In good hands

In good hands

In these times of uncertainty and global crisis, here’s something heartening — social entrepreneurship is on the rise in India.

Prateep Basu

What comes to your mind when you think of a social worker? Probably a kurta-clad, jhola-bearing commie who grumbles at businesses at every opportunity? Well, this is far from reality. In the past decades, traditional social organisations have made way for enterprises that are unabashedly for-profit business models; but with their entire vision driven by social impact. Indeed, there have been many success stories based on this very model; however, their path to success has not been examined as deeply as it perhaps deserves to be. Some names come to mind here — Amul, Aravind Eyecare, Lijjat and Sulabh, to recall just a few. 

What factors are leading to this boom, one might ask. “Globally, the word is, if you want to start a social enterprise, head to India. We are home to all the issues that a social entrepreneur might want to tackle and this is the place to test strategies. India also has better infrastructure and political and economic stability compared to, say, parts of Africa, which still depend greatly on donations,” says Pritham Raja, founder of Threads of Freedom, a Mumbai-based social enterprise that helps victims of sex trafficking reintegrate into society through meaningful employment. The organisation partners with garment factories that employ these women, and in return, receives orders from big brands. “We visit these popular clothing brands and pitch our story. In many of the cases, they like what we are doing and end up placing orders with us, thus creating value for all stakeholders involved,” he adds.

Smarter models, better impact

In India, every third citizen is still devoid of basic necessities like nutrition, education and healthcare. Fuelled by the economic liberalisation of 1991, India did propel itself into becoming the third-largest GDP in the world today, but our social rankings have only worsened. India is the fifth most vulnerable country to the risks posed by climate change and ranks 129th in the Human Development Index, thus creating a sore need for businesses to intervene.

“Post liberalisation, successive governments tried to brand India as a triumph story, and thus, doesn’t need money from small donors. The donor organisations responded and the funds shifted towards African nations. Soon, with the government as the largest spender, most NGOs were reduced to becoming contractors disbursing government money in social projects. This left the sector with no choice, but to find models, which will help them survive, leading to a boom in social enterprises,” analyses G V Krishnagopal, founder of the Hyderabad-based Access Livelihoods Consulting India, an organisation, which has incubated over 50 small social enterprises by bringing more than 65,000 women from vulnerable backgrounds into small clusters and cooperatives. Based on local parameters, each enterprise follows its own business model, with Krishnagopal and his team of experts helping them develop their strategies.

Educational institutions to the rescue

India’s new-age social enterprises are being amply supported by educational institutions, which formally train youngsters in social work. These institutions expose students to various strategies and case studies and train them in policy-making and developmental work.

“The industry wouldn’t have been able to create social impact in the grassroots without good professionals. Students who are willing to work hard and have an empathetic heart are able to join this workforce and are being paid well. Educational institutions like IITs, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Azim Premji Institute, Ashoka University, etc., are preparing students for different roles in the social sector,” says Nilratan Shende, an alumnus of TISS, Mumbai, who ended up developing his PhD thesis into a social enterprise. His organisation is called Eshein Agro Livestock Private Limited and it helps tribal farmer households with livestock management as an alternate source of livelihood. His initiative currently benefits over 10,000 people across Amaravati, Osmanabad, Thane and other districts of Maharashtra.

These institutions also end up causing what is called the cluster effect.

One enterprise creates an ecosystem around it, leading to the creation of more enterprises. Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru have emerged as big hubs of social enterprises globally and not just for India. “India has also witnessed an increasing number of NRIs coming back to serve their country. Many of them end up starting social enterprises,” informs Pritham.

Better use of CSR?

In 2013, the government amended the Companies Act to ensure companies spend two percent of their profit for social good. This has ensured money flows into the social sector. Between 2015 and 2019, over Rs 50,000 crore was spent by companies under the CSR rule.

However, critics claim that CSR is still stuck in the old model. Most companies themselves see CSR as nothing more than a marketing opportunity, as the money is spent where alternate profits can be made, either through publicity or luring the local politician by distributing goodies through him. Most CSR disbursements take place between January and March each year, just to save companies from anomalies during auditing, and hence, little planning goes into it. “CSR funding has definitely helped fill the vacuum that was created by the eroding role of the welfare state. However, it is still blind to the ground realities of India and needs to be much more far-reaching,” Nilratan admits.

Prateep Basu, co-founder and CEO of SatSure, a data analytics company, which integrates satellite, weather, and IoT data to serve the agriculture sector, adds, “CSR funds are spent in clusters where money is already present. Except for organisations like Wipro and Tata Trusts, who have built full-fledged wings to carry out their CSR activities, most companies, with their headquarters in Bengaluru, Mumbai, or Delhi, disburse these funds in their immediate vicinity. This unequal distribution of CSR is actually widening the economic inequality that already exists in India. Why do you think social enterprises in south, west, or north India are more successful than those in the east?”

Besides corporate funding, there is also an increase in volunteering activities, especially among youngsters. Social media is playing a great role in generating interest and making volunteering attractive.

However, volunteering comes with its own set of problems.

“I don’t think we have found the right model for volunteering yet. We meet a lot of people who say they want to do volunteering. By volunteering they mean that they are already doing something mainstream and want to take out one day to work for us. Now, where do we find one day’s work for that person? It is very difficult to work around this,” Krishnagopal confesses.

Technology as a social agent

Social enterprises are also extensively getting tech-integrated. From better information flow to planning, technology is unleashing the true potential of these social enterprises. Reduction in the digital divide due to increased telecom connectivity has been a key force. Even if the solutions are available, the infrastructure to implement them was missing only a decade ago, a problem African nations still grapple with.

Technology has played a much greater role in education, health care and skill building. "Youngsters are much more comfortable with tech than we imagine. I meet many students who are using technology for social good, may it be developing electric batteries or IoT devices or assistive devices for the disabled. These are budding innovators and not entrepreneurs yet. There is a transition taking place from normal entrepreneurship to social entrepreneurship within the campus of many universities and colleges," says Sameer Garg, CEO of Billionables, India’s first all-inclusive online platform to discover accessible places, products and services for persons with disabilities.

Social entrepreneurs agree that the Internet brings them support from a much larger global community. Solutions spread faster and cooperation can be achieved at unprecedented scales. "At Billionables, we are crowdsourcing data on disabled-friendly places and have collected information from 26 states. With one click of a button, one will know which restaurant is accessible or what assistive technologies one can buy. None of this would have been possible without technology," Sameer adds.

Prateep, who before starting his data analytics company SatSure, worked for ISRO admits, "technology is often over-hyped. It depends on how you design your solution. For example, if I say that I am working with small farmers in remote areas and providing them with mobile apps, the difference I will be making is not going to be exponential. However, if tech gets implemented at every level, starting from the policymaking and planning itself, the impact will be much more," Prateep says.

He gives the example of women self-help groups in Jharkhand, who were empowered with fisheries as an additional source of income as part of a project developed by the World Bank. "We surveyed every pond across each village in the state, documenting their numbers, potential depths, seasonalities, etc. This data was then used by the fisheries department of the state to decide which fish must be farmed where. Some fishes are cultivated on longer cycles, while others have shorter cycles. Only perennial water bodies can sustain the former. Marrying this data with planning helped in outreach, design and also better capacity building. The program is already active in 46 blocks across the state. Technology has played a great role in the success of this initiative, but not at a surface level."

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