Author Archive

When someone needs immediate medical help, what do you do?

August 1, 2009

This is the first question I have been asking women living in urban slums in Mumbai as part of a research effort to better understand what they, their family, and community do when a medical emergency occurs. Rubina, my friend and translator will often give the women examples to help them better understand our question. Such as, “what would you do if your father-in-law collapsed with chest pains?” If your child was sick with a high fever?” or If your neighbor cut herself badly with a kitchen knife?”

40% of them respond that they rush to visit the clinic doctor. Clinics, staffed with doctors and nurses are common in most slum communities in Mumbai, however the doctor is rarely available 24 hours a day.

30% of them responded that they would head to the nearest Government Hospital, which they could easily name.

Out of 200 interviews, only 4% of them responded that they would call an ambulance.

Why don’t they call an Ambulance? This is the question ‘Dial 1298 for Ambulance’ is trying to understand. With 30% of Mumbai’s population living below the poverty line (approximately 4M people), this is a segment of the city that cannot be ignored. We are learning some important consumer insights from talking to these women directly.

(FYI – only women were surveyed since most men work during the day and were not available).

Enable the change you want to see in the world.

June 24, 2009

“All we did was look them in the eyes and say – we believe in your idea and in you. “ This from Vipin, who runs Ashoka’s Youth Venture (VY) program in India.

I attended YV’s celebratory event on Sunday where 35 young Indians, from all walks of life, between the ages of 15-24 were showcased for bringing their ideas on how to create social change to reality. Although the ventures started addressed different needs in society (girls’ education, village water access, slum sanitation, and more), what they all had in common was the young founders’ personal connection to their respective social causes. This is clearly the power behind the program – to enable the belief that even at a young age (or especially at a young age) you can tackle an issue in your community and have a positive impact.

I was reminded of the first question the Fellows were asked when we came together at the start of the program in September, Whose shoulders do you stand on? All our responses were unique, but it was clear that someone had touched each one of us early in our lives to help establish a foundation from which we could grow and develop a strong belief in ourselves.

Whether the social ventures succeed or fail is secondary – what matters most is that each person involved in the program felt empowered to create change. No doubt, the experience will continue to fuel their personal & professional growth. Of all the events I have been to this year as an Acumen Fellow – I feel no one deserved the stage more than these young people.

YV Event and other 022

Where the need for an Ambulance is greatest.

June 5, 2009

On June 3rd 2009, Ziquitza Healthcare (aka Dial 1298 for Ambulance) launched operations in Patna, in the Indian state of Bihar. This is a pilot project funded by the Government and operated by Ziquitza. Calling this an important health initiative would be an understatement, Bihar is one of the poorest states in India in terms of the HDI -poverty on a different scale than what I have experienced in Indian cities like Bombay.

Bihar has the 3rd largest population in India, however 85% live in the rural countryside, making safe transportation to a hospital extremely difficult. In Mumbai, those living below the poverty line have the option to take local, inexpensive transportation to the hospital, but in Patna there are few options outside of a cycle rickshaw, and as our CEO pointed out, imagine trying to transport a heart attack patient to a hospital in this manner. Launching a quality ambulance service that is universally affordable (admitted through Government subsidization) will greatly improve access to timely healthcare in this city, and eventually across the state.

To me this is the gold standard for a social enterprise. Convincing the Government of the need to take up funding for an essential initiative. The process is slow, but as is experienced throughout our head office today, the satisfaction of ensuring the expansion and longevity of a service we all believed in from the start is incredibly rewarding.

It feels like an important shift has started.


If developing Social Enterprises is so tough then why are so many engaged?

May 8, 2009

I had many thoughts while attending the Sankalp Social Enterprise & Investment Forum last week, some are shared below. However, one particular comment made during a panel session remained in my mind, “By definition creating a Social Enterprise will be more challenging – it is where Government or NGOs have failed to have lasting impact, and the traditional private sector sees no viable business opportunity.” So the question becomes: if the task is so challenging, why are so many engaged? Because if attendance at Sankalp is any indication, many are indeed passionately engaged.

Although not the first conference focused on Social Enterprise and Investment, Sankalp 2009 was a first for me. Surprisingly, I found myself most excited not by any particular panel session or keynote address, but by the enthusiasm and genuine interest in the ‘space’. A year ago when I completed my MBA, I felt I was one of the only students talking about the power of market-based solutions to address social change. I also worried about career prospects for an MBA who wanted to work in this field. Attending Sankalp, despite a rough global economic climate, I felt the possibilities were widespread.

As part of the conference awards were presented to notable social enterprises. Many of the categories are ones you would expect to see: Education for All, Healthcare Inclusion, Agriculture and Rural Innovation, Environment and Clean Energy. However, it was within the catch-all category of ‘Highly Scalable Social Models’ that I found myself most engaged. The majority of social entrepreneurs here were working on income generation for the BOP or ‘lifestyle improvement’. The models were simple – for example, developing an online platform accessible by mobile to connect job seekers in the informal sector to employers. For maids, drivers, security guards, nannies, etc. this tool enables seeing which jobs are closest to home (min. travel cost), and most importantly which employers are paying the best salaries. The CEO of Babajob, Sean, used the example of two nannies working down the street from each other…one could be making $20USD/month, while the other earns $160. An online platform forces much needed transparency into the system. What I like best about income generation models is that they seem to answer an inherent “want” that exists for those living below the poverty line, vs. assuming what they “need”. Monitor Inclusive Markets talks about the importance of distinguishing between ‘wants’ vs. ‘needs’ at the BOP in their recently released report, Emerging Markets, Emerging Models. Knowing how difficult it is to change behaviours and attitudes, it makes intuitive sense to work on developing social business models that build on what the lower income communities want. I believe this is necessary to ensure scalable impact.

I have not yet found my answer to why so many are engaged in the Social Enterprise space despite the challenges. For myself it is because I see opportunity to create powerful and lasting social change.

Is the term ‘Social Entrepreneur’ overused?

March 18, 2009

Last Sunday I sat in on a ‘meeting of the minds’ between young professionals working to grow a generation of changemakers and social entrepreneurs in India. A great way for an Acumen Fellow to spend a Sunday!

Among those present were Vipin from Ashoka Youth Venture (YV) India – YV’s mission is a compelling one – believing that everyone should feel empowered to address societal change, and in particular that the youth are the tipping factor and need to learn early in life that they can impact social change. Also present was Pooja, who co-leads UnLtd India, an organization that supports Indians with a social change idea in years 1-3 of the project’s start and Aditi who leads the EdelGive Foundation , a venture philanthropy fund seeded by Edelweiss Capital, working to create education & employment opportunities for underprivileged youth.

I have to admit I did not sit through the whole day, but I did listen in on a conversation that got me thinking…started with Pooja suggesting that maybe we (…passionate souls working in this space) overuse the term ‘social entrepreneur’, and by applying it too broadly ultimately dilute its meaning. So who is a ‘social entrepreneur’? Muhamed Yunus clearly, but the term also applies to many of Acumen investee CEOs & Founders. Indeed one of the Founders of 1298 seems to have a continuous flow of new societal change ideas that he implements. Maybe that is the key word, “implementation” – many smart people have great ideas and the will to drive them forward, but are not able to implement them. (I guess that is where the organizations mentioned above and the Acumen Fund come in…first you inspire a ‘budding changemaker’ through YV, who goes on to get funding from UnLtd India and then gets larger investment from Acumen to scale.)  Am interested in fellow Fellows and the community’s thoughts on whether the term ‘social entrepreneur’ is applied to loosely.

A Dying Industry – India’s Traditional Silk Weaving Craft

February 23, 2009

The center of India’s silk weaving  industry is in Varanasi. Recently I had the chance to visit one of the local shops myself, and to see the traditional loom weavers working on the premises. We were taken through the small factory floor by Mr. Mehta, whose family owns and operates the shop upstairs and likely has for generations. He spoke proudly of the quality of silks and that he ships around the world… and while I half listened I videoed the tiny, frail older men working on the looms and as is often the case in India wished I could communicate with them easily to learn their personal narrative. Noticing my interest, Mr. Mehta boomed, “They get breaks whenever they want, one sari takes 10 days to make….” and went on to say that they are highly specialized workers, the only ones left who know the craft. I couldn’t help wondering that if they are so highly valued why are they working on a dirt floor in a smelly back room, with poor lighting (as an aside, all wore spectacles). Knowing how much Mr. Mehta was charging for his wares, I wonder how much money these men and their dependents ever see.

A recent article in the Economist called ‘Looming Extinction’ highlights the decline of the traditional silk weaving industry in Varanasi, sighting Western-style dress influence as one of the causes in falling demand, and the fact that women often now prefer the cheaper, brighter machine-made sari. Although Mr. Mehta did not speak about waning demand, his shop was empty except for us.

So what will happen to these men, who in my home country of Canada would be retired long before now? The article talks about their inability to purchase a power loom and adapt to the changing times, so they are often taken advantage of by exploitative middlemen (Mr. Mehta perhaps?). He was an impressive businessman, I’m certain if his margins are squeezed he will not absorb the pain alone.

Mahatma Gandhi fought against the ‘craze of machinery’ in his lifetime. I don’t think he objected to machines as such, but to the thousands of men that labour-saving machines put out of work and onto the street. No government re-training schemes, not then, and not now it would seem. Although these men and their sons are not ‘out of work’ they are part of an industry that is in decline and their skills are not transferable. There is no easy answer here, except I think Gandhi was right when he said the supreme consideration is man.

Above & Beyond

January 18, 2009

Stories from the 1298 ambulance crew members during the Mumbai Terrorist Attacks.

Formalization within an Informal System

December 22, 2008

Temporary housing has been set up across the road from my office for construction workers and their families who have come in from rural Maharashtra. I am not talking about temporary apartments with electricity & water access, these are shacks with metal slates used as siding. Water is delivered in the morning for the community and if I come to the office before 8:30am I walk right by them having their morning showers! So I asked a colleague what will happen when their work is done? He responded that although the construction workers and their families would move to the next job, the whole area would soon be re-inhabited by homeless families looking to establish slum housing. First these families will sleep outdoors he said, next they will set up basic, inexpensive siding using burlap sacks, and only once it is clear they will not be kicked out will they invest in more expensive building materials like metal and wood. Eventually the slum lord will come and start to collect “rent” from them to occupy the space and keep municipal and police officials from “noticing” them. After 1-2 years once a community of people becomes established those who can afford to will start re-enforcing their homes with bricks. Like Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Mumbai, this community will operate almost entirely outside of the formal economy.

My next question – why doesn’t the Indian government pay to build low-cost housing and transfer these communities? Well it turns out the government has tried and one of the problems is that families awarded the housing sell it on the market for income and then set-up a slum dwelling elsewhere. According to my colleague the main issue with new housing is that they are not used to formalized systems for rent, electricity, building maintenance, taxes….and revert back to slum lifestyle.

Now please keep in mind this is just one person’s version, and I am sure there are nuances that I have missed, but I do find it fascinating that there can be such complex formalization within a system that operates almost entirely within the informal economy. Below is a picture I snapped yesterday on my walk to the office.

Joanna Harries Personal Blog


1298 Dial for Ambulance – Our First TV Spot

December 3, 2008

I think it was my 4th day in the office when we got a call from a Mumbai TV station offering free airtime if 1298 could produce a 30 second spot….in 3-4 days! My Unilever training told me this would be impossible – brief an agency, see concepts, make changes, produce, test, finalize in 4 days – How? Somehow we managed however, with lots of effort and late nights from our whole marketing team and agency Ogilvy and Mather, who has taken us on as a pro bono client. I am pleased with the simple, clear and I believe effective spot. I have worked on flashier TV spots during my time at Unilever, but I can honestly say I am most proud to associate myself with this one.

Our Strategy

Get: Mumbai citizens in an emergency situation

Who: Do not think to call an ambulance primarily due to issues with 1. Length of time to get to hospital 2. Perceived high cost 3. Lack of trust in ambulance services in general (issues with poor quality & staff not being medically trained, among others)

To: Convince them that dialing 1298 in the best response in an emergency situation

By: Put the target audience in an emergency situation and present them with the problem – “What will you do?” Then provide the solution – Dial 1298, a professional, affordable, easy to use service.

A Cultural Blunder (of a unique sort)

December 3, 2008

Well we were warned as Fellows that cultural blunders would happen, and I’m sure there will be more to come … Mine involved my first late night at the 1298 Dial for Ambulance office In Mumbai. This time of year it gets dark around 6pm and not many lights were on in the office. Now you must understand that since I have been in India very helpful staff, office boys, shop keepers, drivers etc. have been doing most everything for me, so I recall thinking that I am more than capable of turning on a few extra lights for myself. I get up and walk over to the incredibly complex lighting system that exists in India. For those of you who have not been here each light has its own individual switch and they are usually not marked – creating a myriad of options – my office has 24 switches alone on one main wall. This is to conserve energy I’m sure, which is a good thing, but makes it complicated to simply switch on a light. So I turn a whole row on, just like that – ah the power of not feeling helpless! – and immediately all the office computers go dark and the hum of activity stops. Hmmm this is not good, everyone turns to look at the fool who turned on all the lights at once at the expense of the PCs. Worse yet we have our ambulance call center on-site 24/7 – yikes! Lucky for us there was no emergency call during the 2 mins or so that it took to get power back up and running. We have excellent IT support here thank goodness.

I did learn my lesson however, the simple one is that you can have good lighting or functioning PCs – but not necessarily both in India. And the more important one is that while in Mumbai I need to learn to be patient, to take things one step at a time and to understand consequences before forging ahead. Easier said than done, I think.