This originally appeared in Emerging Students Magazine, a great new UK-based publication, showcasing stories of young innovators.
A Different World
Upon graduation I largely had two options largely – finance or consulting. I was advised to consider the latter.
When asked what else can be pursued, most college counsellors would advice to pursue a profession that pays much money – not ones we are inherently passionate about; Journalism, film-making, painting.
But money was not my drive. So much of our university existence is centred around our professional choices. Yet, enterprise arises out of experiences, not textbooks.
In light of The New Job Market, it was while travelling around India that I couldn’t help but notice new business models which reached larger markets. They had social impact without preaching it. I was allured by their ingenuity, frugality, and creativity; this was a movement that I wanted to be a part of.
It was back in 2008 that I first travelled to India for public health work. Having been born in Delhi, I was quite familiar with the land, its people, and the chaos of the Indian system. But this time I arrived as part of a team of volunteers, working on the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. We were to accompany the health workers as they went door to door vaccinating children for polio, a disease that’s been forgotten in the western world. It was here in derelict buildings, industrial towns, and rural villages that I got to experience social enterprise.
Since the rise of Dr Yunus and microfinance, the awareness for social enterprise has increased exponentially. A term that used to be lumped with Corporate Social Responsibility was finally getting its due. Why? Because they were proving themselves to be distinct with a vision for change that surpassed charity.
The entrepreneurs I came across here didn’t just face the challenges of limited capital but of the most elementary needs- regular power supply, reliable human capital, extreme temperatures, and poor infrastructure to make their ideas mobile. So, they decided to re-engineer their innovations. That gave birth to the modern movement of frugal innovation- businesses that don’t just identify gaps in the marketplace but find gaps in the technology. The aim is low tech- how much simpler can the process be made to strip costs and sustain a business model.
Traveling in India for public health, the most apparent need is low-cost medicine and clean affordable water. To meet these needs, especially for those crippled or handicapped by diseases like polio, two institutions decided to manufacture their own prosthetics- Jaipur Foot and St Stephen’s Hospital. As I peak into the consultation room at St. Stephen’s Hospital, Dr. Varghese, an orthopedic surgeon, is attending to a club foot case. A young girl, seven years old, has traveled from Kathmandu, Nepal, to see him. He’s ecstatic to see the xray: a foot that went completely to the right is now straight. His assistant is looming behind. He snaps a few shots of the xray. This case will be used as a sample to bolster Dr. Varghese’s model for health- take from those who can pay full price and shift to those who cannot pay full price.
Varghese has been at St Stephen’s in Delhi for over 20 years, evident in his pace through the hospital halls: he knows all the shortcuts, rushing through the corridors. Patients stop him along the way, seeking his guidance. He doesn’t push them away; rather he stops, taking a minute to address their needs. His Gandhian like appearance only adds to his charm and humility; he regards himself as much a public servant as a doctor.
He takes me to the basement where they engineer the prosthetics, made in house to avoid high prices. In fact, the corrective surgery (which includes the prosthetic) costs about $500. That’s a fraction of the cost in the West where the prosthetics themselves cost ten times that. And that doesn’t include surgery. The production facility is simple, earthy, and a bit haphazard; but it works. There’s little money spent on the aesthetics. Rather, the focus is on the work. How many of these can we crank out for as little as possible?
While Dr. Varghese is a medical professional, he’s just as much an entrepreneur, devising new models to shift costs from one market base to another, and crafting low cost equipment within the hospital to avoid high prices from medical brands. He developed cost-shifting long before business schools started studying these business models in their classrooms.
His work is an indication that entrepreneurship can arise in any field and even within the framework of large organizations. Consider working within the system, not outside it, bringing about reform from within.
Abhinav Das is a tenacious entrepreneur. Just 26 years old, he’s got a vision to transform the country’s rural transportation with his start up, Evomo Joined by a team of volunteers, including his younger sister Sneha, Das has been operating on his own funds, toiling away without a salary. Yet, he’s keen on the idea, not relenting to skeptics who question his design and vision. Inspired by his travels around northern and western India, Das tells Emerging Students that rural transport right now is haphazard, dangerous, and ineffective. That’s evident on Indian roads, which are home to not just cars and bicycles but makeshift vehicles, bullock carts, and overstuffed rickshaws.
That’s why, he says, “there’s a market waiting to be discovered: this is not the BOP market but a couple tiers above that.” Nevertheless, the social impact created is significant and because it qualifies as a sustainable business model with a strong social conscience, Evomo has been selected as one of the semi-finalists for the prestigious Echoing Green fellowship.
But the road to these honours has been a challenge. Meeting his sister in the heart of Delhi where we discuss the Evomo journey. She’s frustrated but hopeful; the money has been slow to come in, the support has been wavering at times, the inability of the investment community to grapple with the social element of their company is tiring. She mentions that there is still too much talk and too little action; funds are limited as investors have yet to grasp the long term impact of these ventures.
Yet, they persist.
This is the attitude of many social entrepreneurs in the region. They’re not willing to let go. They don’t let the bumpy roads, endless bureaucracy, nascent social enterprise community, and financial challenges stop them. In fact, they seem to embrace them, understanding that the Indian market is far more nuanced than just BOP (base of pyramid), middle class, and upper class. They create products and services for markets between those tiers, innovating with an eye for frugality.
And thus begs the question, are smartphones really the greatest innovations attracting a global, yet small market? or is the basic Nokia phone now an antiquity in the West, the greatest innovation; costs less, does more. Here likewise, Dr. Varghese works on hundreds of patients, giving legs to the crippled – and on a budget. And Das dreams of transporting millions and their cargo on his thrifty innovation.
In the subcontinent, less is more. What can we learn from these models? After all, we are in the middle of trying economic times. Should we be engineering products and services that go back to basics? Products that don’t just entertain us but also help us with the most fundamental needs in life.