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Journeys for Change blog

January 01st 2012 00:01

Heart as Competitive Advantage

Jeff Lawi is currently a Berkeley-Haas MBA student with strategy consulting and health care experience. Prior to attending Haas, he worked for the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) in Lesotho and with IMS Consulting Group in New York City. Jeff holds a B.A. in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania.
Heart as competitive advantage
Traditionally, economies of scale (e.g. Walmart), technological innovation (e.g. Apple), and other strategic advantages are cited as examples of competitive advantage. Heart – characterized by deep, meaningful community relationships – is rarely viewed as a sustainable competitive advantage within a business environment. However, during our New Year’s Day visit to Grassroots, we heard from Inir Pinheiro, founder of the for-profit social enterprise Grassroots, that this is precisely the competitive advantage that drives Grassroots’s success.
Seeing it first-hand
Grassroots is based on the premise that responsible rural eco-tourism can improve the lives of local village communities. We were able to test this premise first-hand. Grassroots operates in three villages; we visited Purushwadi village, located 200 kilometers northeast of Mumbai, which is comprised of approximately 100 Marathi-speaking families. I dined with a local family, removing my dusty shoes before entering their home and sitting cross-legged on a floor made of cow dung. I enjoyed eating, with my hands, a delicious, home-made meal cooked from locally grown ingredients. Most memorably, I learned directly from the family about how their lives have positively changed since Grassroots arrived. They could work within their own community (instead of enduring long commutes to urban areas for employment), spent more time with one another, and earned additional income.
Key to the business model
The business model of Grassroots is relatively easy to replicate and there are low barriers to entry. However, despite increased interest in and demand for eco-tourism offerings, Grassroots does not face significant competition. Grassroots has invested time and energy towards understanding the needs and wants of the three villages in which it operates. Tourists sleep overnight in tents, instead of more permanent accommodation, to underscore that the priority beneficiaries are the local villagers. Careful attention is paid to ensure that the local economy thrives – which in turn ensures both the authenticity and success of Grassroots. The fee that tourists pay boosts the income of villagers, which in turn enables villagers to work in their community and reduces the need for migrant work. Since 2006, Grassroots has increased the average annual income of more than 180 households by 15-25%.
Finding your heart, your competitive advantage
We all have different passions. Our hearts belong to certain geographies, certain industries, and certain approaches. Inir’s belongs to three remote villages in India, local economic development, and eco-tourism. Heart is a real competitive advantage. Heart allows entrepreneurs to empathize with their end beneficiaries, to take seemingly irrational risks, and to weather the inevitable ups and downs of a path-bending venture. What does your heart beat for?
November 29th 2011 00:11

Alice Evans on Aangan - "Stop running it like a prison; start running it like an ashram"

According to Aangan, about forty percent of Indian children are classified as "vulnerable." With no positive influences or protection from abuse, many end up thrown in prison-like children's homes run by the state. Aangan is transforming the child protection system from within, both by training and monitoring insitutional staff and by working face-to-face with young people. In this blog post, Alice Evans, associate director at F&C Asset Management, looks at the way Aangan empowers vulnerable youth to realize their potential as powerful leaders. 
Transforming "cages full of children" into child-friendly homes
Our very first site visit was to meet with the delightful Suparna Gupta, founder of the children's charity Aangan. The aim of Aangan was originally to improve conditions for children living in the grim state run institutions, and this was developed further to build programmes to help vulnerable children also living with their own families. Prior to establishing her charity, Suparna had volunteered for many years in the children's institutions, which she described as like "cages full of children".
She was inspired to take action by recognising that children are failing to access the education and healthcare that is available to them because of what we would consider child protection issues, such as exploitation and abuse, that are being unacknowledged by the government or communities. Her approach developed from impacting individual children to realising that she needed to impact the whole system. Aangan's Chauhara programme for boys and Shakti programme for girls have already touched thousands of children, and 7000 members of staff have been trained in how to run more child friendly homes. Suparna considers their work to be only just starting.
The programmes are non residential and recruit children to attend sessions for a few hours every week for up to a year, ideally. The focus is primarily on the rehabilitation of boys tending to delinquency, and the empowerment of vulnerable girls. The challenges the children are facing range from issues of basic health and security (rag picker girls as young as six or seven face injury and violence every day) to damaging family dynamics. Children can be isolated and ignored, or so controlled that they have no space to develop their own goals or to enjoy life. The programmes try to empower the children to have faith in themselves and to open their horizons and set their own goals. A key goal seems to be to identify and overcome the barriers to getting children back into education to give themselves a second chance with more options in life. 
Shakti girl power
A theme that recurred throughout our meeting was that of dealing with 'ground level' realities, not theories and ideologies, and that the approach is a continual work in progress with no fixed model that can be simply applied. An example of those practical realities: they discovered that many children were not attending school simply because families were unable to navigate the administrative process for enrollment. The Shakti girls established a help desk to assist families with this and got 750 girls back into school!
We focused on the Shakti programme, which consists of 14 sessions involving exercises and role play, and culminating in a real community project, such as developing and distributing first aid kits for rag picker children. An important part of the programme is for the girls to identify their own challenges and their own goals. A group of Shakti girls met with us to take our questions. The girls were much more impressive than I had imagined: poised; articulate; confident; ambitious. Suparna says they don’t go out to select leaders, but it seems to me that leaders are who they get.
It seemed to me that if you have the courage to overcome considerable resistance in the home and the school to join the programme, you are probably not the most vulnerable of your community, at least not the most psychologically vulnerable. But the idea is that the network of girls will also be of help to those who really find themselves unable to seek help directly. One of the most appealing aspects of the programme to me is the idea of peer leadership.  
The need to work with - not against - the state
Suparna was humble about the considerable achievements of Aangan to date, and feels there is very far still to go. She sees an advocacy role for the charity above and beyond the work they do directly with the children. She shared some key learnings with us, including that she has realised it's not the right way to go to try to operate in parallel with the government. There are responsibilities that the government needs to take which can't be replaced by charities, and they need to make use of government social infrastructure.
The first challenge here is getting the state sensitized to listening to these protection issues before they can even start to be solved. Other challenges include a lack of data about the magnitude and intensity of the problem, and also strong family resistance, often for cultural reasons. At a more operational level Suparna identifies a challenge that is common to all businesses - it's hard to get the right staff. The Aangan approach has a strong dependence on individuals, as staff members put so much of themselves into the programmes. They need to ensure a commonality in outlook, and burnout can be a risk. 
The final thing that struck me was Suparna's clarity of understanding that her motivation has always been for herself – she saw a problem that she is determined to solve. I have the impression that she would find it presumptious to imagine she was doing it for any other 'higher' reason. I think the result is highly impressive.


November 29th 2011 00:11

John Lawlor on Reality Tours - Slum visit

Long known as the largest slum in Asia, Mumbai's Dharavi can be an intimidating place to an outsider. The slum's reputation as a dangerous, dirty place prevents many who don't live there from ever stepping foot inside. Reality Tours and Travel exists to dispel the negative image around Dharavi by bringing outsiders in to experience the community in responsible and respectful ways. The income from the tours funds Reality Gives, the non-profit branch of the company that provides education and vocational training to Dharavi residents. John Lawlor of Bridge21, a Dublin-based social enterprise that motivates students to learn from each other through technology, begins to "unpack" his experience in Dharavi.
Consumerism crashes into humanity
The Dharavi slum presents a massive challenge to any visitor. Being part of a visit there is in itself uncomfortable as the feeling of being a poverty tourist is always in the back of the mind and there is a nagging doubt about whether this it is right to be here. I believe that discomfort is an appropriate and correct feeling to carry as we try to make sense of what we see, hear, smell of what is life in the slum.  
The slum is hive of industry with an annual output estimated at $665 million across 10,000 businesses. It is also a home to one million human beings in an area of 1.7 sq km. The working conditions are shocking. Recycling plastic is a major industry here. Plastic is sorted, shredded, washed and pelletised by hand in conditions that we might call Dickensian if it wasn’t unfair to the industrialists of that time.  The slum works on plastic imported for recycling from developed countries and exported it as pellets.
This trades toxic labour to the poor of the world to the advantage of the rich in the developed world. This is the front line where consumerism crashes into humanity.  This is exploitation of human beings but who is doing the exploitation? It would be a lot more comfortable if we could point the finger at the business owners in the slum but they are offering a living wage to the poorest of the poor. The truth is that the culprits are those who use plastics and then depend on these people to do the toxic recycling work.  The truth is that we are the guilty. 
Aspirations of the human spirit
This is not the only story of the slum and the human spirit story is in itself very powerful with an evident sense of community that is testament to the basic goodness of these people.  The children we met were friendly, bright and articulate and clearly were the products of loving and caring families. Being reared in one roomed homes without running water or sanitation had not dampened ambition and we met aspiring teachers, scientists and doctors. Their struggling parents could be very proud of them.
A moral struggle for Reality Group
It is evident that Chris and Krishna, founders of Reality Group and our social entrepreneur colleagues, are still struggling with the development of Reality Tours. They expressed frustration at being able to display the social challenges of the slum but not being able to tackle them. They are being admirably, if unfairly, self critical in this. Reality Tours provides a direct valuable support to the people of Dharavi through their computer and educational programmes and I believe that maintaining a spotlight on the slum is in itself an important social contribution. At times, Chris has been pilloried in the Indian media for showing the slum but surely the issues here merit global awareness.  Krishna as an outsider (he’s from a village in Karnataka) has won the friendship and respect of many in the slum and this has made the tours possible. There does appear to be a tension between the business and social missions of the programme and that will require resolution over time.
It is clear that Chris and Krishna have struggled – and do struggle – with these moral and human challenges on a daily basis. They gave us a fantastic glimpse of real life in the most difficult of this planet’s circumstances.  It will take a long time to unpack the issues that we are presented with by this visit.  


November 29th 2011 00:11

Tom Levitt on Dharavi - The Hive

Long known as the largest slum in Asia, Mumbai's Dharavi can be an intimidating place to an outsider. The slum's reputation as a dangerous, dirty place prevents many who don't live there from ever stepping foot inside. Reality Tours and Travel exists to dispel the negative image around Dharavi by bringing outsiders in to experience the community in responsible and respectful ways. The income from the tours funds Reality Gives, the non-profit branch of the company that provides education and vocational training to Dharavi residents.  Tom Levitt, writer, founder of Sector 4 Focus and former British Member of Parliament, reflects on his Reality Tour.
It’s like a beehive.
Inside it is teeming with energy. Each individual has their own work to do, day out and day in. Some are tasked with securing the lifeblood of the hive, others with keeping it in order. It positively throbs with incessant movement, its rigid structures cramped but functional. Resources are brought in constantly whilst valuable commodities created there are taken out.
Slum industries
Dharavi is home to a million people in 1.7 square kilometres, just two thirds of a square mile; the largest slum in Asia. Its enterprise is all-consuming. There are potteries where the ovens are rebuilt after every firing, their mud structures continually recycled, cotton the fuel of choice as it produces more heat than flame. There are vegetable oil can recycling plants where the containers are cleaned, scoured, stripped of all identity and re-used three times; after the fourth they are hammered into the sheet metal from which the workshops and many nearby homes are built. There are poppadum processors, drying their wares on upturned wicker baskets in the unkempt streets where the animals, children, motorbikes and passing cricketers all kick up the dust.
And there are the plastic recyclers.
Your waste and mine, plastic bottles from across the seas, brought to India by the megaton, delivered to Mumbai and sorted by hand by smartly dressed women in darkened hovels. Then they are crushed, chipped by home-engineered iron machines, washed and laid out to dry on the corrugated iron roofs of Dhavari before being melted and re-formed into pellets for making... just about anything and anywhere. If there is money to be made from recycling plastic this is where you will find it.
A community apart from others it is one of 2,000 slums in Mumbai alone; together they are home to more than half of the city’s population. Served by six railway stations and an airport, and adjacent to the city’s financial district, the government-owned land of Dhavari must be worth a fortune. A million people, mostly on the local minimum wage of around 150 Rupees (£2) per day, are reputedly putting $600 million into the Indian economy each year from which barely a penny is raised in tax.
Living life in Dharavi
Next to the industrial zones and just as dark are the residential areas, with fetid water running down open sewers in streets just a paving stone wide, running between the one-room houses which are home to an average of five people with no toilet. Upstairs, a second room is constructed with corrugated walls and roof, rented out to another family. The slum has electricity 24 hours a day (though few can afford to buy much) and water, mostly from stand pipes, up to 4 hours per day.
The streets are bedecked with redundant telephone lines. Every second adult clutches a mobile phone. No-one is smoking.
The leather industry creates a super-soft and supple product reputedly bought for Armani; tanning chemicals are banned in the slum as they are dangerous, even more dangerous than the plastic-chipping machine, yet they are used. Similarly, there is no child labour in Dharavi. But everyone knows there is.
Energy, drive and self sufficiency
No slumdogs, the children are happy. With an incredible 82 per cent literacy rate and opportunities to work outside the slum, with crime and disorder lower than the national average and life expectancy no worse than in Bombay itself there are reasons to be cheerful. School is enhanced, kindergarten provided and English and computer classes delivered each evening through Reality Gives. This foundation is funded by the profits from Reality Tours, a unique travel and tourism company which shows 1200 guests a month around the slum to be impressed by its energy, drive and self sufficiency. And its squalor and its poverty.
There is energy and there is drive; the industries are sustainable. But can development take place? Who gets the profits from the plastic recycling? Do they stay within Dharavi? Probably not. Reality may be helping improve the services available in the slum in a small way but this industry is by no means a guaranteed route out of poverty.
The hive and the future
Yet there is hope. I ask three girls of 8-10 what do they want to be when they grow up. They say: ‘Teacher’, ‘Doctor’, ‘Scientist’. The world needs what Dharavi does and part of what it does is to generate that hope. Let us hope it proves to have foundation.
The bee can find pollen in the most unlikely places and what it does with it can only be described as alchemy. So it is fitting that somewhere in that baking sea of iron roofs that is Dharavi yet another new enterprise is being launched: the slum’s first beehive for honey production.


November 29th 2011 00:11

Tom Levitt on Aangan - The Gleaner Girls

Aangan empowers vulnerable young people to live up to their potential as leaders. The organisation also works closely with government child protection services, providing training and monitoring within children's homes to ensure quality care. Tom Levitt, writer, founder of Sector 4 Focus and former British Member of Parliament, examines Aangan's unconditional faith in the ability that girls have to transform their surroundings.


Life in the dump


The people who live around Asia’s largest rubbish dump don’t exist.
At least, that’s the official view of the authorities which provide no housing, no water supply, and no law enforcement for an unknown number of families who make their meagre living sorting through Mumbai’s waste. Children as young as six are gleaners, sorting materials that can be re-sold to create family income: plastics, metal, the odd piece of treasure trove. There are thousands of them, sparsely scattered over hundreds of acres of man-made desert from six a.m. each day. It is a desert to which a continual succession of soot-breathing lorries is dumping a never-ending supply of material, the detritus of 20 million people, every day.
Due to the pressure to earn the children who have to work on the dump are mostly uneducated; often families are reluctant to spare them the time to find a school, time which could be spent finding a near-serviceable machine or wearable clothing from the rotting detritus. It would make sense for them to work in groups for their own safety, but that would mean sharing any rich seam they find with others, so they often work alone. But this makes the children and young people even more vulnerable; there are incidents of abuse and even gang rape reported to have happened on the dump.


Taking control of their own lives


At last some teenage heroes have found the strength to buck the trend.
Aangan is a national organisation, a not for profit enterprise, which works to support vulnerable young people across 12 states of India. Initially designed to support children in institutions, where the orphaned, abused and trafficked and children in conflict with law were traditionally lumped together in neglected squalor, increasingly they have taken on outreach work in disadvantage communities in the city including places like the Mumbai dumping ground. Their Shakti project empowers vulnerable girls to take control of their own lives, to stand up to the authorities, to bullies and to misguided parents. Through group sessions and by designing, planning and implementing a community projects they experience the power of collective action. This experience increases the girls’ self-confidence to bring about change for them, too. The result of the girls’ projects are amazing: 750 girls who had either left school early or never attended in the first place have joined or rejoined mainstream school in this part of Mumbai alone, including some with special needs.
Often in the face of outright opposition from parents and mullahs the girls, mostly recruited by word of mouth, are taught their rights, reflect on their dreams, make their own community newsletter, learn negotiation andskills; where to find help for education, vocation, health, domestic and even worse problems. Over the course of the 14 sessions they have fun together, develop ambitions and, in almost every case, self confidence and self belief. 


Overcoming community challenges


Discrimination against women is rife. Outcomes from this investment of strength is that girls in the Shakti project resist child marriage better than others, think seriously about financial independence and jobs, are supported by their peers, and most importantly dare to dream and make plans for their future.
And the Shakti girls spread the word, being the best ambassadors and recruits to the project, often starting by teaching their own mothers how to sign their names. Many graduates of the Shakti programme begin apprenticeships as peer leaders; one 17-year old, for example, supports five separate groups of gleaner girls in the Shakti philosophy.


Reshaping government policy from within


Funded by donors such as Unicef and venture philanthropists, Aangan maintains an arm’s length relationship with government. Having started the project to clean up government institutions founder Suparna Gupta, a former top advertising executive, is wary of asking them for funds; yet the sheer size, growth, value and importance of this project means that a more sustainable funding model must be found. Government is perhaps less likely to be hostile to this successful former critic on the basis of the results she has produced than it might previously have been.
Change is very slow and no one expects success overnight. But the potential that these women have released amongst girls in Mumbai, and the justice that is being achieved step by step as a result are so well worth having.




November 29th 2011 00:11

Annalisa O'Carroll on Aavishkaar and Intellecap

Ask Vineet Rai, founder of Aavishkaar, to explain the difference between his company and that of a traditional venture capital investor; he’ll tell you it comes down to risk. It’s a risk to invest in social businesses aimed at the base of the pyramid, but the first-mover advantage yields greater return, both in turns of impact and capital.  Aavishkaar, its sister organisation Intellecap and its diverse initiatives have pioneered the building of an ecosystem of financial and intellectual support for social business. In this post, Annalisa O’Carroll, Head of Social Impact at Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, takes a look at this ecosystem.
Growing $2,000 into millions
From heat and the colour of the slums of Dharavi, where we saw such a hive of informal, almost hidden but immense enterprise, we moved to the plusher and sharper edge of business today to visit Aavishkaar and Intellecap. Aavishkaar is a group of venture capital funds that focus on investing in social innovation at the base of the pyramid in some of India’s poorest areas, while Intellecap is one of the organisations that emerged from Aavishkaar as it recognised the very strong need not only to focus on funding but also to focus on the importance of developing, supporting and growing intellectual capital amongst their investments. We were lucky to have the founder of both, Vineet Rai meet us and tell us his inspiring story. What makes it so inspiring is not just the fact that they have leveraged Vineet’s own initial investment of $2,000 into a series of funds that today manage a couple of hundred million dollars (and growing), it is the fact that it is clear that his self-belief, passion, knowledge, obstinacy and, as he admits himself, ignorance at times, is what has made this happen.  He tells his story and shares his views with a directness, a humility and a humour that inspires trust and captivates the audience.  
“Good people investing in good people is bad business”
The founder’s story, he himself believes, is one of underachievement, from an external lens. Vineet underperformed in school and did not fulfil expectations of becoming a doctor or an engineer, apparently not being intelligent enough. He also got rejected from the army, apparently because he was too intelligent. He ended up studying forestry and accepted a post managing remote forest in an exceptionally poor rural area, where he encountered real poverty and began to understand rural needs. He later was appointed CEO of an incubation hub for emerging enterprise, where he quickly learned that what early stage organisations need was higher risk finance, the kind of finance venture capitalists bring. This planted the seeds of Aavishkaar. Vineet is clear about the kind of investments that they make – they must have both the strength of the idea and the entrepreneur, and they must deliver impact from a social perspective. But beyond that they must have high potential to become profitable businesses. Vineet says that over time they learned if they were merely good people investing in good people, the business will fail. It’s imperative to have someone that not only understands and is passionate about addressing the social requirement, they must also understand and be passionate about making it profitable. They do not invest in not for profit or hybrid models, unashamedly stating a clear focus that the financial bottom line is what is needed to get a real return. 
What is impact?
So where does social impact fit in? Vineet is opposed to measuring the numbers (number of people served, number of learning kits distributed, number of homes electrified etc) because of the serious impairment these can cause. These can be both misleading and devastatingly damaging if they drive organisations in the wrong direction. Measuring the wrong thing or in the wrong way can destroy a business, something witnessed in the microfinance sector in India. Besides, what do any of us mean by impact? He made the very valid point that the further we are from the heart of the problem, the less we understand the context and complexities. What an investor behind a desk believes the impact is or should be, can be very different to the person on the ground.  He believes you must experience the organisation first hand so that you can see the impact, part of their very rigorous due diligence process.  After that, the focus must be on execution. If you know the impact is there, results are all about excellence in execution.
Intellecap, Sankalp and Intellecash
So Aavishkaar is the investment house. Intellecap is the intellectual capital side, founded on the belief that this is as important as finance when building business. It was formed just after Aavishkaar and has created many related businesses.
Intellecap now has over 70 employees providing consulting, research and other services. Initially this was provided directly to the businesses in which they invest. Now it’s increasingly to the likes of intermediaries like the World Bank, to help them to make and manage investments in this sector.  More than anything Intellecap seems like an incubator and catalyst of initiatives that support or facilitate these investments. The more successful ones are spun off as separate companies. Sankalp (meaning pledge), for example is an organisation that has created an ecosystem of stakeholders that are interested in furthering social impact and entrepreneurship through market-based opportunities. This ecosystem helps catalyse and support impact investments.  Intellecash is a microfinance lending lab. They also have a software company that provides opensource products for development and technology consulting.
Inclusive participation in development
Vineet’s vision is continuously evolving and overall the work of these organisations is truly helping to raise the so called Base of the Pyramid from being a recipient of support to being able to actively participate in real economic development, from receiving donations to creating wealth. And that’s a powerful proposition.
November 29th 2011 00:11

Alexandra Nagler on SEWA Bank - Doorstep Banking

For thirty-five years, SEWA Bank has provided financial services to women working in the informal sector and living in poverty. Through a comprehensive suite of services, education and above all, faith in their clients, SEWA seeks to break the cycle of poverty. In this post, Alexandra Nagler, Senior Project Manager at Novo Nordisk, reflects on her experience with SEWA on the ground.
Seeing SEWA in action
On the last day of our Social Entrepreneurship Journey, we met Jayashree Vyas, Visitor and Project Manager, a dynamic, knowledgeable and passionate young woman employed by SEWA Bank. Jayashree shared with us the history, challenges, mission, product and services offering, operations and successes of the Bank. To illustrate her talk, Jayashree took us to Gulbai Tekra, one of Ahmedabad’s slums, where we watched the pivotal human element of the bank organisation in action: a “Hand Holder” and a “Bank Saathi” handling cash collection at people’s doorstep.
“We may be poor, but we are many”
SEWA Bank was established in 1974 by 4,000 self-employed women from the Self Employed Women’s Association- SEWA- as a cooperative bank with the specific objective to provide women with financial services for their socio-economic empowerment and self-development.
SEWA’s financial services
The financial products developed by the Bank reflect the needs of the women during their life cycle. This includes specialised saving schemes towards marriage, birth, death, pilgrimage or gold for weddings. In addition, the bank provides credit (insured overdraft and secured or unsecured loans) for women with a saving account. While savings can serve a consumption purpose, loans are only granted for productive purpose and typically amount to 5,000 rupees.
At 18%, the loans interest rate is relatively low versus other micro-financing organisations (typically 24%) and far more competitive than loans provided by unscrupulous moneylenders (around 30% per month). Savings accounts benefit from a 6% interest rate. Default accounts are only 4%.
SEWA bank has also developed a unique concept of micro pension scheme that over 50,000 Gujarati women have joined. A deposit of 50Rs per month for 58 years will provide retirement benefits, avoiding deprivation in old age.
Last but not least, SEWA Bank provides financial literacy training by using innovative education tools (movies, animated movies, story telling, group sessions, charts…). Understanding the concept of saving and financial planning is indeed key to achieve long-term benefits and to make sound, wise and sustainable financial decision-making.
Women can break the cycle of poverty
The founder of the Bank, Ms Elaben R. Bhatt, recognised that women are economically active; concerned by the livelihood of their households, they also understand – better than men - the importance of saving. Building capital and developing micro-business allows women to come out of the vicious circle of poverty.
Account holders are made up of around 80% urban and 20% rural self-employed women. They are mainly engaged in three predominant activities:
  • As small trade workers (vendors)
  • As daily wage earners (labourers or small services)
  • As home-based workers
The success of SEWA Bank relies on two facts:
  1. A large identifiable customer base: 96% of all women workers in India are engaged in the unorganised sector
  2. A deep, grassroots understanding of the needs and life constraints of the women workers engaged in the unorganised sector. Many barriers prevent indeed these women to push the door of a commercial bank:
  • Long hours combining work and household activities meaning they have no time to deposit the earned money
  • Limitation of the commercial banks opening hours, typically while women are earning their living
  • Impossible task for illiterate women to fill forms, let alone to sign their name
  • Discrimination felt in the bank as women workers might be dirty after a long day of labour
  • Inadvertently missing repayments as many women simply do not use calendars
With that insider understanding, SEWA Bank developed a rural and urban banking model adapted to the needs of the poor, illiterate self-employed women.
Hand Holders and Bank Saathis
Since the women do not have the time, motivation or means to make trips to the bank, SEWA bank goes to them. Cash collection is organised through a network of “Hand Holders” and “Bank Saathis."
The “Hand Holders” are women employed by the bank and responsible for one area of operations; they monitor and train several Bank Saathi, collect money from them and act as financial counsellors for the clients.
Bank Saathis, who assist the Hand Holder, have a pivotal role in reaching out to women workers. They are the bank’s frontline workers. They come from the same communities as the clients and live alongside them in the same neighbourhoods. Typically, they have experience maintaining a bank account and are local leaders with good credibility. They assist the Hand Holder, working around the clock to collect deposits from their neighbours and assess loan applicants. Each Bank Saathi serves 400 to 800 borrowers. They are self-employed women and on commission. They earn around 5,000 - 6,000 rupees and a maximum of 30,000 rupees per month, depending on the collection of deposits.
Initially designed to travel to areas of high customer concentration to facilitate cash collection, the bank’s mobile vans are currently not used except as taxi for the Hand Holders, as a mobile platform for education in remote areas and to recruit new members in new areas. The opening of eight bank branches in Gujarat (6 urban and 2 rural) and the network of Bank Saathis in the communities allowed adequate decentralisation and is less costly than sending out vans.
In 2010, the bank counted 82,227 members; 361,630 accounts and generated 8.3 million rupees profit; although the banking model is sustainable, profitable and scalable, expansion plans are limited by the Reserve Bank of India, which authorises the implantation of new branches, inside or outside Gujarat.
Key learnings and strategic consequences
The key highlight of our day was the visit to the slum of Gulbai Tekra, where we went to a Bank Saathi’s house and observed how the collected cash was counted and documented by the Hand Holder – all while surrounded by friendly neighbours and lively children. The biggest learning was how important it is to design a service (doorstep banking) that fits the needs and living conditions and environment of the users (the poor illiterate self-employed women) with products (life cycle focused saving schemes and loans) explicitly designed to meet the ever-changing life cycle needs of the users. Gaining the trust of the users is also essential – and this was achieved through the largest single trade union in the country – SEWA. In addition, simplicity of the procedures makes sure that the users are comfortable with the model. Finally, provision of tools is not enough on its own to achieve sustainability. Education is the only way to lead to informed, wiser decision-making – here, banking literacy supports wiser financial decision making for sustainable financial security.
These principles have guided SEWA Bank's growth for the past 35 years.
New questions raised
The visit also triggered some new questions:
  • How ethical is it for a development bank to generate so much profit, with no signs of slowing down?
  • Are there any risks of breaking the community equilibrium by empowering women without giving men the same opportunity to develop their business and raise capital?


November 29th 2011 00:11

Tom Levitt on Barrier Break Technology - Breaking the barriers to success

Disabled people -- whether they are deaf, blind, or physically or mentally challenged -- are often considered unemployable in India. So the fact that most of Barrier Break Technologies' workforce is disabled lead some to assume it is a charitable organisation. But founder Shilpi Kapoor is quick to assert that she is running a competitive business and that her HR choices give Barrier Break a strategic advantage. Here, Tom Levitt, writer, founder of Sector 4 Focus and former British Member of Parliament, reflects on how the most fundamental barriers are ones of mindset.
The disabled in India
It is not because Barrier Break employs only people with disabilities that it is unusual. It is its capacity to use tried and tested, conventional business models in which enterprise, customer need and innovation come together with gusto to achieve what no one before them has done. Put simply, they are improving the lot of all people with disabilities, of whom there are many millions, throughout India.
Whilst India is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities the state’s commitment is measured not in deeds or cash but in mere words. There is no workplace support available for those who cannot walk, or see, or hear, no obligation to make services accessible and precious little awareness of the true scale of the problem.
Accessibility at home and abroad
A large part of Barrier Break’s work is international, such as monitoring relevant web sites for the Australian, British and American governments to ensure they are compliant with local accessibility laws; other units retype books and papers into formats that can be read by the visually impaired and there is even the beginning of a Skype-like online sign language translation service. Yet, Alice-like, the more Shilpi Kapoor and her team do the more it seems remains to be done.
The Bank of India has paid good money for an attractive web site that has two panes of moving text and plays a catchy tune when you open it. They could not have made it harder for a person of limited eyesight to access it if they tried. As a blind employee shows us, readily available software normally allows such a person to move the mouse over text and have it read out to them. There’s no such luck if it’s moving or playing a tune at the same time.
In response to Shilpi’s pressure the bank has introduced an alternative web site without such distractions but with very limited functionality. Clearly people whose eyesight is not up to scratch don’t deserve the same right to control their bank accounts as their sighted cousins.
A diverse, powerful workforce
Much of the web monitoring and website building work is carried out by 18 profoundly deaf sign language users. Many have not grown up with English as their first language and some of those with limited hearing do not understand speech. A young man with autism carries out challenging and crucial repetitive editing tasks with absolute accuracy and never a complaint. The company puts all of its employees onto permanent contracts.
Kapoor rejected the idea of launching the company as a charity or a not for profit organisation. She wanted to be taken seriously by Government and market alike and she has no regrets, even though she is yet to show a net profit after six years in business. Turning down successive take-over approaches, including the opportunity to become a subsidiary of a major multinational software company, one of her biggest customers, she robustly maintains her independence. Every time she is in danger of making a profit she takes on another disabled-friendly project. The latest is to supply text in braille to a university at just two per cent of the market price.
Overcoming barriers, external and internal
Many private companies are not comfortable with Barriers’ work. The markets for hearing aids and spectacles, whilst tiny in practice, are jealously guarded by those who make huge profits from them. Nevertheless, a team of Shilpi’s people with complementary disabilities have successfully broken into the market for Digital Talking Books and become one of its biggest players. From a standing start to a service in seven languages, rising to 18 almost overnight, the workload is impressive.
She agrees that the biggest barriers to many people accessing what is rightfully theirs is not steps or potholes, whilst there are many, nor the complete lack of disabled toilets in public places, nor even money to back up Government intentions of which there is none; it is the ignorance, naivety and short sightedness of the temporarily non-disabled majority in government, in business, in families and in society.
Shilpi Kapoor’s company, her brainchild, her passion, is undoubtedly a social business. Despite the absence of profit so far, something the international market may yet put right, the enterprise is sustainable, growable and franchisable. It is practising what she preaches, undoubtedly the right thing to be doing.
November 23rd 2011 10:11

Tom Levitt on Saath - How to profoundly transform society

Saath pioneered the Integrated Slum Development Programme in 1989, an approach that seeks to turn slums into vibrant neighbourhoods. Since the poor often have many needs at once, Saath creates one-stop centres through which slum residents have access to services such as health, education, employment, microfinance and affordable housing. Tom Levitt, writer, founder of Sector 4 Focus and former Member of British Parliament talks about what he has learned from Saath’s tremendous success and the organisation’s humble founder, Rajendra Joshi.
Creating happier communities
‘Of course spirituality is important in our work,’ says Rajendra Joshi, founder and continuing inspiration for Saath, a one-stop integrated services organisation working with 100,000 occupants of illegal slums in Ahmedabad, ‘but it is not the be all and end all’.
Over 18 years Saath has built a co-operative, collective ethos and many cross-sector partnerships. This, says Joshi, is the real key to success especially insofar as leveraging support from donors is concerned. There is no doubt that the outcomes - health and education services, employment and employment skills, industry promoted by microfinance and affordable housing - are creating happier and more sustainable communities.
Pioneering cross-sector partnerships
Joshi, 52, was inspired by the work of Julius Nyerere, whose practical approach to governance in the scientist’s native Tanzania promoted the idea of a broader, less tribal identity. Returning ‘home’ to India in the 1970s and finding he disliked private sector work he joined a slum education programme under the tutelage of a Basque Jesuit priest. When his mentor died in 1986 Joshi resolved to take the cause forward, creating Saath in 1989. 
His first strategic decision was to work with, not independently of, local government and the second was to persuade private business to take its first steps towards corporate citizenship. These two approaches delivered vocational training opportunities and electricity to the slums in the first instance with more services to follow.
The power of entrepreneurship
In 2002, following an earthquake and inter-communal riots requiring the delivery of relief and rehabilitation to 1,200 Muslim households, Saath realised that the old models of government funding for charity action were not going to deliver sustainable solutions. With such funding continually in question and NGOs uncomfortable about growing to any size that could make a real difference a new model had to be found: it was entrepreneurship.
Joshi found that the scaling up of pilot projects was the greatest challenge to his new regime but that through proper planning overhead costs could be reduced by as much as 80 per cent. Thus incentives were huge whilst private partners such as the power companies could still make a profit. Traditional finance was not appropriate for the new models of working but microfinance could make social change and sustainability possible through the new entrepreneurial approach. 
Scaling up, he says, is a human resource issue rather than an economic one as the sums are relatively simple. Bright young people are key to Saath’s success as those hidebound to old ideas and ways of working find change most difficult to cope with. Change must be sustainable and gradual, he says; don’t make commitments too early. Educate your funders and donors to understand the process, to be patient and not to interfere unreasonably then funding will follow, he claims confidently. Do not fear failure.
The inclusive heart of success
Two years ago he stepped down as the organisation’s chief executive and driving force. The successful integration of new leaders is symptomatic of the broader success of the enterprise.
Saath has won international recognition for its work with neglected communities. Their ‘all for one’ philosophy is a binding ethos whilst their work is overtly secular. But Joshi is adamant that ‘we cannot do everything ourselves’. The alignment of values with partners – not necessarily persuasion to adopt common ones – is at the heart of their success whilst issues like the management of expectation, the process of inclusion and the celebration of diversity are the human characteristics of what is now a very large and effective organisation. 
Profound impact
Throughout my stay in India with Journeys for Change we have seen many inspiring projects and passionate and capable leaders. Their achievements in India would cause many western social entrepreneurs to stagger in amazement and rethink their ambitions. Though our visits to Saath’s Urban Resource Centre and microfinance managers were brief, and our lunch with Rajendra Joshi even more so, it is his approach that will stay with me longest and have the most profound effect.
In short, everything I have chosen to believe since establishing myself as a writer and consultant on cross-sector partnerships, my commitment to a new vision of a socialised economy, was born out by Saath. The opportunities for empowering communities and individuals that exist through entrepreneurship, the clear necessity of reducing reliance on state funding for services and the need to make available the resources of the private sector through a greater sense of corporate citizenship are all as real in Britain as they are in India.
The Indian government is considering legislating for every company to give one per cent of pre-tax profits to ‘good causes’ such as Saath. This is something Britain has failed to achieve so far voluntarily. Can we learn from Saath and make it happen at home?
November 11th 2011 00:11

The journey begins

This evening, as the sun melted into the horizon over Mumbai's Juhu beach, we marked the start of JFC's November 2011 Social Entrepreneurship Journey.

Nine leaders from the U.K., Ireland, Switzerland, India and the U.S. have converged here. Some are consultants, others work in banking; several are practicing social entrepreneurs themselves.  Together, they will explore social entrepreneurship in Mumbai and Ahmedabad, connecting with people creating transformative change from the ground up. 

We'll be visiting organisations and social businesses that approach social change in completely unique ways. In Mumbai, our itinerary includes site visits to:

  • Aangan, an organisation that strengthens the government's failed child protection mechanisms, including the ones in the notoriously jail-like children's institutions
  • Reality Group, which takes outsiders on responsible tours through Dharavi, Asia's largest slum, where it provides education and vocational training to young residents
  • Aavishkaaar and Intellecap, which are re-shaping the social sector through impact investing and high-quality consulting
  • Barrier Break, a social business that uses technology to empower disabled people through access and employment

We'll then move to Ahmedabad, where we'll visit:

  • Centre for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship, an accelerator for social start-ups based out of IIM
  • SEWA Bank, a bank that helps working women lift themselves out of poverty
  • Saath, which empowers slum-dwellers to develop their own community health, education and financial services
  • MAM Movies, a group of creative people who use film and storytelling to inspire and transform
  • Manav Sadhna, which serves over 8,000 women and children through 35 projects based on Gandhian values

Join us here, on Facebook, Flickr and Twitter to follow the inspiration and be part of the journey.