Posts Tagged ‘Acumen Fund’

Innovations from the Field: Natural Insurance Policy

May 13, 2009

The next series of blog posts will cover innovations from the field. Recently, I conducted some in-depth farmer interviews around Hyderbad and learned about some pretty interesting innovations that are happening on the ground. Keep in mind that these are not college-educated individuals; most have not even finished high school. What I saw was human ingenuity in its purest sense. At the end of the day, I found myself leaving inspired by their innovativeness and creativity.

Agriculture is extremely risky. There are so many things that can go wrong: bad seed, no water, pest attack, fake fertilizer, bad weather, no transportation to market, etc. Price fluctuations are also quite common. This means that a farmer may spend Rs. 25,000 (USD $315) or more on inputs (seed, fertilizer, pesticide, etc.) and land preparation (tractor rental, laborer wages, etc.) just to find out at the end of the season that the price of his crop is so low that he will make a loss. He borrowed money at the beginning of the season from an arti (money lender) at a rate of 120% annual interest and now is even farther in debt.

In Pakistan, most farmers grow two crops: cotton (summer) and wheat (winter). We always wondered why both crops were so prevalent and finally realized upon completing our interviews. Firstly, most farmers grow cotton and wheat because the prices are stable. It takes a lot of the guess work (and risk) from other types of crops that have more volatile prices. Secondly, farmers grow cotton and wheat because they don’t spoil. If you grow vegetables, then you must transport them to the market quickly before they rot. Cotton and wheat, on the other hand, can be stored for a long time and won’t go bad. Probably the most interesting reason for the traditional cotton-wheat rotation is that wheat is a natural life insurance policy. Farmers grow wheat and keep 50-100 munds (1 mund = 40kg) back to ensure that their families have food to eat during the coming year. Usually an average family needs around 50 munds per year, but they keep extra for festivals, weddings, and unforeseen circumstances. No matter what happens in

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.

A Day in My Life: Farmer Interviews

April 20, 2009

It is critical that any social enterprise have a deep understanding of the customer it is trying to serve. At Micro Drip, we conduct in-depth farmer interviews using various techniques in order to understand the particular farmer’s circumstances along with how he makes decisions. Many thanks to IDEO for their Human Centered Design Toolkit which served as a guide for our work.

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.

A Team in 3 Days

January 19, 2009

Last week, I helped conduct a start-of-year workshop to help Micro Drip clarify its Vision, Mission, & Values. This video has some footage from the experience. 

Delivering traditional medicine in modern ways

January 19, 2009

The entrepreneurs at AyurVAID: Hospitals are testing a business model that promises to overcome the scale up challenge of delivering medical care to the masses based on Ayurveda, a system of traditional medicine. According to RV Raman, Head of Marketing at AyurVAID: Hospitals, there are about 18,962 Ayurveda companies registered in India today. Most of these companies focus on offering ayurvedic products (from medicines to toothpaste!) and spa related services, however no one has been able to come up with a successful, scalable model to deliver health services. (Ironic considering that Ayurveda is a system of medicine that has been around for more than 3,000 years!) In this video Rajiv Vasudevan, CEO of AyurVAID: Hospitals, explains some of the challenges inherent to the Ayurveda “industry” and some of the strategies the team has developed to overcome these obstacles.

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.

The REAL Pakistan

November 22, 2008

Bombs, Taliban, Terrorism, Extremism, Danger.  This is the Pakistan that the media portrays.  Since my arrival to this country of 162 million a week ago, my picture of this land has transformed into a grand landscape painted by one of the Hudson River masters. 

The sketches of this masterpiece began to take shape when I arrived late on a Saturday evening to the house that will be my home for next 10 months.  The family that welcomed me immediately accepted me as one of their own.  Now, I must confess that as a Southerner, I have been brought up with certain ideals of hospitality, but the level of acceptance that I received that evening makes us Southerners look plain old rude and shallow. 

The first color began to hit the canvas as I traversed the land to visit poor farmers in the desert. Dust and desert shrubs stretched on for many miles in every direction.  The only colors to break free from the abyss of shades of brown were on the bright pastels of the kurta shalwars that the women wore.  As we neared, women would shield their faces with vibrant orange or red or pink fabric.  80% of these people live on less than one dollar a day and are entirely dependent on Mother Nature’s grace to give them rain during the summer.

The dabs of color began to mix together as my colleagues and I sat on the side of the road drinking tea before embarking on the rest of our journey.  Converted WWII-era trucks that the British had brought many years before passed us decorated with intricate detail and hauling several times the amount of cargo that they had originally been designed for.  Their unique horns seemed to posture toward one another in an attempt to dominate the others.  Men sat on rope coaches conversing about the day’s events and enjoying the comforting warmth of a teacup that warded off the coolness of the evening air.  A nut vendor passed roasting small chickpeas and selling peanuts by the bag full.   

This is the REAL Pakistan and I have only gained a glimpse of its complexity and beauty.  Now, I am not denying that there are elements Bombs, Taliban, Terrorism, Extremism, and Danger in this country, but which country can repudiate the existence of these elements within its own borders (minus the Taliban)?  I wonder how might the world’s view of this country be if a more balanced portrayal of its reality were shared.

Joel Montgomery