It happened on a bus when I was 19. And that one conversation changed the course of my life.
I was complaining to my friend Babu that a student organization that I had recently joined at the university was all talk and no action. This group of students at the University of California at Berkeley would meet every other week and discuss some current topic related to India. This was my final year at the university and I was interested in doing “something” – which to me meant something that would have a positive impact on India or Indians.
I attended 2-3 meetings and found myself growing frustrated. I told Babu “All they do is talk. What is the point of just debating topics and not doing anything?” That is when he told me that four people had just formed a group to do something about education in India. The group was called Asha. Why don’t I attend their meeting next week and try them out?
Full of curiosity I attended the first meeting and fell in love, with the organization, with what it was trying to do, with the field of “development”. Changing the world didn’t seem too daunting at that age, neither was the idea that I should be able to help brings about a change no matter how small.
Over the course of the next 13-14 years I participated intensely in the group, and later led many of its national and global activities. My involvement gave me a perspective on the lives of urban and rural poor, and equally importantly, a perspective on the effectiveness (or not) of various kinds of development work.
I found that many NGOs had rudimentary production activities as a means of generating funds for their philanthropic activities – selling everything from greeting cards, hand-made paper, candles, children’s drawings, calendars and such. Watching these inadequate attempts at “business” were enough to make any business professional’s heart break: the crooked candles, the uneven hand-made paper you couldn’t write on, cloth handicrafts with loose threads, and the complete lack of thinking about the customer. You could imagine the effort and the hope in the eyes that produced these, but you could see there was no future in this.
As my experience in professional business world increased, I started wondering whether professionalizing such “businesses” and bringing their products into the mainstream be a useful endeavour.
Business as development? Is that even possible?
…drawing a parallel with “Development as Freedom”, where Amartya Sen posits that the purpose of development should be to increase the freedom of choice of beneficiaries in all matters of life. So could one use business as an instrument to bring about development?
I read with increasing consternation C. K. Prahlad’s book “Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid”. While the book gives some space to products made by the BOP, in the majority of cases, the “fortune” described in the book is the fortune to be made by the large corporations with BOP consumers.
The early “success” of for-profit micro-finance institutions offering microcredit also raised similarly uncomfortable questions. Certainly, the poor want to consume products and services like the rest of us. But wasn’t there a way that they could be producers too? In essence, “selling” their products and services just like the rest of us who are employees of various organizations? Shouldn’t we doing something to increase their ability to either get jobs or run profit-making, asset-building businesses (including farming)?
Several years ago, I decided to resign from my position as a senior leader a Tier 1 company to explore this space further — at the intersection of business and development.
This is where “Stirring the Pyramid” started. I wanted to see if I, together with colleagues, friends and co-conspirators, could stir the economic pyramid enough, to create and support business models for rural businesses that are financially viable, scalable and sustainable.
The blog was about this exploration.
Why “was”? Because as my understanding of development grew, I understood that business could not be the panacea it claimed to be. I found that the poor engaged in farming or micro-enterprises due to lack of other options. That there were systemic forces and macro-trends causing them to be excluded from access to basic services and rights, even within the framework of a functioning democracy.
I saw the shallowness of several NGOs thinking and work. I also noticed how most “impact investment” brought neither impact nor investment for social businesses. And I realized how little I (and most of my friends) knew about any of the things we cared about, such as education, livelihoods and equity. So, I started learning about agriculture (the main livelihood of the majority of working Indians) and about livelihoods in general, through visits to rural locations, conversations, books and academic publications.
Consequently, this blog has evolved into an exploration about agriculture, livelihoods, and issues related to household risk and vulnerability (incomes, food and nutrition), and the role of women in this.