Saturday, June 28, 2014

Barli Institute and Aavishkaar show the potential of social innovation

Though I have focused much of my attention on corporate innovation, I am increasingly veering to the view that the most interesting innovation in India is happening in the social sector. Confronted with the humungous challenges of poverty, malnutrition, and poor health and education levels, social innovators in India pursue fascinating paths and set up pioneering institutions.

The Barli Development Institute

I wrote about Janak Palta McGilligan’s solar-powered home in an earlier post. But Janak has done much more than implement alternate energy solutions at her own home. I recently had the wonderful opportunity of visiting the Barli Development Institute for Rural Women set up by Janak and her husband Jimmy McGilligan many moons ago.

Started much before skill development became the fad that it is today, the Barli Institute takes about 100 unlettered tribal women every six months and provides them a combination of literacy, livelihood skills and a strong focus on sustainability. The women come from the tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh. Learning is group-based and “active,” with enthusiastic participation from all. Participants are encouraged to compose songs and dances of their own with the help of facilitators  - they presented some beautiful songs when I visited the Barli Institute on World Environment Day, even though they had been at Barli for just a few weeks. Stitching and embroidery are some of the livelihood skills taught – the gift I got was a beautiful chime / wall hanging made by the trainees themselves.

Focus on Sustainability

Sustainability is a central pillar of the Barli programme. The women are expected to be ambassadors of sustainable practices when they go back to their homes. The chime I got was made of recycled waste material. And the core of the sustainability platform is the use of renewable energy, particularly solar energy.
The Barli Institute has a whole range of solar-powered appliances on display, much like what Janak has at her house. I was particularly impressed by the emphasis on solar cooking. A well-designed solar reflector and some cookware that is suited to solar cooking (e.g. painted black so as to absorb solar radiation) are all that is needed. A solar oven allows for baking, and a solar dryer can help preserve things for later use. With the support of some external donors, Barli helps women take a solar cooking kit back home when they return.

Succession Plan & Impact

Many institutions flounder when the founders are no longer available to guide them. Janak and Jimmy must be complimented for inducting a powerful team to continue their good work. Tahera Jadhav and her husband Yogesh run the Barli Institue today with the same passion and commitment.

The Barli Institute has trained almost 7,000 women already. That’s a unique contribution to the empowerment of women and social development.

Janak’s efforts to propagate the message of sustainability don’t stop with the demonstrator at her home, her work with people in the villages surrounding her home or even the Barli Institute. She recently brought an international band called Solar Punch to several prominent educational institutions in Indore, to spread the word around. The band has songs based on the solar theme!

Vineet Rai & Aavishkaar

Professor Anil Gupta has been a great source of inspiration for innovation in India. The crusade that he started 25 years ago has helped the country realize the wealth of creative ideas that we have and value our own “grassroot” innovators better.

But, as I wrote in one of my earlier posts, while the Honeybee network and the National Innovation Foundation have done  a sterling job in identifying and recognizing outstanding innovations, diffusion or commercialization have remained a challenge.

One person who was inspired by this challenge was Vineet Rai. I had a chance to listen to an interesting talk by Vineet a few months ago where he outlined his experience. Vineet started his career “chasing elephants” as he called it, after completing his MBA from the Indian Institute of Forest Management. He soon tired of this, and joined the Gujarat Innovation Augmentation Network (GIAN). Here, he got an opportunity to work closely with grassroot innovators.

The Challenge of Scaling-up

At GIAN, Vineet’s task was to help grassroot innovators commercialize their innovations. In the process, he became the biggest user of the Government of India’s Technopreneur Promotion Programme (TePP), a unique scheme that provided grants to inventors to scale up and commercialise their inventions.

Vineet’s found that this didn’t work. The inventors lacked the skill or interest to be successful entrepreneurs. He then tried the other obvious alternative – technology transfer. But, while he could persuade some inventors to part with their products or technologies for a lumpsum payment of Rs. 1 lakh, he found few entrepreneurs willing to take the risk of working on these technologies.

The gap appeared to be risk capital, and Vineet decided to address this gap by setting up Aavishkaar Fund. Aavishkaar was initially set up with Rs. 1 lakh from the limited savings of Vineet and his wife.

Outcomes and Impact

Vineet has supported more than 50 ventures so far. In all of them, he was the first investor. In 56% of the ventures, he came in even before the venture was set up.

While it was difficult to raise the first million dollars, he has subsequently raised160 million dollars. He has exited from 10 ventures so far. Most of the ventures are into basic stuff like dairy. He has been able to return only a part of the capital that he raised and in that sense has a long way to go. Some media reports have pointed to a tension between the interests of the investors and those of the ventures Aavishkaar supports. These are issues Vineet will have to resolve as he goes along.

I was impressed by Vineet’s determination to find the secret to releasing the energy of Indian local innovation and entrepreneurship. While there can be legitimate doubts about the sustainability of working with entrepreneurs or firms from such a “micro-level,” I have little doubt that his efforts will help us find alternate models that suit the Indian context.


The Barli Institute and Aavishkaar are working in different domains but they are both making significant contributions to the creation of sustainable livelihoods. May their tribe increase!

1 comment:

  1. warm regards krishnan sir for beautifully compiling the works of Barli institute and providing us with the learning of Aavishkaar.
    Rehana Rangwala