Jul-Aug 2012: Essay - From Small Beginnings

by Madhukar Shukla

Ever since I got interested in the field of Social Entrepreneurship, admittedly not too many years ago, I have been fascinated by the small beginnings of some life or world-changing, social ventures.
Describing the birth of SEWA, the largest trade union of unorganized women workers in the country, Ela Bhatt once wrote:
“In 1971, migrant women working as cart-pullers in the city’s cloth market came to me at TLA (Textile Labour Association), where I had started my work life working for textile mill workers of Ahmedabad. The women who lived on the footpath, were seeking help for better living conditions. Next month came the head loader women of the same cloth market, feeling agitated about very low rates of payment (30 paise per trip carrying the bale of cloth from a wholesaler to a retailer). They felt exploited by the traders. Then followed the used garment dealer women in search of credit facility... That was 1971. Some of these urban, poor, self-employed women workers came to the meeting that I called in a public garden where we formed our trade union (1972). We called it the Self Employed Women’s Association, SEWA.”
Similarly, David Bornstein describes how Grameen Bank was born out of Mohammad Yunus’ chance meeting with Sufiya Khatun who worked hard to make bamboo-stools throughout the day, and yet earned only 2 cents:
“… When Yunus asked why her profit was so low, she explained that the only person who would lend her money to buy bamboo was the trader who bought her final product— and the price he set barely covered her costs.
(Yunus) wanted to see if there were other villagers in similar circumstances… and compiled a list of forty-two people whose capital requirements, in order to buy materials and work freely, added up to about $26.00.
Through the years he would recount that story hundreds of times… I felt extremely ashamed of myself being part of a society that could not provide twenty-six dollars to forty-two able, skilled human beings who were trying to make a living.”
Delhi-based Goonj, which collects around 80,000 kilos of garments every month and brings them to the needy across 20 states, started when its founder Anshu Gupta was struck by a bundle of garments lying unused in his cupboard: “Here we are, a young family of two adults, new home-makers for just three years, not wealthy by any means and we have sixty seven pieces of good, usable garments we don’t want any more. Yet, but for the disaster we wouldn’t be giving them away.”
AID (Association for India’s Development), with 36 chapters in USA and more than a 100 projects in 18 Indian states, started with a modest proposal by its founder K. Ravi to his friends, asking them to contribute $10 to start a school in an Indian village.
The idea of providing affordable solar electricity to the rural poor came to Magsaysay awardee and founder of Selco India, Harish Hande, when he visited the Dominican Republic during his Master’s thesis. Hande came back to India, spent a year living in villages trying to understand the energy needs of rural India, and then started his venture with a ‘demonstration house’ in rural Karnataka employing two technicians. Today, Selco has more than 120,000 installations and 25 service centers.
The Rickshaw Bank was conceived when veterinarian Dr. Pradip Kumar Sarmah asked his rickshaw puller how much money he made, and found that he earned a paltry Rs. 50-60 a day.  Even after 16 years, he did not own the rickshaw and had to pay half his meagre earnings as rent.
Child Rights and You (CRY) started when 25-year old Rippan Kapur and six of his friends, sitting around his mother’s dining table, contributed Rs.50 each to create a fund that could “do something for the underprivileged Indian child”. Today, CRY is the largest child rights movement in the country.
The list goes on.
What also puzzled me was that the people who started these ventures were ordinary individuals, with limited means and modest backgrounds. What inspired them to create and do something significant was also just a commonplace occurrence, similar to the myriad situations that we all encounter in our lives. Yet, there was ‘something’ they had, which allowed them to transform an everyday experience or act into sustainable ventures that could create a major social impact.
So, what was that “something”?
As I learned more about social entrepreneurs, I found out that even though their fields of work were different (e.g., tribal and rural development, primary education, women empowerment, micro-finance, etc.), they all seemed to share five big qualities.

Belief in the possibility of change and human potential
Underlying their efforts was a somewhat ‘unreasonable’ optimism; they believed that despite adversity and the lack of resources and support, it was possible to create large transformations in a social system. This optimism was supported by a belief in human potential – their own and that of the people who are focus of their efforts – to make such changes happen. Ela Bhatt, for instance, was driven by the firm belief that even poor, illiterate women have a vision of personal change and the capacity to make it happen. Similarly, Harish Hande’s vision of bringing solar power to poor communities was based on the conviction that the poor can afford, pay for and maintain technology. It was this optimism and confidence that allowed them to envision futures that depended on human potential for self-empowerment.

Inspired Pragmatism
While the underpinnings of their motivation was an internal need to create ‘social value’, or ‘do something for the marginalised’ they did not adopt a charitable model to address these issues. Their effort was to develop a ‘social business’ model which was sustainable, and therefore, scalable. As Prof. Yunus once said, on his approach to eradicate poverty, “…I wanted to give money to people… so that they would be free from the moneylenders to sell their product at the price which the markets gave them...(I charged interest because) I thought if you do things in a businesslike way, then the project can become as big as you want it to because you are… not dependent on anybody… This is not charity. This is business: business with a social objective, which is to help people get out of poverty.”

The Capacity to Reframe Problems as Opportunities
Perhaps what distinguished them from most of us was their orientation towards opportunity. Their actions did not start with the decision of how best they could deploy the resources they had; rather, they started from the issues that needed to be addressed. They then worked backwards to identify the resources required to address those issues, and innovate opportunities for generating those resources.
Consider, for instance, the Delhi-based Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT), which provides education, meals, boarding facilities, information on basic hygiene, counseling, medical help and rehabilitation to around 3,500 street-children each year. To finance a part of its activities, SBT came up with ‘guided street walks’, which are conducted by the children. Not only does this help in humanizing the interface between street children and the socially privileged, it also provides a source of income to them and SBT.

Heightened Sense of Accountability to Those Served
The ventures they created were based on a deeply felt sense of obligation and accountability to the constituencies they served. There was an ethical impetus that guided their actions. However, there is another, more important rationale for this sense of accountability. Unlike the case of business entrepreneurs, the markets do not work well for social entrepreneurs in terms of providing feedback on their activities. When one is in the ‘business’ of creating social or environmental value, it is difficult to evaluate and monitor intangibles such as social improvement, public good (or harm), benefits for the marginalized, etc.
To offset this inefficiency in the environment in which they operate, they developed mechanisms to assess the needs of the communities they served, and the extent to which their efforts and actions impacted those needs. Wherever possible, they designed feedback mechanisms that reinforced their accountability to their constituencies. SEWA, for instance, developed a unique methodology to monitor its impact by asking ten questions related to its twin goals of providing ‘full employment’ (including income and social security) and ‘self-reliance’ to its members.

Ability to Work Across Boundaries
They built not just the organizations, but also a collaborative network across different stakeholders in the solution (e.g., the local population, state machinery, technology partners, financial institutions, donors).
Selco India, for instance, tied up with micro-finance agencies to provide credit to their customers and beneficiaries. Goonj works through more than a hundred grass-root organizations across states to deliver need-based garments. CRY collaborates with hundreds of NGOs to deliver resources to those who need them.
What perhaps made their ideas and actions sustainable was their ability to collaborate and create networks; to share ideas, resources and credit with others to increase the sense of ownership within that network.
After all, as Harry Truman had said a long time ago, “It is amazing what you can achieve if you don’t care who gets the credit.” ◆

Prof. Shukla teaches at XLRI, Jamshedpur. His interests include social entrepreneurship, creativity and social innovation, sustainable development and livelihoods.

© Differsense Ventures LLP 2012. All Rights Reserved.

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