Author Archive

Rural Transformation

August 11, 2009

Sudheendra Kulkarni, an op-ed contributor to the Indian Express, recently wrote an article on the transformation of a village in Central Maharashtra. The method used by the villagers and their leader, Mr.Pawar to effect this change makes for interesting reading. Here is the link to the article.

http://www.indianexpress.com/news/an-ideal-village-an-inspiring-leader/488234/0

This “Adarsh Gram” (ideal village) maybe one of a kind, but is a clear example of what is possible in India.

The Fellowship Experience – Beyond the Work

June 6, 2009

In the 1999 cult movie, “Being John Malkovich”, the main protagonist essayed by John Cusack, discovers a portal into the mind of John Malkovich, a celebrated actor who plays himself. Once inside the portal, Cusack has access to all of Malkovich’s thoughts and you can imagine the hilarious twists and turns that ensue. One of the most intriguing scenes in the movie is when Malkovich enters the portal himself.

Just like Malkovich, living life as an Acumen fellow, has given me the opportunity to visit a portal………my own!! This is an unexpected benefit, as I accepted the fellowship with an objective to explore the world of social enterprises and also to utilize the skills I have acquired for a greater good.

Prior to the fellowship, I lived life at a frenetic pace. My blackberry was an extension of my mind and body and I juggled the demands of a successful career, marriage and fatherhood. I moved so fast, that I never really took time out of my day or week or month to critically think about my life. I wasn’t unhappy, but felt emptiness. I knew that I had to change something and the fellowship was a great opportunity to experiment.

I now live alone in a small town in India devoid of television, internet access and social interactions. Don’t pity me. This self-imposed isolation has given me the time to think about my life, future and the role that I want to play in society.  I have had the time to think about details such as my prejudices, hypocrisies, bad habits and weaknesses in behavior and thought. The challenge, as adults are as stubborn as mules, is to use the knowledge gained (which is half the battle) from introspection to improve myself.

You might have noticed that words like, “my” and “I” appear often in previous paragraphs. Yes, this is, and has been a selfish journey. And it has come at a cost. My wife and 3 year old daughter have lived without me for 8 months and it has been tougher than expected. Buckets of tears have been shed. Earlier this week, my daughter Kavya, found an expired drivers license of mine and the photo reminded her of her missing daddy. This reminder then triggered an episode of non-stop sobbing that lasted a whole day.

With a few months left to go in India, I eagerly look forward to being reunited with my family and sincerely hope that the investment I have made in myself will yield a positive return on our lives. I also intend to rearrange my professional priorities in such a way that I help build a better, more equitable society with a greater sense of purpose and vigor.

You probably don’t have to spend a year in a foreign country or away from family to enter your own portal. However, if you are naturally confused, hard-headed and slow to understand stuff, much like myself, I highly recommend it!

Social Enterprise or Not?

May 30, 2009

A social investor spoke to us at out mid year meeting in Hyderabad about his investment philosophy. He said that his firm was looking for high growth companies in the social space and that the key metric of social impact would be something that would be measured by the investor. He mentioned that he did not want to burden the company with this metric.

I found this philosophy quite interesting because often the greatest social impact comes from a company that is not really thinking of social impact. Take for example the growth of the mobile phones in rural India. Saturated urban markets forced companies to go rural and rapidly a huge section of the population is now “connected”.

Does it really matter if your investment is a social enterprise offering an affordable and valuable product or service versus an enterprise that offers an affordable and valuable product or service?

Probably not.

However, there are some risks associated with unburdening a company of it’s social mission. On a day-to-day basis, the pressures of meeting revenue targets and achieving profitability (and therefore sustainability) can often force companies to pursue higher margin market opportunities that may eventually dilute the organization’s social mission.

Travels thru’ India – Sweatshops & Workers

May 29, 2009

In the past 7 months, I have had the opportunity to visit several industrial parks in the two most industrialized and entrepreneurial states in India, namely Gujarat and Maharashtra. I would like to share some of my observations with you.

Most of the industrial parks house small manufacturing units that employ anywhere from 15 to a 100 people. All sorts of plastic and mechanical components are manufactured here which eventually are sold in domestic and international markets.

There are three types of employees, adult men, adult women and teenagers. The men tend to do the work that requires more brawn, like lifting heavy parts or working near furnaces and the women and young teenagers are mostly involved in finishing operations like cleaning and packaging.

The machines used to manufacture these components are often semi-automatic, much like an automobile line. Workers are needed to load and unload product at frequent intervals. The employees are semi-skilled and for their efforts they receive approximately Rs.100 to Rs. 150 a day for men and Rs. 80 to Rs.100 for women. That’s approximately $2 to $3 per day. There are 2 shifts, each lasting 12 hours with two ten minute breaks for tea and 30 minutes for lunch. There are four off-days a month.  Some of the workers are migrants from the more impoverished states of India and often sleep in the same factories where they work.

Most of the units are covered with a layer of black grime, a combination of dust, oil and some unknown substance. Chemicals are strewn all over the place and the air in these factories feels heavy with fumes from machines.

This is not a scene from a Dickens novel, but is in fact the real status of a majority of small scale manufacturing sector in India.

I asked some of the workers how they manage to work for such long hours in these conditions. Their response is often a shy smile, a nod of the head with their fingers pointing towards their stomach. Yes, we all have to eat, an unfortunate necessity for existence.  Many of the migrant workers are happy to have a job where they can earn enough to support their families that are left in their home states.  They save assiduously and send home anywhere from Rs. 1000 ($20) to Rs. 1500 ($30) per month, critical funds that are needed to provide food and other essentials for their families.

The factory owners claim that they need to control costs in order to compete with cheap imports from China and that they cannot afford to clean up their factories or offer higher wages.

Sure, the workers could organize and demand better wages and conditions, but most of them are temporary workers and often do not have the wherewithal to launch a coordinated effort. Labor laws and workplace safety laws exist, but enforcement is a huge challenge mainly due to corruption and a shortage of labor inspectors in a country that has millions of such units.

Intellectuals are of the view that this is a part of industrial development and that every country goes through the sweatshop stage. They argue that businesses need to grow and gain profits that will enable them to pay more and maintain cleaner factories. Furthermore, a job today is much more valuable than none. I have been told that I must not apply my “first world” concepts at this point in time of India’s development.

What should we (i.e the development community) do about all this? Should we stick to our mandate of selling valuable products and services to the BoP and just ignore this? Can we try to influence governments? Can we insist that the products our social enterprises produce have to be manufactured in clean factories where labor laws are followed?

What are your thoughts?

The Hype Curve

May 28, 2009

hypecycle-thumb

The research firm Gartner developed the curve above, nicknamed the hype curve, to describe the lifecycle of technology product adoptions. The words at different points on the curve can be used to describe the feelings of  users as they get acquainted with the product/service.

Curiously enough, most of the stuff I do and the way I feel about them fits this basic curve (just ignore the tech words). For e.g my current thoughts on the social enterprise sector or my current job lie at some point on the curve.

Most importantly, it is a reminder that thoughts and feelings are transient by nature and that eventually equilibrium is reached, where expectations and reality are in sync.

Useful , Free and Cool Applications from Google

April 15, 2009

The company where I presently work as an Acumen Fund Fellow, Global Easy Water Products (GEWP) is a start-up with 25 odd employees distributed in four different cities of India. Our company is a product based company in the irrigation space and there is a daily, massive churn of material at our 4 locations. Information about this churn is chronicled in Excel and the corresponding spreadsheet is emailed everyday. Keeping track of all this information is a huge challenge.

Recently, we switched our modus operandi and started using shared spreadsheets on Google Docs. This has made a huge difference to our operational efficiency. There are no more swarms of daily emails, just a link that employees can bookmark and access whenever they need to.

Another cool, free feature is the Indic transliteration application. This is how it works : You type a Hindi word in English , for e.g, chai , hit the space bar, and watch as the text is converted to the Indian script, चाय.

We recently drafted a document in English and then realized that we should switch to Marathi for clarity and effectiveness. One of our employees, typed up the survey in English and then had it transliterated to Marathi in less than an hour. We saved money and more importantly time and now have the option of transliterating to four other languages.

Finally, files in Google Docs can be converted to the PDF format for free. Save $$ on Acrobat License fees.

Start-ups often need cost effective, productive and easy-to-use solutions that can be implemented immediately to bring some order to their operations. Some of these web-based applications, might just do the trick until the time to invest in more sophisticated solutions arrives!

Have you seen any other cool applications?

Popsicles and Drip Irrigation

February 27, 2009

The 3 months that I have spent so far in the world of low cost drip irrigation has been educational. In this video, I share with you a little bit of the history, manufacturing and impact of affordable drip irrigation.

New Face of Farming?

December 16, 2008

During my first week in Aurangabad, I went to the agricultural fields and met a few customers of GEWP. One of them in particular, stood out. This short video captures my thoughts and impressions on that meeting.

On Corruption Part-I

December 15, 2008

One fall evening in New York City, a small group of Acumen 2009 fellows got together at a small restaurant called the Istanbul Grill. The conversation quickly turned controversial (ice cold beers loosened our tongues) as the group discussed the multi-layered issue of corruption. Here is a brief recap for you.

Our class is composed of people from different parts of the world and we started off by contrasting the prevalence of corruption from the point of view of a common man. In India and Pakistan, corruption exists in all strata of society and is in your face. However in the US, one often hears about corruption only in high office or at very senior levels in corporations. An average American can live his life without actually ever offering someone a bribe.

Some of the fellows opined that bribery in India was a kind of efficiency tax and that most enterprises had factored this into their cost of operations. Others stated that bribes, regardless of scale, were immoral and should not be tolerated.

Things got interesting when we discussed gray areas. Let’s say, your company in India, frequently imports and exports raw materials and finished goods. To navigate the maze of export/import regulations and to save time, most companies hire clearing and forwarding agents. These agents charge a fee for handling paperwork, customs etc in order to get your product through the docks. The transaction is straightforward and your company gets a receipt. Your company’s accountant is happy because there is a receipt/invoice and this expense will pass an external auditor’s review. Everything is okay and life goes on, except for one little detail that gnaws at your conscience. You know that containers don’t slide through shipping docks without a little lubrication. Did you just outsource the dirty act of bribery to an agent? Hmmmm. Technically, you didn’t. You paid a fee and received a service. The agent can do anything he wants with the money. It’s not your problem. You saved time and were productive in some other part of your business.

You can argue that these things happen only in the developing world where there are millions of agents that help you deal with bureaucratic governments. Well, from a moral standpoint, how is this different from a salesperson that wines and dines clients on an expense account, just to win a contract? Yes, there are policies to limit the expenses, but why support such a corrupt policy in the first place? Why do companies on the FORTUNE 100 list pay loads of money to lobbyists (aka agents) who then take politicians on junkets and golfing weekends?

I believe that most people are part of a silent majority that participates in these institutionalized forms of corruption. Since the corrupt act is outsourced and once removed from us, we convince ourselves that our behavior is moral. However, morality, often quantified and viewed as an absolute, seems to be a trait that should be measured on a sliding scale.

A fascinating article by Marianne Betrand and Sendhil Mullainadhan reignited my memory of our discussion and forced me to write my first blog entry!