Category Archives: Views

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.

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.

India needs ‘business as unusual’ to solve its massive development problems

Nobel Prize laureate, Amartya Sen, makes an interesting point in a recent New York Times article. While praising India for its economic progress, he chides it for the shortcomings in providing basic public services, and explains why India trails China. Sen believes that India catching up with China’s economic prowess, might remain a pipe-dream. He’s spot on.

After pursuing a mixed economy for most of its existence, India broke those shackles in 1991, and opened up its economy. Things improved. The country upped literacy, reduced poverty, fed more children under five, curtailed the infant mortality rate and India was tipped to become the world’s biggest economy by 2050.

Problems galore:
Even as our economic indicators went up, our social indicators have not shown the same improvement in key human development indices. According to 2010 World Bank estimates, India houses one third of the world’s poor, with more than 400 million living on less than $1.25 a day. That figure is up from 22 per cent in 1981. A shame considering, that its neighbor China, chopped its poverty rate from 43 percent in 1981 to 13 percent in 2010. Besides extreme poverty, India’s other litany of woes, include inadequate healthcare, illiteracy, malnutrition, high infant mortality rate, energy deficiencies and millions unemployed or underemployed. To address all of this, what’s needed perhaps is a business as unusual approach, which we shall get to later in this post.

India languishes at 136 out of 186 countries in the human development index (HDI) ranking. In 2012, India ranked 65th out of 79 countries, in the global hunger index (GHI), with 43.5 per cent of all children below 5 years remaining undernourished. Even as we fail our very young, the country, in the next few decades, is expecting to reap the dividends of its large young population. That is increasingly looking like a false hope. The young population is either uneducated, undereducated or lacks employable skills. The government has launched a massive scheme to skill 500 million individuals by 2022, this ambitious program might just prove to be, too little too late.

There is also a lack of jobs. The Planning Commission estimates that there will be an additional 183 million job seekers who will enter the market soon, and the manufacturing sector will need to provide 70 million of those jobs. Alarmingly, the opposite seems to be happening, after suffering jobless growth, even during the boom GDP years, there are predictions of jobless de-growth. Between 2005 and 2010 the country shockingly lost 5 million jobs in manufacturing and agriculture. Not addressing these problems could be a recipe for civil unrest.

Why hasn’t India been able to address these issues?

The government spends a lot of money to deal with these problems and the country boasts of the largest number of non-profits in the world, doing their bit to combat these issues. It also receives plenty of external assistance; the World Bank for example, approved $4.3 billion in aid in 2012.

But it isn’t enough.

Post economic liberalization in 1991, and the spectacular GDP growth of the 2000s, observers opined that the rising tide would magically lift all boats. The trickle-down economic theory that Indian policy makers preached have borne fruit that have mostly benefited the rich and the middle class with income inequality doubling in the past 20 years. The trickle-down theory states that with lower taxes and increased investment, the entire economy will grow, and benefit everybody, including those at the bottom. Not enough jobs have been created for the poor to take part in the growth story. Estimates suggest that there are 30 million unemployed currently. One reason could be that India has failed to transfer jobs from agriculture to the manufacturing sector while China has moved 150 million jobs in the last 10 years.

Besides manufacturing, agriculture, which has been shedding jobs consistently, but still accounts for 49 per cent all jobs, needs a reboot. The World Bank has a bunch of suggestions on how this can be done. They include investments to boost farm productivity, creation of improved livelihood projects, increased farm credit, better irrigation, agricultural insurance and improved market access for farmers.

Social enterprise- one of the possible solutions

India’s deep-seated and multi-faceted problems need more than the intervention of government, non-profits and international agencies. This is where social enterprises, with a dual promise of financial and social returns (sometimes includes environmental benefits) leveraging the power of market forces, could do some of the heavy-lifting in combating India’s crippling issues. Social enterprises provide innovative products and services at affordable price points, create livelihoods, and also engage the economically disadvantaged as producers and clients.

Note: Over the next few months we will be exploring life at the BoP, the enterprises serving these low-income populations, government’s role and the different approaches to solving these issues.

Photo courtesy: Nelson Vinod Moses.

This post was first published on


Why does the world needs more social Intrapreneurs?

Source: Ashoka
In the last decade, a new breed of entrepreneurs began to appear, armed only with ideas and a big heart; they attacked the world’s toughest development problems. Dubbed social entrepreneurs, they cropped everywhere. Brazil, India, South Korea, US, UK and even places like Pakistan have seen the rise of social entrepreneurs. They have done a stellar job so far, combating problems related to energy, livelihoods, health and sanitation, healthcare and poverty. The governments of the world have joined in, lending a helping hand by introducing new policies, regulations and innovative financial instruments like social bonds. However, global developmental problems cannot be eliminated by just social entrepreneurs and supportive governments, they are going to need the support of large corporations because of the sheer money power that they wield.

According to Forbes, the largest 2000 corporations in the world accounted for $36 trillion in revenues and $149 trillion in assets in 2012. Other than their corporate social responsibility activities, private enterprises have largely been missing from the social entrepreneurship revolution.

Until now.

Say hello to the social intrapreneur. They have the same motivations as social entrepreneurs- to affect social and environmental change- but they do it within organizations. A 2008 report on social intrapreneurs by Echoing Green described them as “someone who works inside major corporations or organizations to develop and promote practical solutions to social or environmental challenges where progress is currently stalled by market failures.” While they may not have been called social intrapreneurs, they have been around for a long time. However, their role in the past five or six years has been formalized. Their motivation is not monetary gain, but to execute a vision, and have social and environmental impact.

The world is beginning to take notice. A new competition last year, organized by Ashoka and Accenture called League of Social Intrapreneurs Competition, was floated in 2012 to support and recognize this growing movement tried to lure these employees out of their cubicles and into the open. “More and more people inside big companies are identifying with the label, and now there are companies who want to roll out internal strategy programs to cultivate it,” says Alexa Clay, Ashoka’s director of social intrapreneurship.

Social intrapreneurs leveraging the nearly infinite corporate resources at their disposal can affect massive impact. Eventually, due to sheer size, intrapreneurs can have a more marked impact than social entrepreneurs. In an article in Devex, Robert Tomasko, who directs American University’s Social Enterprise Program, echoes this fact. “Starting a new venture or being a solo entrepreneur is great, but when you go into an existing organization and change it from inside, you can have a much bigger impact,” said Tomasko.

Indian examples:
S. Sivakumar may not have known that he was displaying social intrapreneurial instincts when he approached Yogesh Chander Deveshwar, chairman, ITC  in 2000 for an investment of Rs 50 lakh to test an idea in his agri-business unit. Deveshwar gave Sivakumar 20 times as much and sanctioned Rs 10 crore to test the idea of directly procuring farm produce from soya farmers in Madhya Pradesh, thereby eliminating middle-men and helping farmers make a better profit. Deveshwar granted him Rs 10 crore. Today e-Choupal’ services today reach out to over 4 million farmers growing a range of crops – soyabean, coffee, wheat, rice, pulses, shrimp – in over 40,000 villages through 6500 internet kiosks across 10 states. Sivakumar’s idea solves the problem of non-existent supply chains and also reduces the role of intermediaries.

Considering that India has been a hotbed for social entrepreneurs, and the fact that private enterprises in India have a bigger corporate social responsibility (CSR) role because of India’s inequality, the role of the social intrapreneur becomes all the more important. Vijay Sharma was celebrated as one of the social intrapreneurs driving change within his organization in EchoingGreen’s 2008 report on social intrapreneurs. The initiative that he headed up then (he has since moved on and is currently at GSK) is Hindustan Unillever’s Project Shakti, which spawns women entrepreneurs in villages. Shakti started in 2000, with 17 women in two states. Currently it touches the lives of 45,000 women in 15 Indian states across 100,000 villages and impacts over 3 million households every month.

Intuit’s Fasal is a superb example of how the vision of a single woman created an entire business that currently reaches out to a million farmers. Created by Deepa Fasal in 2009, Fasal is a free SMS-based service for farmers that passes on precious agriculture-related information. According the Intuit, Fasal registered users make an additional Rs 15,000 to Rs 30,000 a year.

Sydney Lai, sustainability manager at Standard Chartered recalls how an Indian employee came up with idea outsource low-skill, data-related tasks to disadvantaged communities. “We’ve been able to provide job opportunities in rural villages and to people with disabilities who might otherwise have a hard time leaving their homes to find work. It creates benefits for us as a company,” Lai said. ‘e-Ops,’ as the initiative is known has been in place for a year-and-a-half and has resulted in cost-savings and efficiency improvements for the bank.

Gathering steam:
Globally the last decade is witnessing a strong momentum in social intrapreneurship. Vodafone’s M-Pesa program, now a much celebrated case study was the idea of two employees, The project is revolutionary in its attempt to solve the problem of a lack of financial services in Africa, at present it serves millions of Kenyans with financial services via mobile phone and acts as a model for other mobile phone-based development initiatives. Gates called on corporations to “dedicate a percentage of their top innovators’ time to issues that could help people left out of the global economy. This kind of contribution is even more powerful than giving cash or offering employees time off to volunteer.”

Accenture, which supports Ashoka in its competition to recognize social intrapreneurs has long been a big supporter of individuals inspired to drive positive change from the inside. Gib Bulloch, in the early part of the 2000s cobbled up a plan to bring the company’s high-quality consulting services to non-profits and development organizations. Dubbed Accenture Development Partnerships, it has helped more than 120 international development organizations and completed 700 projects.

There are many such examples. Graham Simpson, from GSK, had an idea of developing cheap, yet commercial, diagnostics kits that could be used by often untrained health workers in rural villages. These kits are currently being developed with the help of John Hopkins University.Sacha Carina van Ginhoven, from TNT Express is using mobile phone technology to solve the problem of having no addresses for the poor. Her project is being tested in a slum in India.

Going forward it could be social intrapreneurship could be a great tool for corporations to position themselves as being more responsible, retain quality talent, impress customers and please the rest of their stakeholders.

“If you don’t have an entrepreneurial culture, you won’t be able to recruit and retain talented individuals,” said Clay. Since most of the growth is currently in emerging markets like India, Brazil and Africa promoting social intrapreneurship could be good for the bottom-line as well. What started at the periphery, due the vision and drive of a few employees, could soon become front and center of corporate business strategy globally.

Note: This blog was first published on

Why India needs social entrepreneurship to succeed.


India is at the crossroads. After a decade of high GDP growth rates of around 7-9 per cent, the 2008 global recession poured cold water on the Indian growth story, in 2012-13, growth is expected to be a tepid 5 per cent. The growth post-liberalization, benefited the rich, (the increase in number of Indian millionaires was second only to China), and a newly created middle class. What of the rest? Most of India or 400 odd million people live on less than $1 a day. In the latest 2012 human development index (HDI) report, India languishes at 136, out of 187 countries .

The players who can affect positive change- the government and NGOs are trying, with varying degrees of success, but their interventions fall woefully short of what is needed to combat India’s pressing problems. Capitalism’s fruit was supposed to drop down to all, but the much touted trickle-down economics, hasn’t delivered. Income inequality has doubled in the last 20 years. Einstein said famously, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” perhaps what is needed now is a business as unusual approach. This is where social enterprises (socents) can play a role. They use market-proven business practices to solve social and environmental problems. In the world of socents, business and philanthropy collide, and strive to create a more equitable and sustainable world. They may not be the silver bullet for all of India’s gargantuan problems related to agriculture, poverty, infrastructure, healthcare and education, but they may perhaps be our best bet.

With a business as unusual approach, socents are turning rice husk into electric power (Husk Power Systems), employing the power of the sun to bring light (Selco), bringing healthcare to rural areas (Vaatsalya Healthcare), introducing solar-powered ATMs to villages (Vortex Engineering), providing emergency ambulance services (Ziqitza Health Care), teaching English (EnglishHelper) and giving access to affordable potable drinking water. Socents are identifying markets and problems that have been ignored and solving them using innovative products and services. Most of the global case studies on successful socents are peppered with Indian examples.

Social entrepreneurship could also help India avoid the mistake China made with its growth. The Red Dragon’s phenomenal economic growth has come at the cost of air, water and soil pollution. Anger over pollution has replaced land disputes to become the chief cause for social unrest in China. Socents with their inherent vision of sustainable growth that is environmentally friendly are well equipped to balance growth with environmental concerns.

While India had made giant strides in the last decade in the area of social entrepreneurship, this is just the beginning and more is needed. Government needs to step up to the plate and make it easier for both foreign and domestic investors to invest in socents. A better regulatory framework, smoother taxation policies, creation of multiple investment bodies, using innovative investment vehicles like UK’s social impact bonds, co-investing in technology based socents, creation of a separate index like Singapore’s Impact Investment Index (IIX), are just some of things it needs to do.

One of the most interesting developments in the past few months has been the CSR bill proposed by the government where 2 per cent of profits for big companies will be used for social programmes that includes investment in social business ventures. This could be a huge boost for socents, and give them access to more than a billion dollars in precious capital, that is needed especially at the seed and early stages. Husk Power Systems, for example, benefited from the grant that it got from Shell Foundation in its early days of technology creation.

Growth in the next 100 years cannot follow the road that capitalism took us in the last century, the earth’s finite resources are already depleted, and the environment already reeling from over-exploitation. There’s already talk of social capitalism and creative capitalism in the US and Europe. India need not be far behind, and design its own version of capitalism, one that uses social entrepreneurship in abundance.

And so, it begins.

The beginning.



India is often referred to as a laboratory for social entrepreneurship, where innovation is brewing, and new products and services are being dished out thick and fast. Things are looking up after the doom and gloom post the 2007-08 recession and the micro-finance controversy that rocked the industry in 2010.

There are a lot of social enterprise focused VCs that are chasing deals at present. The trend in social investing started in the mid-2000s with VCs like Acumen Fund and Aavishkaar Venture Fund, and more have followed suit like Omidyar Network, Khosla Labs and India Social Fund (ISF). Now, there maybe close to a billion dollars chasing SE investment. These social VCs have been buoyed by SEs that are growing in scale and revenues, and even providing successful exits. Aavishkaar, which was started in 2001, has had a few exits, these include Rangsutra, an artisan-owned handicrafts company, Servals Automation, a rural energy solutions provider and Shree Kamdhenu Electronics, an electronic milk collection services company. According to the Intellecap SE study, most of the investments are bunched up around agriculture, education, healthcare and energy.

The industry requires talent; and that is being supplied by institutions, like the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), some of the IIMs, ISB and many other B-schools. The government too has recognized the huge potential SEs have in tackling age-old problems related to education, healthcare, agriculture, energy, water and sanitation. In January, 2013, Sam Pitroda, chairman for the National Innovation Council, announced a $1 billion fund to invest in enterprises that tackle problems at bottom of the pyramid.

But more is needed: attracting top talent, encouraging the growth of impact investing as an investment vehicle, an exchange purely for SEs to raise capital like Singapore’s IIX and less regulation and more incentives from the government.

From its first baby steps, the SE industry is ready for its next jump into adolescence and adulthood.

Billionbulbs will track this journey.