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Thoughts on Social Entrepreneurship - Part 1

With the recession related job loss becoming a reality in India, people are looking at alternative career options. There are a few who are setting up their own small businesses, whilst a large number of newly unemployed or under-employed are trying to look for 'secure' jobs, and engaging themselves in discussions about the 'turn around' - when it will happen, and what will be the new lucrative avenues for employment.

Like most sectors, the nascent startup ecosystem in India is also suffering, although the relative lack of media focus on the startup scene meant that most of us are hardly aware of the churn.

In this context, the area of 'social entrepreneurship' assumes importance for the following reasons:
1.The potential for success and scaling up is enormous in India because of the untapped needs of our 1 billion plus population.
2.Social entrepreneurship is not easy, but the startup capital required is not high, and there are practically no entry barriers.Any one can do it, full time or part time.Crowd sourcing may be difficult for a traditional startup company, but social entrepreneurship demands and thrives on crowd sourcing.
3.The welcome changes in the governance approach of both Union and State governments in India has made public-private partnerships more feasible than earlier.
4.The social entrepreneurship model has the potential to create thousands of jobs, and target all sections of the society with its goods and services.One can make a real difference to one's geographical community, and that feeling of satisfaction is not some thing money can buy.
5.The branding process in this model is relatively straightforward (the whole world loves a winner fighting against seemingly tough odds), and this branding can then be leveraged for public and personal good.

Ok, enough of a plug for this 'model'. Now, what exactly is social entrepreneurship?

Is it the same as setting up an NGO, generate funds, and implement some developmental programs? Yes, and No.

Yes, because one can use the NGO route to implement this model.There are many successful NGOs that have started small, involved the community, and managed to better the lives of a few people. But in India at least, the NGO sector has had a lot of bad press, and most of the criticisms are valid.

A social entrepreneur, as per Wikipedia is some one who recognizes a social problem, and uses entrepreneural principles to organize, create, and manage social change.

Such an enterprise need not be non-profit, it can blend a revenue-generating business with a social-value generating structure or component. The poster boy for this classical definition of a social enterprise is Mohammed Younus of the Grameen Bank fame.

Okay, so there are already dozens of micro-financing NGOs and for-profit self-help organizations, some promoted and run by the Govt in several states of India. What's new here?

Even though the micro-finance sector is far from getting saturated, I agree that getting into that sector is no longer as cut and dry as it used to be. So, lets take a look at some of the other sectors that look promising.But please note that I would like to focus on for-profit models in my discussion/s here.

1.Farming - Yes, farming. There is a huge potential in this sector for new businesses, especially in the area of sustainable farming.
Sample idea: A group of friends get together, pool some money and buy/lease some land.They then implement sustainable farming methods in that piece of land.They don't stop there. They canvass the benefits of the methods in nearby villages, and sign up more farmers on their scheme.The scheme is - study the market, produce marketable stuff, and use good marketing techniques to create a brand and charge a premium. How does 'Sangareddi Papaya' strike you?

There could be many variants of the scheme depending on what can be grown locally, what products could be delivered to the super market chains and be exported, what will be the margins, and how does one make it sustainable and scalable in the long run. One needs to use systems thinking and a lot of common sense.

Another variant to the farming idea is that of 'micro-farming'.If you go by the classic definition of micro-farming, you would need between two to five acres per farm plot to do any thing feasible. The spin on this concept is to take it to urban areas, and do a mini-micro farming :) There are people in Canada selling this as an idea with a methodology, training and all the jazz. Read this.

Now, imagine a group of friends (here on wards to be called simply 'a group') that goes to villages and spends a month or two recruiting subject matter experts in gardening and micro-farming.The group also visits agricultural universities and research institutes to gather useful data, and bring some theoretical experts on board.And creates a pilot site in an urban area - could be some one's terrace or backyard. (Side note: Have you heard of Mr.Shripad Dhabolkar? If not, read this inspiring account from Arun Shourie .)

With the pilot site ready, our group now starts canvassing in the entire city to sign up people who want to engage in mini-micro farming.People with front yards or back yards, but no time or energy to grow any thing.Apartment complexes with unused terraces, Govt offices with wasted open spaces, MNCs or desi companies who want to earn some carbon credits or offer a unique CSR opportunity to its employees, educational institutions with available empty space etc etc;

On the other hand, there will be people who want to do gardening/farming but don't have the space; youngsters who want to earn some money, home makers who have a few extra hours to spare and don't mind earning enough for their vegetables, fruits and flowers, retired citizens who wish to keep fit etc etc.

Our group brings them all together - it is possible to create a 100-acre operation in a small town and a 500-acre operation in a city within a year or two.(I admit I am yet to do the math.But then, I am in search of a group or groups my self !) And I strongly believe that with the benefit of our group's subject matter experts, adoption of proven best practices, and crowd sense based business decisions, the operations will turn in a neat profit for every one involved in the enterprise. Now that our group has succeeded in one town, they can brand the whole concept, and help other groups in other towns and cities through a franchisee model or a training model, to generate more revenues. Heck, the original SMEs could even open a 12-hr helpline to answer queries on line or on phone :)

So much to say on just the topic of farming, and I think I have just begun to scratch the surface here.And there are many other sectors to cover !

I will try to post my thoughts and crazy ideas on a few other sectors in the next few weeks.Please respond with comments, and suggestions.


Anonymous said…
Good idea. Yes really a vast potential in social enterprises and it is yet to be tapped.
Anonymous said…
Great thoughts man!These solutions are good in theory as well as they are implementable also!I am waiting for your next blog.
Kumar Narasimha said…
Anonymouses :)

Welcome to my blog.Wil try to post on this topic once a week.

May I request Anonymous posters to reveal themselves? :))