Saturday, September 24, 2005

Watershed development

Keshav told me about this. WOTR (Watershed Organization Trust) is based out of rural areas in Maharashtra, India, and it is a perfect example of empowering the people to help themselves. According to the WOTR vision, watershed development does not only mean developing catchment areas around rivers and managing the soil and land. Since the environment and the people living in that environment closely interact with each other, therefore the people should understand not to over-exploit the natural resources which are the primary source of their income. But this is just the beginning of the thought process. What is fundamental to it is making the people aware of what is good for them and what is bad in the long term. The crux of all development activities boils down to bringing awareness to the masses. Everybody in the world is reasonably smart and rational - the key is to get them thinking - the vision is to empower them so that they can take care not just of themselves, but the entire community as a whole. Everybody knows how to pursue their own selfish motives, but this does not generally lead to the best solution that is sustainable in the long term and has a sum larger than all all individual gains put together.

WOTR starts with watershed development that includes afforestation, soil, land, water, crop, livestock, and energy management. Then they go beyond into gender mainstreaming by promoting women because right from traditional times, women have looked after household needs such as food, fuel, fodder, and water. They help in the formation of Self-Help Groups (SHGs) where all the women come together to defend each other in times of diversity. Once this awakening has taken place, the same SHGs and many more come together into promoting other projects like micro-financing, health care, and environment sanitization. Farming is the main occupation of the people in the rural areas, and with all the extra awareness comes the need for a communication infrastructure, which in turn brings in more awareness, leads to the construction of schools, builds up a critical mass of educated individuals, and the development spiral keeps growing.

Over a period of 10 years or so, WOTR has expanded its activities to 800 villages and has over 100000 participants.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Grameen Bank

Projects need not be only infrastructure related. Consider the tremendous success of the Grameen Bank which was started in 1983 in Bangladesh, and now disburses over $500 million a year, provides employment to 14000 people, has 1600 branches, works in 55000 villages, and has more than 4.89 million borrowers out of which 96% are women. No collateral is needed if you want to borrow money from the bank - only trust is sufficient. No borrower is taken to a court of law in case on non-payment. No borrower signs any legal instrument. Yet the bank is so successful and has recovery rates of 98.93%. It has not taken any donor loans since 1995, and has made a profit each year. It now has beggars as members, gives housing loans for the poor, support micro-enterprise loans, life insurance, pension funds, retirement benefits, scholarships, and educational loans as well.

One of the biggest successes of the Grameen Bank has been the telephone ladies, where almost 150000 ladies borrowed money from the bank to purchase phone services, which they now resell to the rest of the village on a public phone basis and earn a living through that. This is a superb example of how one development can lead to another. An Economist study shows that an extra 10 phones for every 100 people increases the GDP by 0.6 percentage points.

Take a look at the website.

A recent article in Business Week is about the vision of Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank. They are diversifying from micro-credit to telecom, health care, and much more.

Kenya pilots handheld education

EduVision is a company based out of Kenya that is trying to eliminate the cost of textbooks to make education more affordable. They instead hand out PDAs which can store and display a large amount of educational e-content. The PDAs can even be used to do and submit assignments, plus the new form factor makes studying and teaching even more exciting. The content is downloaded over the satellite in the school buildings, and then pushed across to the student PDAs on WiFi. Here is a link to a BBC article on this.

Wireless communication for rural areas

Laying out telephone cables or fibre to the villages, or erecting cellphone towers in remote areas is not commercially feasible. Over the last couple of years, the wireless community has been working on wireless meshes where the communications towers will talk to eachother over wireless, and there will be no need to connect them through fibre or copper inbetween. First Mile First Inch is running a project in Mpumalanga, South Africa, where they are using antennas carved out of tin-cans (called cantennas) to enable VoIP communication on WiFi meshes. Project Akshaya in India connected Malappuram village through a mesh network based on a proprietary technology from Airspan called WipLL. The Tier research group at UC Berkeley is working on the design of cheap communication towers to be deployed in areas where there are no powerline available. MeshDynamics is another company that works on the design of WiFi meshes, and claim that their systems will also be compatible with WiMax, whenever it comes out. Intel especially sees a bright future in WiMax for providing Internet access to rural areas and to plug the broadband gap. Once Internet services are available wirelessly, VoIP phones can easily be used for voice communication on the same infrastructure as well. Are WiMax meshes the solution to a cheap communication infrastructure instead? The links are as follows:

First Mile First Inch
Project Akshaya
Tier research group
WiMax for rural areas

Net and phone connection for every man and woman

Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala from IIT Madras heads the TeNet research group and focuses on developing low cost communication products. He has helped in starting a number of product companies, the latest one being n-Logue which wants to fulfill the need for Internet and voice services in every underserved small town and village in India. Their technology works on the CorDECT Wireless in Local Loop system developed at TeNet. Using the traditional PSTN landline, it costs Rs.30000 per landline installation, but n-Logue can do it for less than Rs.15000. Furthermore, they can setup an Internet and public phone kiosk for Rs.40000, equivalent to hardly $800. Professor Jhunjhunwala has a vision of having these kiosks operate on a model similar to the PCO model advocated by Sam Pitroda where the kiosk operator derives a small percentage of revenue from each phone call or Internet session that kiosk hosts. As this article says, the technology is no more experimental, but has been deployed in 11 countries already. Is this the answer to ubiquitous phone coverage in India? The links are as follows:

Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala
TeNet research group
To every man (and woman) a Net connection


Started by Suraiya Haque in 1991 in Bangaldesh, Phulki helps in the operation of daycare facilities by training women employees and employers alike. They have set up 55 daycare centers, providing help to 20000 working mothers and their children. Here is a link to their website.

Development Alternatives

Development Alternatives (DA) was started in 1993 by Ashok Khosla to innovate and make products that can generate employment in rural areas, and make the basic amenities of life affordable for the people. They have made different roofing systems, paper recyclying plants, handloom textiles, cooking stoves, and boimass based electricity. They even operate on a franchise model to provide communication and Internet access in villages for educational courses and e-governance. Based out of Delhi, they have created more than 300000 sustainable livlihoods across India. Click right here to visit their website.

Gram Vikas

Gram Vikas is a rural development organization working in Orissa, that helps to organize the people to tackle basic health and social problems. Right from working in rainwater harvesting, to construction of granaries, setting up of power generation units, schools, hospitals, they even help towards strengthning local governance at the villages and Gram Panchayat levels. They are presently working with a population of over 140000 (28000 households) across 400 villages in 15 districts of Orissa, one of the most impoverished states of India. Here is a link to their website.

Waste Concern

In the early 1990s, Iftekhar Enayetullah and Maqsood Sinha from Bangladesh came up with a unique idea of tackling the hygiene problem in Dhaka. Trash would normally remain littered all across the streets, left to rot, breed mosquitoes, and give rise to many diseases. Iftekhar and Maqsood then started Waste Concern which trained unemployed youth, who would otherwise have taken to petty crimes and a worthless life, to collect garbage from the homes and streets and dump it at the massive Matuail dumping site. At Matuail, they set up a composting plant which converted trash into organic matter and used the biogases released to generate power. The decomposed trash was also utilized as a fertilizer for farmlands. Waste Concern has now entered into a $10 million project sponsored by Netherlands based World Wide Recyclying to scale up the Matuail site and set up similar plants in other parts of the country as well. The Waste Concern website has many interesting papers to read as well. News coverage given to Waste Concern:

Power supply is down in the dumps. Wired News, Aug 17 2005.
Garbage recyclying. The New Nation, Bangladesh, Aug 30 2005.
Waste Concern

Schwab Foundation

Schwab is another foundation of social entrepreneurs with operations across the world. Do take a look.


Started in 1980, Ashoka promotes social entrepreneurs across the world to execute their ideas. There are now over 1500 Ashoka fellows in 53 countries, working in the areas of education, environment, health, human rights, civic participation, and economic development. Ashoka spends almost $17 million sponsoring Ashoka fellows, and it does not accept funds from government organizations - only from private individuals and foundations. They even take interns and offer volunteer opportunities with organizations around the world. The website is a storehouse of information about Ashoka fellows and their projects. Do subscribe to the newsletter.

Profits, with a conscience

Keshav pointed me to this article and gave a name to it all. Click right here.

Aurolab, India and Catalytic Health, SFO: Make lenses for cataract surgery for $4, compared to $100 in the US. Make opthalmic sutures for $30 per box, compared to $200 in the US. Make hearing aids for under $200, compared to $1500 in the US.

Waste Concern, Bangladesh: Power generation through biogases from garbage recyclying. The garbage is actually collected from the homes and streets by ragpickers - creates employment, cleans city, produces power and fertilizers. I will write more about this later.

Easy Being Green, Australia: Makes homes more environmentally friendly by reducing the gas consumption through solar energy, and collecting rainwater to raise the water table level.

The consistent theme is that even non-profit-organizations should think big.

Sarah Mclachlan: World on Fire

Sonesh gave me this pointer. Click right here

A music video can cost up to $150,000, but this video was made in $15. The rest of the money was used as follows:

$200 = Cost of production assistant for 1 day = School fees for 100 children in Ethiopia
$480 = Cost of 1 office phone = Equipment for 10 classrooms in Africa
$5000 = Cost of makeup and hair for 1 day = 1 year of schooling for 145 girls in Afghanistan
$500 = Cost of sound playback = Cost of all nuts and bolts to hold 50 houses together in Bangladesh
$1150 = Cost of filming equipment = 5 bicycle ambulances in Nepal
$9500 = Money spent in meetings, taxes, and union fees = Money needed for film screening in West African refugee camps towards education and escapism for 180000 refugees
$10200 = 2 hours of film stock = 6 wells build in 6 different countries
$3500 = Cost of a production supervisor = Schooling and support for 70 children of war in Sierra Leone
$3000 = Catering for a 1 day shoot = 10950 meals for street children in Calcutta
$5400 = Studio costs = Independence for 100 widows in Afghanistan
$15000 = Camera and art department cost = Power generator for small scale industries and businesses
$2625 = Cost of electricians for 1 day = Livestock as a source of food and income for villages across world
$15000 = Cost of 1 mobile medical unit in India which will treat 150000 people in its lifetime
$2500 = Cost of editor for 1 day = Schooling for 100 children in Tanzania for a year
$11000 = Cost of editing and post = Money for running a street children's hospital for a year
$1500 = Training in skills for 7 former child soldiers which can help them rebuild their lives
$3500 = 100 grannies adopted
$16500 = Director's fees = Total running cost of a South African orphanage for 1 year
1 sq mile = Area of Central Park in NYC = Area of largest slum at Kibera in Kenya housing 800000 people
$7500 = Earnings of producer = 6 months medicine for 5000 patients
$22500 = Production company = 12 room clinic in Kibera

It is not about asking for money, but it is about telling people how easy it is to do so much. A list of donations is right here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Social entrepreneurism: A new perspective to development

Back in India I had always lived a very normal, comfortable, and unsophisticated life: Having fun with friends, going out with family for dinners and movies, working, studying, relaxing - the usual life anybody would have led. Just like everybody else, I would crib about the traffic jams and the broken roads and the smelly streets and the rampant corruption in India. Just like everybody else, I had taken all these things for granted, as well as the feeling that nothing could be done to change this. Then I moved to Canada for my PhD, and as before, I lived a very normal, comfortable, and unsophisticated life. The standards of living and the amenities available here were however very different. There were hardly any traffic jams or broken roads or smelly streets or rampant corruption to be seen in Canada, and I was very happy with all this. After spending about a year and a half in Canada, I went back home to India to visit my family and friends. The traffic jams and the broken roads and the smelly streets and the rampant corruption were still there, but what was new was a hope for change as well. Having hope for something is just a matter of perspective, and my perspective had changed. I was convinced that changing India was possible afterall. Here is how.

When I drove from Lucknow to Kanpur to visit my alma mater, this time I did not notice the traffic jams and the broken roads and the smelly streets, but I noticed the cellphone connectivity that was now available all along the highway.

When I wanted to find out about motorbike rental companies in Manali, I was very apprehensive about the difficulties I would have to face in getting all the information, but all my concerns turned out to be prejudiced and ill-founded. All that I had to do was to step out from home on to the road, walk into one of the large number of Internet cafes everywhere, search for rental companies on google and get some contact numbers, walk into an adjacent public phone booth of which there are many, and place a few calls. It was all so easy. I cannot imagine doing this in Canada where you cannot find Internet cafes, and once you do, you cannot find phonecards to make calls from phone booths.

When I drove from Manali to Leh on roads that had been roads once upon a time, I did not get frustrated with the bumpy ride and the dusty roads and black-smoke-spewing trucks, but I was amazed to see phone lines laid out at altitudes of more than 4000m on desolate dry barren rocky mountains.

People from India had done this. The same people who created wonders like the Taj Mahal, who made the Bhakra Nangal dam, who launched satellites into space, who constructed the highest roads at heights of 5600m, the same people who made oil rigs in the middle of the ocean had done this. The capability and potential for doing wonderful and amazing things was all there always. The hope was all there always. The optimism was there always. It was just a matter of realizing the obvious that I had missed so far.

Let me now give you a more immediate and very real example. Back at home, we and all our neighbors would collect the kitchen garbage each day in plastic bags and toss it over the wall into an adjacent empty plot of land. No questions asked. This had changed when I went back to India. The people from the colony now pooled in thirty rupees each and had hired a young boy who would pick up the garbage from all the homes each morning and dump it at a dumping station some couple of kilometers away.

For me, this one singular incident where the people themselves reasoned out a very practical solution for a communal cause, opened a whole big world in front of my eyes. The people of this huge slow lumbering nation had finally started thinking intelligently, rather than remain indifferent to things that they did not consider as their social responsibility. This, in my opinion, is a whole cultural change that is taking place right now all across the country, and it is certainly not localised to any particular community. I read about rain harvesting projects in Orissa, sewage treatment to produce electrical power in Rithala, water treatment to produce clean drinking water along the Ganges, and many more projects. I found that there are more than 25000 NGOs working on different things in India, which translates to a huge number of 42 NGOs per district on an average. Such, and many more things are happening already. And this is a social revolution that is not just taking place in India, but in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Kenya, South Africa; basically, all over the world because a critical mass of awareness among the educated section of society has been reached now in the 21st century. All that is needed is a vision to bring awareness to the masses and organize them towards a collaborative goal.

If you want to make a difference, now is the time to do it. Now is the time to give back to your country all that you can dream for it to achieve. And this is not difficult at all. You just need to do it. And there is no derth of good ideas for development. Ranging from education to health care, civic awareness, communication, power, small scale industries, there is no limit to the number of possibilities. And this is how you can make a difference easily.

Being such a vast and diverse country, India is at a very unique position at the moment. Not only is there a need to develop the urban and suburban areas of the country in terms of better hygiene and more schools, but there are also parts of the country that remain completely untouched by any kind of infrastructural development. In my opinion, the two most important things needed for economic progress are communication and electrical power. A lot of other essentials like drinking water, roads, hospitals, industries, schools, everything follow right after if the basic infrastructure is available. Low cost communication has been sufficiently researched and is ready for deployment even today. All that is needed is a coordinated effort to deploy this in the rural areas. Similarly, power generation through compost decomposition and biogas, solar power, wind power, are all very much possible even today. Once the ball is set rolling in these areas, one thing will automatically lead to another and will transform the entire landscape. If power is available in sufficient abundance, it can lead to the growth of industries. Industries will spur the need to develop a road and transport infrastructure. This will mobilize the population to bring in awareness and new ideas. Schools will follow. Hospitals will follow. And all this will transform the entire landscape.

So, let us see what is needed to go about all this. Motivated and visionary people? I think there are plenty of people who really want to do something for the country. Employees? Definitely there are lots of them. Money? Jeffery Sachs, economic advisor to the UNO, and author of the famous text 'The End of Poverty', advocates that the rich nations of the world should come forth with more funds for the developing countries. It will be wonderful if that happens, but there is another alternative as well through which we will not have to beg the capitalist rich nations of the world for money. And that is social entrepreneurism.

This means that all these development projects should be done in a profitable and sustainable manner, just like a business, by generating cash flow and creating employment for the very same people who will benefit from the infrastructure. If you have played games like Monopoly or Age of Empires or Sim City, you must be already knowing this. If you have a farm you start to grow grain in it and earn money. You use the money to hire more people and start a bread factory. You use the profits from the factory to buy more land and a tractor as well. The starting point is to erect that farm, and once you have it generate revenue, you need a vision to keep growing and keep going. Another example is the PCO revolution spear headed by Sam Pitroda. The reason why it succeeded was that the PCO owners running the business had an incentive to keep the PCOs functioning because they got a minor cut from each phone call that was made from the PCO. In the same way, all development efforts for the people must be economically self-sustaining and must involve the masses.

There are organizations like Ashoka which promote social entrepreneurs to pursue developmental projects. Waste Concern is an organization based out of Dhaka, Bangladesh that employs ragpickers to pick rotting trash from the streets and dump it at a composting plant which generates biogases for electrical power and cheap fertilizer for the farms. Barefoot College in Tilonia, India serves over 125000 people with rainharvested water, medical facilities, post office, Internet access and trains unemployed youth to be doctors, engineers, and architects. Development Alternatives from Delhi and Aurolab from Madurai in India innovate on technological and medical products to make them more affordable. I will write in detail about them, in subsequent blogs.

However, the vision I am advocating goes beyond that. Even if you do not have the skills or the knowledge or the circumstances to become a social entrepreneur, you can still do a lot. Many others have the necessary skills but not the vision - you can help them overcome the inertia in starting something. The key is to enable the right people to do the right thing. Even if you are a computer science researcher, you can try to create an environment for other researchers to work on low cost power generation projects. If you are a college professor, you can put together teams of students to work on weekend projects in nearby villages for teaching young children how to read and write. If you are a housewife, you can initiate the media to draw public attention to the poor state of roads in your area.

Another way in which you can support such social activities is by providing financial help. This means that if you start a profitable business, you should keep some profits for yourself, but channel the rest towards humanitarian development activities. It is the same vision of socialism formed in the 20th century in Russia, but it is not about changing the political system in India. It is about true socialism at the grassroot level, functioning in an autonomous manner, without any compulsion, just your own conscience, for your country. Somebody said that the key to sustainable capitalism is reasonable profits as opposed to maximizing profits. Out here, I am not trying to initiate a debate of socialism against capitalism, but I am just putting forth a reasonable and logical proposition that you will hopefully recognize as your moral and social responsibility. If you own a hotel, give some profits to the organizations that are trying to make a difference. If you are working, or running a movie rental store, or a coffee shop, or a cable network, anything, share your returns with the people who probably need it more than you do.

In the next few days I will write more about practical roadmaps and projects being pursued in different countries that uphold the vision of social entrepreneurism. If you have any ideas/pointers/comments or are just enthusiastic about contributing somehow, then do get in touch.