara plans on increasing its portfolio by 5x, from the current loan book of Rs 1.5 crore, to over Rs 5 crore by next year. “This will mean supporting the potential creation of at least 1000 new jobs and impacting 10,000 lives by funding 400-500 loans,” added Shah. Social impact metrics that Kinara tracks, and reports to its investors, include new jobs created, increase in business income and increase in entrepreneur income.

Typically, MSMEs find it difficult to procure debt from banks because sub-10 lakh loans are too little for them to lend. Micro-finance institutions shy away, because the Rs 1 lakh to 10 lakh amount, is too high an amount. Kinara’s loans are at 22 per cent to 26 per cent reducing interest per annum The company, so far, has supported 60 entrepreneurs, with zero defaults. To grow beyond Karnataka, Kinara has plans to open its first field office outside Karnataka. “Depending on the needs of the businesses and the thrust of our supply chain relationships, we might open a second field office next year, possibly in Coimbatore,” remarks Shah.

MSMEs background:
The Indian government has a specific agenda to develop MSMEs and has constituted a separate ministry to promote them. According to government website, there are over 26 million MSMEs, with 59.7 million employees. The sector accounts for about 45 per cent of the manufacturing output and around 40 per cent of the total exports.

Announcing Villgro’s annual fellowships for social entrepreneurs

Pic courtesy: Villgro website
Applications for the fifth installment of the annual Villgro Fellowships are now open. The fellowship provides professionals, with a one-year Leadership Development program, to get a taste of what it feels to work in the social entrepreneurship space. The program is a mix of classroom sessions, forums, field trips, hands-on mentoring and a close working relationship with a social entrepreneur. Its certainly a immersive, roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty experience, that promises to give fellows a first-hand experience of what it takes to be a social entrepreneur. For the talent-starved socent industry, this is a great way to get access to world-class professional talent, in various areas like finance, marketing, HR and IT.

Since 2008 there have been Villgro 29 fellows, and a whopping 62 per cent of them have stayed back in the social enterprise (socent) sector. David Schafran, for example, was a fellow at rural BPO company Desicrew, and upon finishing his fellowship he went on to found his own social start-up

Want to know experiences of the 2012 Villgro Fellows? Follow all their experiences on the blog here

If you are convinced or just curious find more details on the Villgro fellowships here.

Other fellowships similar to Villgro’s include Acumen Global Fellows Program, Idex Accelerator Program, Dasra Fellows and Frontier Market Scouts.

Villgro background
Villgro (earlier known as Rural Innovations Network), was started by Paul Basil 11 years back, as a way to mentor and commercialize village innovations. Currently, they provide a variety of services, including mentoring, talent support, funding, marketing and access to socent networks. To date they have incubated around 64 companies and provided $40 million in seed funding. Villgro, also used to organize Unconvention, one of India’s largest socent conferences, till last year. It has partnered with Aavishkaar organized Sankalp, to form India’s largest socent summit, Sankalp Unconvention summit 2013. To support the ecosystem beyond Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai, Villgro has launched Unconvention|L, which is targeted at uncovering socents in smaller cities and towns. The social incubator’s other initiatives include SEED, which gives unsuccessful social entrepreneurs a second shot at making it work, through a 8-month incubation that aims to sharpen the entrepreneur’s vision and raise first round of funding.

The fortune on top of the chimney.

Source: Company website

In 2011, Vivek Nair was in his final year of college at Sastra University, conducting research on carbon nanotubes (CNTs) when the inability to purchase them for his research, because of the prohibitive cost of $50 per gram, got him thinking. Carbon emissions are plentiful, released from industrial chimneys and automobiles. What if they could be captured and converted into carbon nanostructures? While there have been some theories on the possibility of converting CO2 to CNTs, through a process called ‘re-carbonization’, nothing solid had materialized. Nair was onto something big. He may not have sniffed it out then, but CNTs is currently, a billion-dollar business opportunity.

He got cracking on a science project, with the help of a bunch of friends, and shortly after, they had a breakthrough. “We got the science right and proved that it could be done,” says Abhishek Modi, a core member of the team and currently marketing head of Damascus Fortune (DF), the company that was born out of the efforts to commercialize the research. After success at the lab, they are currently testing the research model by deploying a small prototype at a metallurgical company based in Gujarat, which has been showing a lot of promise. Nair’s technology, which is now patented, processes carbon emissions using a regenerative catalyst to make industry grade CNTs through a process called ‘carbon vapor deposition’. They have plenty of applications, ranging from building space elevators, curing cancer and bendable electronics.

Next up: build a fully functional prototype and deploy across multiple industrial locations. Help to reduce the cost and time to build the prototype has come from unusual quarters- from Tom Chi, experience lead, Google X- considered a rapid prototyping genius. Modi met Chi, onboard a ship, which is part of a program called Unreasonable at Sea. “Chi suggested that instead of building the whole prototype and then testing it, we could build a few features connected to our goal, and test only those. His inputs helped us reduce our costs by 4x,” remarks Modi, talking via Skype from the ship, enroute to South Africa. Damascus is part of 10 different companies that are part of this journey at sea that stops at 14 different destinations. Besides the opportunity to interact with mentors like Chi, the bigger incentive is to meet with local entrepreneurs and investors, who could be potential clients.

Realizing that the bigger opportunity lies in North America and the Asia-Pacific region, DF plans to go global, sometime this year or early next year. They are also planning to diversify, and go beyond CNTs, by manufacturing carbon composites. CNTs are approximately a $1 billion industry, carbon composites, on the other hand is a $24 billion opportunity. Nair, CEO of DF, is currently finishing his PhD at Nanyang Technological University. His vision for DF is clear. “I want to see DF’s technology converting carbon emissions from almost all industries and automobiles with maximum efficiency into carbon nanostructures,” says Nair.

Nair’s dream will be good for India’ environment. “To make one gram of carbon nanotubes, there is a reduction of 35-40 grams of carbon dioxide. We are thinking of dealing in carbon credits, but for that we need scale,” adds Modi.

To go global, build scale and set-up their own R&D unit for testing and purification DF will raise a Series A round of funding in the next 12 months.