Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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.

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

Whose vision of serving the poor?

July 20, 2009

Does the vision of serving the low income segment of society extend beyond the investors and CEO of a social enterprise?

In my opinion, only an affirmative answer to this question will ensure that the vision of serving the poor is fulfilled (however long it may take…).  Watch what the team of doctors running AyurSEVA Hospitals has to say about their vision and motivation to work for this organization.

What’s Your Perspective?

June 20, 2009

I believe that a person’s world view is their perspective and it is this which infringes on how they approach people and places. Through this fellowship, I have met such a wide range of persons, not only within the fellowship, but also outside the fellowship via Acumen’s contacts in New York, and now in Delhi.

Often there are conversations about Delhi, debates about loving or hating the city or the age old comparison between Delhi and Mumbai. Where would one want to live? What can be done about Delhi’s pollution, overall dirtiness, beggars, cows in the street, etc? Where does one get a good glass of wine?

I sometimes tell people that Delhi is the best place I have ever lived overseas for amenities and activities. (I also believe it is a dynamic city in its own right.) Often I get a look or comment of disbelief. Yet when I begin to rattle off the other places I have lived (Jalalabad, Afghanistan; Akhaltsikhe, Georgia; Kokand, Uzbekistan; Ziway, Ethiopia, etc.) then they begin to nod their head.

What I find most interesting is the first gut reaction that people have to my statement. Delhi can’t possibly be the “best place”, as in their frame of reference it may be compared to NYC, London, or even their home town. Never the places I mention, which to be fair, most people haven’t heard of any way.

Perspective plays such a large role in how a person approaches living in and relating to people from another country. One hears various assessments of a country based on this perspective, opinions that range from being extremely open and accepting to downright ignorant and immature, in other cases.

This world view also seeps in to the work that we do. Are we still playing the age old game of Us vs. Them, Colonial vs. Native, or West vs. East? Observing another culture, whether in the workplace or outside, is one thing, but commenting in a non-constructive way begs the question…Isn’t it all just subjective? What is being said about this country and people can also be said about one’s own country and in the same tone and manner.

Is it possible to take one’s critical eye and turn it in on oneself and one’s own country or can it only be done when a person moves to another place and then all bets are off? At that point, everything can be reviewed, assessed and critiqued.

For those that have a narrow perspective, I hope that when they return to their countries they use new eyes and new perspectives to view their own homes in such a light and work towards the same improvements that they may wish upon their current hosts.

Perspective can make the world one way or the other, good or bad. For myself I strive to continue to widen mine, as through that I learn new ways of approaching life itself and that, to me, is priceless.

Is Social Enterprise a Rebranding of the Development Sector?

June 9, 2009

Given that I come from traditional development: Peace Corps, INGO, universities etc, it’s a question that I have thought of often and definitely more recently. Most specifically at the “Emerging Markets” Conference hosted by the Monitor Group a couple of weeks ago. There I met Markus, a German, setting up a social enterprise incubator in the Philippines.

He was a former IT business owner who had decided to switch gears to the social sector through a Masters program. He commented how mindsets were so dissimilar between a development school versus a business school, yet both brought value to the table if a middle ground could be found.

We had just listened to a panel on agriculture development that, to be frank, was a bit outdated and didn’t actually cover the innovation that is happening in the field. In discussing this with him, we both stated that so much has already been learned in the traditional development sector on many of these same topics, yet it seems to be disregarded.

Somewhere along the way there is a renaming, a re-categorizing and a realigning as if the sector was dealing with brand new issues. With so many people, with diverse backgrounds and skills entering this sector, trying to solve challenges, it is important to remember what has been determined already in traditional development.

For example, those designing products for Small Holder Farmers, can review the lessons learned by development organizations in marketing & selling treadle pumps. I encourage all new entrants to access internet resources, such as Rural Finance Learning Center, Eldis or CGAP, sites that track development policy, practice and research.

To make this social enterprise sector work the lessons learned from both traditional development and business need to be combined.

Is social enterprise a re-branding of the development sector? What do you think?

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?

Aha! – The poor are so smart!

May 16, 2009

If you happen to meet someone who recently experienced an interaction with the BOP for the first time, invariably one of the insights they would share is that the poor are really smart. I had this Aha moment in early 2006 when my work at Villgro (formerly known as Rural Innovations Network) took me to the villages of eastern Uttar Pradesh, a state in North India. It was the first time in my life that I was interacting with impoverished farmers. I was touring the villages to better understand the market for an Insect Trap, an innovation incubated at Villgro. The poor inhabitants of these villages, not only amazed me with their understanding on the variety of problems they faced but also with the sheer ingenuity of  some of the solutions they had come up with.

My work at Villgro took me to villages around India and I re-lived this aha moment many times over until I had a much bigger Aha!

What in the world made me assume that the poor are dumb?

Obviously, what I had heard from the villagers was, in most of the cases, just common knowledge for them. In retrospect, I had these big aha’s because at some level I was prejudiced with the assumption that poor people did not know what their problems are,  if they did know about their problems, they were not articulate enough and even if they were articulate, they were not smart enough to solve the problem.

Sometimes our prejudices have a stronger influence on us than we think.  It is shocking to find out that many a times our prejudices dictate our thoughts and actions in spite of what we think we strongly believe in. From my own experience, I know that overcoming these prejudices have gone a long way in making me much more effective at the work I do.

In the fight to end poverty, I strongly believe that overcoming our prejudices about  the poor is as important, if not more, as the different poverty alleviation interventions themselves.

When a Fellow Tweets in India,…?

May 14, 2009

Thought.  Sounding board.  Pilot.  Ditch.  New thought.  Tweak.  Ditch.  Revive and alter.  Success.  Oops, not so much.  Big lesson learned.  Next idea.  Sell.  Resistance.  Reframe.  More resistance.  Reposition.  Collaboration.  Pilot.  Improve.  Phase II.  What’s next?  This describes a typical fortnight for me at D.light.  The pace is unbelievable.   Our standard operating procedures are defined by risk, act, learn, repeat.

As my blogging has devolved mostly into short-storytelling, I had an Acumen-style a-ha that I should switch my main medium of reporting back on my fellowship year to Twitter.   When I learned that my mother was discussing my Twitter account with my ex-boyfriend at a family gathering in Potrero Hill San Francisco, I knew I had hit gold.  Concise, digestible, and an easy conversation piece for potentially awkward situations.   Its 140 character limit requires me to invoke the “zip it” rule, one of my favorite heuristics for survival as a Fellow.  Plus, Twitter fits the hectic nature of my day-to-day, testing low-cost ways to crack the nut of creating a new category and a new brand in the rural market in India, all the while struggling to find a reliable cab service and a decent glass of wine.  So, for those that are game to follow my fun and foibles in a new way, please check out HKinIndia

Also, I had a chance to chat with the fantastic 7th grade class the American Embassy School in Delhi, thanks to the kind invitation of teacher Elizabeth Namba (who I met at the kiddie pool at the American Embassy).   This has also become a great new partnership where D.light will help facilitate AES’ efforts  to sponsor a village in going solar.  More on that next time.

Trial by Fire…D.light Fellows Applicants Shine

May 14, 2009

D.light Design launched its global fellows program in February 2009 to better organize its human resources strategy to leverage the talent and energy of interns, volunteers, advisors and short-term staff to propel company growth. D.light is sharply focused on building out its permanent core team; we just made three significant hires into finance, manufacturing, and sales operations roles in the last couple of weeks . CEO Sam Goldman recently said that 50% of his time is spent on recruiting. However, D.light has also been fortunate and intentional in bringing talented “short-timers” – e.g. consultants looking for externships, MBAs on summer breaks, investors looking for a career change, and young professionals looking for start-up experience – into the company for three to ten-month stints. When we posted Fellows positions this February, we got an incredible response across positions and offices (China and India). We had 80 stellar applicants for the Business Development position in our India office alone.

The D.light culture is fast-paced and action oriented, so we structured our assessment process to be as experiential as possible. It was trial by fire. We wanted to assess candidates’ ability to think outside the box, apply creativity and structure to an unstructured business question, produce deliverables quickly, and present a concise and compelling point of view. Business Development candidates were asked in their second round interviews to prepare a presentation that could be used to pitch a new partner on a hypothetical solar loan pilot. Plus, they were asked to author a hypothetical, “guest” blog posting that would run on Sam’s SocialEdge blog 90 days later. Our final Graphic Design candidate was asked to spend two days in our Noida office and come up with a new in-store display unit that would build the D.light brand among peri-urban consumers and provide basic education about solar energy. She had to present to Sam and other senior managers at the end of her 36 hours. She’s now on board and we’re going to print in a week. We asked behavioral questions such as “if you had been working with an executive coach for the last three months, what would be the key issues you’re working on? What’s the toughest retreat you’ve ever had to make or hardest no you’ve ever had to give? Can you describe your ideal manager?”

After all of this, four superstars rose to the top as having the best fit in terms of skill, attitude and style for D.light India. These fellows design, strategize, envision, and execute. They speak French, Hindi, English, Spanish and Gujurati. They are artists and authors. They are social change evangelists and entrepreneurs. They are going to help D.light build a movement around solar energy. Welcome to D.light India—Anay Shah (Business Development – from Development Alternatives, Inc), Sana Rao (Graphic Design – from National Institute of Design), Mariette Fourmeaux du Sartel (Carbon – from Haas School of Business, Mauna Kea Technologies), and Jack Godfrey Wood (Product Design – award winning Industrial Designer, educated at Central St. Martin’s).

Scaling up in “The Many Indias”

April 24, 2009

‘India is merely a geographical expression. It is no more a single country than the equator’- Winston Churchill

Had I read this quote five months ago, I would have not understood what it meant. But after living, traveling and working in India for exactly that long, I can say that Winston Churchill was exactly right. In India, like in any other large country as the US or Mexico, I expected to find some regional differences in people’s tastes for food or music, their accent, dress code, etc. In my mind, these differences give countries their character and do not have major consequences for business other than the opportunity to bring in some variety to the portfolio of products or services. In India, however, regional differences go FAR beyond the ones I just described. For this reason many authors to talk not about one country but “the many Indias”.

For an enterprise trying to do business across the Indian territory, it is critical to be aware of all the nuances of “the many Indias”. Allow me to illustrate what I mean by this using AyurVAID: Hospitals, the organization I am working in, as an example.

AyurVAID: Hospitals is a local business with the mission of providing high quality, affordable Ayurveda (India’s traditional system of medicine) treatment for chronic illnesses across all socio-economic segments and across India (and some day abroad). In line with this vision, AyurVAID: Hospitals opened six small to medium sized hospitals in three neighboring states: two hospitals in Kerala, three in Karnataka and one in Maharastra. The hospitals are located in urban areas and three of them in the big cities of Mumbai and Bangalore.
At first glance AyurVAID: Hospitals’ strategy of expansion seems very straightforward, but in practice things are let’s say a bit more….complicated. Here is how:

Language– At each location, all sign boards and advertising material have to be translated into at least 2 different languages (English + local language) and 4 in the case of Mumbai (high immigrant population). Our doctors need to speak 2 to 3 languages to communicate with patients, English to communicate with the management and international partners, and Malayalam, the language of Kerala, to speak with the staff.

Human resources– The roots of the Ayurveda system of medicine can be traced back to the state of Kerala. Although today Ayurvedic Medical Colleges train doctors across the country, training institutions for therapists are still highly concentrated in Kerala. Hence, hiring locally becomes a difficult task and most of the therapists have to be relocated from Kerala to other states. Then again, most people in Kerala have a strong affinity for their state and prefer not to leave it.
Systems of medicine– Whereas in other parts of the world, Allopathic or “Western Medicine” is the norm, in India, patients have many other well established options to consider like Ayurveda, Homeopathy, Allopathy and Unani. In competing with these different options, public awareness about Ayurveda is a big challenge. If we take allopathic medicine as an example, most people today know what to expect when they go to a doctor, to a hospital or understand if someone says they need a “dialysis”. On the other hand, Ayurveda means a variety of things to different people, particularly as the distance from Kerala increases. To test this last point, I decided to interview people in the streets and hotels of Kerala (to get some out of state opinions) and asked them one simple question….Observe.

All of these factors make the business at AyurVAID: Hospitals challenging and exciting! One success factor as we continue to grow and do business in “the many Indias” will be to strike the right balance between standardization and customization of our services.