Archive for April, 2008

Family Style

April 29, 2008

Tinda-ma! (Let’s eat!) is my favorite thing to say around here. The entire office (Eleven of us) gets together in the conference room for lunch every day without fail.  Everyone brings food from home and takes a little from others without question.  It is family style at its best. (Today, Vipin specially brought me Puri that his wife made – Ah Mazing).  I never leave the room without learning something new about India.  Like why the communist party is so successful in West Bengal, or how silk worms make silk or how Tata decided to made the Nano…  It’s a massive gift for someone new in these here parts.

But back to the family: We have ear-splitting debate and wide-open criticisms, people getting help with personal problems and more than our fair share of hysterical laughter.  It’s one of the great benefits of only being eleven people; You have no choice but to invest in each other because there is nowhere to hide.  As my friend Charles Warren used to say, “innovation needs intimacy”.  IMHO, this kind of homestyle environment is what’s missing from a lot of big companies.


April 26, 2008

Dharavi—reputedly Asia’s biggest slum, housing about one million people in a very small area, and located right in the middle of Mumbai.  I pass through it everyday on my way to work and have always found the intense activity along the road fascinating.  But I had not gone by foot into the slum until today.  Wanting to learn more about Dharavi, and at least get more than a glimpse of how it operates, I signed up for a “reality tour” of the area.  I had a local guide, and most of the profits from the tour company go to a non-profit that provides training classes for Dharavi residents. 

Dharavi is far too complex to master in an afternoon, and what I saw in a couple of hours is far too interesting to summarize in one blog entry, so I’ll just describe a couple of the highlights.  Dharavi has an annual business turnover north of $600 million and is filled with small businesses and industries.  Our tour began with one of them–the recycling section of the slum.  Plastic, cardboard, and metal containers are all either recycled or reconditioned by a variety of small workshops.  Plastic containers are gathered by rag-pickers throughout the city and sold to middlemen in Dharavi, who sort the plastic by color and grind it down into small pieces.  The machines that do the grinding are themselves manufactured in Dharavi—we visited one workshop that made grinders and sold them to recycling businesses just across the narrow alleyway.  Talk about a great way to get immediate customer feedback!  The small pieces of ground plastic are then sold to other businesses that melt them down.  We visited one where bits of blue plastic were poured into a machine that melted them, extruding small streams of blue that looked like wires which then ran through a tub of water that cooled them down.  The plastic strings then entered a machine that chopped them into uniform pellets.  These pellets are sold to manufacturing plants outside of Dharavi that turn them into new plastic goods. 

Other recycling processes are much simpler:  cardboard boxes are sliced open, turned inside-out, and stapled back together to be sold to local businesses.  What looks like a plain brown box on the outside reveals bottled water labels on the inside when opened up.  Used metal cans that held cooking oil are cleaned, pounded back into shape with wooden mallets, and returned to the cooking oil manufacturers for reuse.  All of this takes place in a series of small workshops along narrow lanes, with the employees often living above their workspace.

We then passed through more residential areas of the slum, checking out small garment factories, leather makers, shops, and homes.  We concluded the tour in the clay pot-making area, where generations of the same families have been producing pots out of their homes and workshops, burning cotton to fire their kilns.  There we met a former guide from the tour company in his family’s home.  He had recently graduated from college with a degree in commerce and had just begun a new job with JP Morgan.  When we asked what he would be doing there, he replied that he was in training to be an investment banker.  He wasn’t sure yet what exactly he would be working on—maybe foreign exchange, maybe derivatives. 

Here was another interesting example of the changing face of modern India, and a great illustration that the complexity of Dharavi defies many stereotypes of slums.  The term “slum” doesn’t come close to capturing all the fascinating individual stories, community ties, and business relationships in a neighborhood that’s been contributing to the life of India’s commercial capital for decades.

By the way, the tour company’s policies prohibit clients from taking photos while on the tour, so I don’t have any pictures to post here.  However, you can see some interesting photos from a 2007 National Geographic article on Dharavi here (the very first photo shows my route to and from work). 

Meeting customer demand

April 18, 2008

Dorah’s Senye Clinic in Kibera has a new addition today: A small refrigerator that allows her to add immunizations to her list of services.

“I’ve always had to send customers to immunize their children elsewhere,” Dorah describes. “No smart business-person sends customers away.”

With limited resources, Dorah has to work extra hard to meet customer demands. But she continues to find innovative ways to meet her customers needs. And they respond … Dorah is one of the most successful franchisees in the network.

I arrive to Senye today just in time to see Grace bring her 2 month old son to the clinic. Grace could take Trevor down the road for free immunizations, but chooses to pay the small fee at Senye because: 1) Dorah met her demand and 2) Dorah provides unmatched customer service. Despite 12 hour days and a long commute, Dorah treats her customers with dignity, personal attention, and quality care.

Even in a resource-constrained environment, basic business principles remain true: Meeting customer demand and providing quality service means happier and more loyal customers. Grace & Trevor will be back in a month for their next check up.



April 18, 2008

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.

-Naomi Shibab Nye

siblings in kibera

Siblings in Kibera

Arranged Marriages

April 13, 2008

Sophia Magadalena was only five when she was betrothed to the heir to the throne of Sweden and she was brought up to be Queen of Sweden; a marriage arranged by the parliament.

Although viewed as not a modern day practice we still have many countries practicing arranged marriages for example; India, Japan and Pakistan.

I have met many couples who had arranged marriages and my concern was: do people really fall in love then? Does physical attraction play a big role when they first meet? The first perspective was from a man who called it more stable as involving the whole family in the marriage means that the parents consent to the girl and he will always have people to settle any disputes as they arise. After all they are the ones who found her and deemed her fit for the marriage.

The lady’s view is also more about security; especially in cases where the physical attraction will not count. The man will accept the lady even if she is not so good looking, fat, and all in these sort of cases then the lady will marry and lead a normal life as opposed to the love marriages where the lady maybe turned down by the man. The lady is also in charge of paying the dowry so they will cater for the wedding, jewelry, clothing and wedding gifts which may include furniture.

In this community also the chances of meeting with the opposite sex are minimal. If for example a girl is going out shopping she will have a male escort who will be a family member. I asked my friend; so if a guy is attracted how do they get together? the guy will actually pass her his number incognito and they will start chatting on the phone.

I then think both arranged and love marriages have their pros and cons. Love marriages also don’t always end up happily ever after. For me would be kind of strange to just meet this stranger on my wedding day and then commit to a lifetime.

Giving a Hoot

April 11, 2008

Mumbai is a very noisy city.  According to one report quoted in the local press, it’s the third-noisiest city in the world.  I’ve gotten somewhat accustomed to the noise over time, but then I look at the almost-maxed-out volume level on my IPod when I’m in stuck in traffic and realize exactly how loud the street noise is.  Cars honking, trucks rumbling and growling, rickshaws buzzing—all the natural sounds of the city combine for ever-present background noise.  Especially the cars honking. 

So, in what seemed to me a pretty optimistic move, the city declared this past Monday “No Honking Day.”  I was out of town most of the day, but when I returned that evening, I was curious to see what impact the day was having.  As soon as my rickshaw pulled out of the airport, I could hear the familiar sounds of honking horns over all the other noise.  At least they weren’t honking at the airport. 

I’m happy the city made some effort to reduce the noise for a day, but just reducing honking won’t do much.  It won’t stop the road crew from using their jackhammer outside my building at 2am on Saturday night.  Or the construction crews just below my window from turning on their deafening generator every morning at 7am—except those few days when they decide to turn it on at 6am.  Or the firecrackers at midnight.  And what about the thousands of homeless who sleep on sidewalks all over the city?  I’m lucky I have a place where at least I can shut a door against the noise. 

Next time, I think the city should declare “Make Way for Ambulances Day.”  Then cars can honk all they want as long as they get out of the way.  The only problem is that it’s often hard to hear a siren over all the noise.  I think our ambulance sirens aren’t very loud, so I suggested at work that we put more powerful sirens on our vehicles.  That way people can hear the ambulances coming much earlier and have more time to pull over, making everyone safer.  I was told, though, that the police had already cited our ambulances twice for excessive siren noise.  Go figure.

Visiting Oxford

April 8, 2008

The last week of March, I got to do something I probably never would have done, unless I was in the Fellowship–I went to Oxford for the first time in my life.  Strangely enough, it was the first time visiting England (beyond the airport).  The experience was quite nice, but the weather was exactly what they say about England–unpredictable.  On the first day, as Jon, Catherine and I were walking around Oxford (the pre-tour-tour that Jon forced us to go on 🙂 it was a beautiful day as we stepped out of the Bates Motel, (Oops, I mean the Best Western).  Twenty minutes later it was a beautiful day again.  In between, there was extreme wind, rain, sleet, hail, and snow–then sunshine!  Quiet odd, indeed.

Anyhow, being in Oxford gives you one feeling (besides the feeling that you are on a Harry Potter film set).  It is the feeling of wanting to leave all that you are doing and come study philosophy or literature or history at Oxford–it is a very powerful feeling.  Not sure if others feel the same way when they first come to Oxford, but you just get a strong urge to return to school.

Anyhow, the week at Oxford was really enjoyable.  The highlight was reconnecting with the Fellows and hearing about their experiences, challenges, highs, lows–and how plans of life might drastically be changing for some, and remaining the same for others.

Also, the Skoll World Forum ending up being more interesting than I thought it would be.  It was a great time to connect with people from different parts of the world, hear about new ideas, what is working, what is not, etc.  With all the positive take-aways from the forum, I had one reservation:  SWF didnt realy seem like a ‘World’ forum…more like a ‘Western World Forum’ or ‘Developed World Forum’.  Dont get me wrong, there were people there from the developing world but it seemed as they were definitely in a minority, almost seemed like a handful.  Several of the speakers (people well known in the SE cirlces) on the panels were from the developing world, but a poor showing in terms of participants. Adding one step further, judging from the participants list, I could probably count the number of people from the ‘muslim’ world on my hands.  I do not think it is the end of the world if the conference was not as representative as a world conference should be, but my concern is that we need to involve people from ALL over the globe if we want to begin to engage, understand, and then, solve the problems of the world.  Maybe the folks at SWF did try and reach out to the developing world/muslim world and they did not feel like paying the 300 pounds registration fee (or maybe they just couldnt afford it), but we need to start thinking of ways to increase the diversity in such conferences/forums.

Maybe that is just me….but I did hear similar voices amongst some of the participants as well.