The evolving bus ride

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.


2 Responses to The evolving bus ride

  1. Babu Rahman says:

    Dear Richa
    It’s great to remember that bus ride. I too started my life’s journey with that early gang of four. I have been running Agami for 20 years now! I hope that we can work on addressing BOP solutions. It’s where my heart and soul are.

  2. Reeta Gupta says:

    Hi Richa- i stumbled upon your blog. I would like to invite to to Sankalp Forum.

    “SANKALP FORUM 2013”
    April 16-18, 2013
    Renaissance Hotel and Convention Centre, Powai, Mumbai
    Sankalp’s Annual Summit is the largest social enterprises focused gathering in the World. In its 5th year, Sankalp has grown truly global with speakers such as:-
    Susanne Dorasil – Susanne Dorasil is Head of the Economic Policy; Financial Sector Division at the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ. She is currently serving as German co-facilitator of the G20 development pillar on Private Investment and Job Creation and as German co-chair of the Sub–group on SME Finance of the Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion.
    Mark Stoleson is Chief Executive Officer of Legatum, and has served with the firm for over 7 years in various capacities including Head of Group Investments.
    Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO, Nonprofit Finance Fund (joins via video conferencing) – Antony Bugg-Levine is the CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund. Prior to taking up this position in October, 2011, he was a Managing Director at the Rockefeller Foundation, where he designed and led the Rockefeller Foundation’s Impact Investing initiative.
    TCA Ranganathan, Chairam and MD, Exim Bank has been the Chairman and Managing Director at Export-Import Bank of India since April 8, 2010. Mr. Ranganathan served as Managing Director of State Bank of Bikaner & Jaipur from February 1, 2010 to April 7, 2010. Mr. Ranganathan served as Chief General Manager of Ahmedabad at State Bank of India. In 2005, he opened the first branch of SBI in China at Shanghai. Mr. Ranganathan serves as President Commissioner of PT Bank SBI Indonesia. He serves as a Non Executive Director of SBI (Mauritius) Ltd. He served as a Director of Sterling Bank plc., until October 22, 2009. He is an alumnus of Delhi School of Economics (DSE).
    WatananPetersik, Director, Lien Centre for Social Innovation; Chair, Ashoka Singapore Advisory Council.
    Afeefa Sayeed, Senior Advisor, USAID – AfeefaSyeed is Senior Advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development Middle East and Asia Bureaus, where she designs and implements initiatives and training on emerging programs, including engaging traditional and religious leaders and institutions, radicalization, and madrassah enhancement. She works with Washington based and mission staff to define best practices, highlight success stories, develop tools, and frame country strategies to bring expertise in engaging with the cultural contexts.
    Paul Basil: Founder & CEO, Villgro- Paul also has contributed to building the social enterprise eco-system in India, through Unconvention, Wantrapreneur, Villgro and championing the ANDE Chapter (Aspen Network for Development Entrepreneurs).
    Other names this year at Sankalp include –
    Thomas Davenport, Director, South Asia, International Finance Corporation (IFC),Jerry Ng, President Director, BTP, Jayant Sinha (MD-Omidyar Network India)-Anil Sinha, Regional Head, South Asia Advisory Services, IFC and Ben White, VC4Africa.
    Vineet Rai, Founder Aavishkaar and Intellecap; Anurag Agarwal, CEO Intellecap and Aparajita Agarwal, Head Initiatives at Intellecap will facilitate the Sankalp Awards, Villgro Awards, DFID women recognition awards and the Global Cookstove alliance awards for clean cooking.
    Over the last 4 years, Sankalp has recognized & rewarded social enterprises across the length and breadth of the country. Sankalp will engage over 11,000 stakeholders globally which includes:-Social Enterprises, Impact & Mainstream Investors, Policymakers to encourage innovation and Enablers, who are part of the ecosystem.
    This year however, the theme is looking – beyond impact, seeking transformational change through plenary sessions and world café formats.

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