Lessons from Praveen, the Banana Vendor

If you’re expecting another Mumbai Dabbawala story, this is not it.

In fact, Praveen’s business does not even exist.  But he is the most astute businessman, when it comes to managing his finances.  He knows the right price to set for his produce.  He knows how his Gross Profits are different from his Net Profit.  He knows the true fully-loaded cost of Apples versus Bananas and product level profitability.  He has even recorded the price sensitivity of demand for different fruits he sells on his ‘thela’ (push-cart).  He also seems to have mastered the science and art of Working Capital Management, one of the biggest reasons for failure of small businesses everywhere.

For you see, Praveen’s Fruit Thela (Push-Cart) is an imagined business, used as a learning tool.  Early last year, a group of professionals got together to develop an MBA-like course for managers of rural businesses.  The group firmly believed that to bring about sustainable socio-economic change, we must go beyond philanthropy and bring knowledge and skills to disadvantaged groups in rural India.  And we decided to do this by creating business management training for social enterprises.

The program is called CREAM which stands for Certificate in Rural Entrepreneurship, Administration and Management.

The first batch we covered were managers of a rural organic produce cooperative and other businesses initiated (or proposed) by three NGOs in Andhra Pradesh.

Faculty and participants

Once we had agreed on a rough set of topics to be covered, the first thing we did was to discuss the teaching pedagogy.  For it was clear that the standard style of teaching will not work for people with little or no academic orientation.  The teaching pace will have to be much slower than standard bachelors’ classes. There would be continuous two-way translation because the participants did not know English and the faculty did not know Telugu.

Class in session

But the most important of all were the decisions about teaching pedagogy. We thought hard about the format of the class, how to make the participants (“students”) feel comfortable. Being used to one-way lecture style of classes, how to draw them out, get them to ask questions and engage in meaningful discussion and debates.   We created sample businesses, some microscopic, like the thela-wala, and micro-enterprises that the participants could relate to.  And we turned their own businesses into learning tools.

Over time, we developed a repository of sample businesses to use as teaching aids and case studies, among them a Dosa Shop on a highway, Sundar Hastkala producing salwar kurtas and skirts, and of course Praveen’s Banana Pushcart.

These days there is a lot of interest in enabling and supporting Social Entrepreneurship, the definition of which ranges from what used to be called ‘social work’ to MNCs hiring independent women sales reps for selling their products. And somewhere in between lie the entrepreneurs who start for-profit businesses but with the social objective of improving incomes of the rural poor.

For startup capital, they may get loans from a bank, grants from an NGO, investment from well-wishers or from professional investment funds. What they lack are the skills to start and run a business.

That is where we come in.

Garment Business P&L created by participants

Our participants learn important business concepts through methods and techniques designed specifically for them.  And most important, they learn how to apply these concepts to their own micro-enterprises.

Since our first batch of participants, we have been continuously improving and refining the curricular framework, the content and teaching pedagogy.

For our next module on sales and marketing, our participants will learn about pricing by trying to sell biscuits to others in the evening.  And they will learn about effective customer communication.

As for Praveen, he will be helping participants learn how to decide whether to sell add new products such as pomegranates and how to execute low-cost but effective promotions.

[Update: As a result of the success of this program, we decided to run it more formally, and in 2011 we registered ourselves as TREE Society (Training and Resources for Enabling Entrepreneurship.]

This entry was posted in Business management training, Micro-enterprises & rural businesses and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Lessons from Praveen, the Banana Vendor

  1. Do you think it is worth transplanting exercises and concepts that work well with “Praveen” and his class-mates to management education in urban B schools? After all, it’s all about people understanding concepts, is it not?

    • Richa says:

      In principle, I think such an approach would work in terms of explaining the concept: Start from extremely simple examples before moving on.

      However, there are a few additional considerations. B-school content is designed as much to explain concepts as to provide anecdotal/case-study based learning. For our micro-entreprise managers, these case-studies are all micro-enterprises, which makes sense for the audience in question.

      For mainstream, these examples would have to be converted into at least small to medium enterprises, even if it is an entrepreneurship oriented b-school.

      Besides this difference in curriculum orientation, there would be additional considerations of the pace of mainstream classes, the level of abstraction, etc.

      Finally, I am not sure about the attitude of current generation of students towards dealing with such low-brow businesses.

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