In recent years, it has been heartening to see a good number of well-qualified and “successful” men and women from “middle class India” take on the challenge of national development. The social enterprise bug has bitten these professionals and they have taken on, in their own way, some of the country’s biggest challenges.
Innovation, scale and sustainability are their keywords. Their arenas of work encompass education, health, renewable energy and livelihoods.
This phenomenon is not entirely new, of course. One of the most well-known such social enterprises, Aravind Eyecare, was founded about 30 years ago. But the achievements of Aravind founder Dr. G. Venkataswamy, and, more recently, people like Dr. Devi Shetty of Narayana Hrudayala, Harish Hande of Selco and Madan Padaki of Head Held High have triggered a widespread interest in taking on these tough challenges.
In the last month, I had occasion to meet two passionate individuals who have taken the plunge into making a difference through social enterprise. Both their experiences were insightful, so I thought I could share these here.
I haven’t figured out why, but Pune seems to be a hub of interesting work on energy. I wrote earlier about the Pune Power Model, an industry initiative to avoid load-shedding that emanated from this city. Prayaas, one of India’s leading think tanks focused on energy is also based there. Gram Oorja (“Rural Energy”) is the latest in this series of distinguished energy initiatives from this city.
As I write this post, there is much excitement in the media about the launch of iPhone6. But, the world of exciting new electronic gadgets is far removed from the energy challenges of India. About a quarter of India lacks access to electricity. The actual number may be much more – I remember my friend Vidyanand Jha telling me that many villages in Bihar were electrified years ago, but there is no supply through the grid today as they have been disconnected due to prolonged failure of their residents to clear their dues.
While the State is unable to find sustainable ways of supplying power to rural consumers, decentralized solutions have emerged. Some of these are straightforward entrepreneurial initiatives – someone sets up a genset and supplies power to homes nearby. Others have an ingredient of alternate energy solutions – Husk Power Systems has a model of small power systems that run on biomass and has franchised these in some parts of Bihar.
Gram Oorja has demonstrated that a solar-based, decentralized model can also work, but under certain conditions. Their current focus is on rural communities who do not have access to grid power because they live in remote places that are not connected to the grid because laying transmission lines would be too expensive. For these villages, a solution like solar energy is ideal because once it is set up, it requires little maintenance.
Anshuman Lath, an IIM Bangalore alumnus, is one of the founders of Gram Oorja. During a recent talk at IIM Indore, he shared with us the interesting social model under which one such solar system works in Darewadi.
The system is managed by the villagers themselves. Village youth have been trained to take care of essential functions. The village council has to take tough decisions like disconnecting those who fail to pay. So far, the council has shown its willingness to stand up to even influential local users. Finally, basic economics forced one such local user to pay his dues and return to the local grid – he had a marriage in his family and accessing the local power microgrid for the function was much cheaper than hiring a generator for the event from 30-40 km away!
Apparently, before the advent of this solar system, villagers used to send their mobile phones with anyone who was visiting the nearest town (a whole day’s journey, including a long walk from the village to the nearest bus stop) to get them charged. A shop in town provided this service for Rs. 5 per mobile (I hope I got the number right) which if you look at the power involved was 100 times the cost of accessing the same amount of power at home!
Anshuman explained that solar power is still too expensive to recover the capital cost from users. The Gram Oorja project I described above needs to recover only the cost of the local distribution infrastructure and running costs, as the solar panels were donated by Bosch as part of a demonstration project.
Pan IIT Alumni Reach for India (PARFI)
PARFI is an initiative that has grown out of the Pan IIT Alumni Association. I have never attended a Pan IIT meet, but Pan IIT conferences have attracted excellent speakers at the different venues where they have been held.
Somehow, Pan IIT itself always came across to me as an elitist, self-congratulatory movement, an effort by IITians to show their clout. Not surprisingly, the association itself has been at the centre of some controversy with accusations that one group of alumni has tried to corner the leadership ignoring democratic processes.
So, I was pleasantly surprised when I recently had occasion to hear about PARFI. The origin of this organization is a plea from ex-president Abdul Kalam to Pan IIT to do something concrete for the country.
PARFI is focused on creating livelihoods. Its model is simple (always a good sign, indicates it’s likely to be scalable!). They set up rural gurukuls across India to train youth for industrial jobs (drivers, welding, construction, etc.). Each gurukul has an anchor industrial client who promises to place the students in its enterprise, so placement is not a problem. The same enterprise also provides instructors for the gurukul.
The students are drop-outs from poor families, sourced through NGO partners. They are trained in a residential gurukul mode under the eye of retired servicemen. This is essential to inculcate discipline and soft skills in the trainees. PARFI’s programme underlines the fact that skilling and livelihoods is much more than just training and certification. It’s also about socialization into regular work habits and attitude. Interestingly, PARFI has found that the work ethic varies quite a bit across regions, with young men from tribal origin in Jharkhand being some of the most diligent.
The training is short, and typically lasts about 30-45 days. Students get loans through a microfinance mechanism and the loans are recovered through EMis after the student starts working.
Avinash Jupudi, an IITB and IIMC alum who manages clients and partners for PARFI, visited us at IIM Indore some time ago. It was great to hear about PARFI from him.
I was really enthused to meet both Anshuman and Avinash. They are both smart, committed, and above all, very grounded. The future of social entrepreneurship will be bright if we can have more such youngsters entering the fray.