*Ravi Kumar Pillai
Women and children in many remote villages in heartland India start their day by walking long distances to fetch a couple of buckets of water for daily use. Small farmers burdened with debt struggle to feed their families pedal or walk kilometers to plead moneylenders for extended time to clear loans. Hapless patients who need blood transfusion or dialysis worry how to access and pay for the services. These situations have become so familiar to us for years that the social sensitivity of most people has become blunted. In the survival game that most middle-class citizens are engaged, there is hardlyscope for extending helping hands to mitigate the deprivations confronting more unfortunate fellow beings. Such social issues often end up as just topics for armchair discussions, laced with frustration and helplessness.
But a growing number of young men and women across the country have started looking at such social inequities as opportunities to act and make a difference. They increasingly explore leveraging the rapid strides and extensive possibilities thrown up by digital technologies to empower and facilitate ordinary people to access basic health and hygiene, financial inclusion, decent livelihood, dignity and self-esteem. Typically, these change agents are below thirty, digitally savvy, empathy-driven and willing to plunge into the muddy pool where the majority of the well-off sections choose to stay away. They are joining the growing tribe of social entrepreneurs, who seek to combine passion for social service with a desire to be their own masters. They recognize that the problems around are critical, urgency is indeed great and the solutions call for hard work and determination. They understand the power of digital technologies to enhance the reach of their proposed solutions.
The structure of their initiatives varies across a wide range – from individual actors to cooperative societies, NGOs registered as Trusts or Charitable Societies or incorporated as limited liability companies. They access a wide range of funding from global philanthropic foundations, domestic trusts, corporate Social Responsibility funds, government schemes, microfinancing avenues and crowd-funding using innumerable digital platforms.
The key elements contributing to the successful rollout of a social enterprise are ideation, business model development, designing a robust and sustainable operating model, effective go-to-market strategies as well as the technical, professional, managerial and social competence of the team.
The scenario of social entrepreneurship in India is replete with innumerable success stories built upon the foundations of intense passion and social commitment. A couple of inspirational examples are worth recounting.
New Delhi born Ria Sharma graduated from Leeds College of Art, UK. She founded in 2014 a unique NGO, ‘Make Love Not Scars’, the world’s first rehabilitation centre for acid attack survivors, almost exclusively women in India. The trigger was her exposure to recurring instances of acid attacks in India, while on an academic project trip to India as part of her global Master’s Program. She was moved by the heart-breaking instances that put out the light from the eyes and lives of innocent young girls. The initiative was crowd-funded with large number of volunteers and funders coming together over a social media platform. Her organization specializes in providing medical, legal, educational, vocational and psychological rehabilitation services for survivors of acid attacks. In 2017, Sharma won a United Nation’s Goalkeepers Global Goals Award.
Any discussion on innovative business ideas and operating models for social enterprise cannot miss highlighting the success story of Akanksha Hazari. Akanksha, an alumnus of Princeton University set up m-Paani in 2014. The business model is a mass-market loyalty program to leverage the purchasing power of low-income households to boost retail spending and improve social infrastructure. She successfully persuaded mobile operators to part with 5% of the low value recharges. When all the three leading operators pitched in, the pooled funds sufficed to upgrade drinking water availability in hundreds of remote villages. A project applauded for the ingenuity and participative development of amenities for the deprived.
There are many such social enterprises set up by self-motivated young adults passionate to leverage digital technologies that put hope and dreams of a better tomorrow in the minds of the less privileged. But going by the scale and complexity of the massive infrastructural, social and financial gaps, the un-addressed agenda is indeed huge. Mountains of challenges and goldmines of opportunities, any which way you look at them.
Look around and you can find unrealized economic value in almost everything you see. If this huge potential can be tapped through innovative operating models, the massive unemployment, poor quality of life and low purchasing power at the bottom of the pyramid can be addressed to a great extent.
We have experimented meeting these challenges though Government led programs for over seven decades Due to unbridled population growth, political corruption, bureaucratic apathy, leakages of public funds and poor governance standards, the issues have been aggravating. Time has come for the Government to move to a facilitation and empowerment role and bring private initiatives, entrepreneurship and the power of digital technology centerstage to give strategic push to social enterprises model.
Ubiquitous mobile internet access provides an unprecedented opportunity to reach and serve the last mile customer across the country. Corporate Social Responsibility funding, micro-financing, organized philanthropy and crowdfunding have opened up possibilities of multi-channel sourcing of capital for social causes.
Just take two of the problem areas of urban infrastructure and livability, namely heaps of garbage across crowded habitats and the chaotic vehicle parking scenario in most Indian cities. By creating sound business and operating models, both issues can be solved with a win-win outcome for all stakeholders. Outsourcing of civic waste management, for example, can create a billion-dollar industry in recycling and biofuels. Similarly, vehicle parking outsourcing can result in overall improvement to the traffic discipline and public order. Look at the spin-off in terms of cleaner streets, orderly parking, employment generation and economic value addition to the less privileged sections of the society that can result from the above initiatives.
Yet another area where tremendous opportunity exists for social entrepreneurship is to provide marketplace for unorganized sector. For example, India’s share in the $400 billion (about Rs 24.7 lakh crore) global handicrafts market is just 2%, according to a report by Dasra, which helps philanthropists identify worthy causes to fund. Organized social entrepreneurship can bridge accessibility gap of rural craftsmen to the global market and bring in prosperity and smiles to thousands of families. The model has been successfully pioneered in India much before the advent of digital technologies by FabIndia, set up originally as an NGO to support rural artisans in India.
The power of digital technologies and platforms to provide market access to marginalized sections of traditional craftsmen and artists is tremendous. Same is the case in providing market access and warehousing support to the farmers in rural India.
While there are innumerable social issues that cry for solution, Governments in developing countries have to balance their expenses among a complex array of priorities for spending. In the case of many Indian States, loose fiscal management and pursuit of populist policies leave budgetary health precarious. Voluntary service and organized NGOs have to shoulder a key role in supplementing Government spending.
For bringing in sustainability and to generate operating surpluses, business orientation to social infrastructure funding and operations are critical. That is where social enterprises are relevant. Social enterprise model brings in outcome focus, financial health and sustainability to social infrastructure building. Social enterprises can successfully bridge the operational viability gaps of public amenities. A look at the way completed infrastructure projects are managed in government sector would throw light on the importance of outsourcing the operations of such facilities. A sound social enterprise can more effectively manage such facilities than within the framework of bureaucratic controls. The theme of unlocking the fuller economic value through social enterprise model applies to operating the infrastructure as much as to building them through social capital pooling.
With the help of digital technologies, social enterprises are bound to play an increasingly strategic role in the putting of Indian society to more equitable, enabling and sustainable growth path - a path where citizens craft and implement programs and initiatives through digitally enabled collective process of thought and action. Government should take the role of a genuine facilitator by creating the enabling ecosystem and enhance awareness and support of social enterprises through curriculum, seed funding, benchmarking and appreciation.
*Ravi Kumar Pillai is CEO and Principal Consultant, Cherrypick India Consulting and Business Solutions Private Limited, Trivandrum and can be contacted at cherrypickindia@ gmail.com.