The Indian social impact sector is one of the liveliest in the world, with hundreds of rural innovation and social enterprises and entrepreneurs working to close the gap and fulfil the infrastructural and economical needs of the millions of people in the country that need it.
But what stops these organisations and entrepreneurs from growing? They need finance, technology, expert advice, and the business partnerships and connections to make their innovations catch up and scale.
It is this sort of ventures that AFI (Action For India) looks to support through its Silicon Valley Challenge (SVC)—social enterprises that have scale (or potential scale), is a BoP (Bottom of the Pyramid) orientation, and uses technology in their work. Every year, AFI selects five winners out of hundreds of applicants for the SVC. The SVC winners have a chance to interact with leading investors, entrepreneurs and executives in Silicon Valley giving them a chance to access the access the state of the art technology, skills and advice to help accelerate the social change they want to bring about.
Action For India organized its 4th Annual Forum in Bengaluru on January 31st and February 1st, 2015, in Bangalore. The annual flagship event brings together 100 leading social entrepreneurs from around the country and facilitates interactions with 100 “influencers”, including donors, impact investors, IAS officers, technology executives, and policy analysts. Three whole days of charged discussions, sector-based breakouts and 1-1 mentoring sessions and clinics helps entrepreneurs connect with the ecosystem that can take their ideas to the next level in terms of scale and impact.
Out of 10 shortlisted candidates who pitched to an eminent jury that included Lalitesh Katragadda, Desh Deshpande, and Nagaraja Prakasam, 5 winners have been chosen to travel to Silicon Valley to meet with some of the world’s top social business incubators like StartX (Stanford) and SkyDeck (Berkeley), to exchange ideas with technology experts and to meet with social impact investors looking for investment opportunities at the base of the pyramid in India.
The 5 winners of the SVC this year include social enterprises that demonstrate potential to scale and impact, and that provide clean drinking water, waste management, and health services (among others). We spoke to the winners about how their idea and where an ecosystem could help them:
Most medical infrastructure is built around urban areas, leaving rural patients with no alternative but to come to cities if they want good medical care. SAS Poorna Arogya is a community based, technology driven healthcare program that provides low cost health care services through a web based software (that combines pharmacy, billing and inventory data) to the urban and rural poor in collaboration with NGOs, Cooperatives, and network of recognized hospitals. They also have a female staff member (called ‘Sakhi’) in the community in cases where patients prefer talking to the Sakhi rather than a (male) doctor.
Working since 2010, it has around 5.5 lakh members, mostly BPL women who pay 1 rupee a day to get treatment in 108 network hospitals, they also have 4 multi-speciality hospitals. Their model has been recognized by the World Bank and they are looking to scale up the model in other states as well.
Mr. Vinayaka Mahey, Vice President SAS Poorna Arogya Healthcare said their main challenge is getting their enterprise to scale, which could best be achieved with improved technology. This is something they expect winning the SVC would help them with, they also look forward to network with AFI’s influencers and other entrepreneurs.
SankalpTaru Foundation is a non-profit organisation that initiates, develops, and manages reforestation and environmental conservation projects across India. They started in 2012 and have since planted and over 2 lakh trees. Their goals are to grow trees for their direct benefits (oxygen, waster sequestration), promoting biodiversity, and sometimes medicinal qualities (like neem and amla).The trees are planted and taken care of through community involvement. Donors ‘plant online’ (making a donation) and the SankalpTaru team plants these trees in areas chosen by the donor. Tree planting is verified by the team through photos and the use of satellite imaging.
Apurva Bhandari the founder of SankalpTaru says there is a lot of potential for them to increase their reach and work with more partners, whether they’re corporate or dedicated individuals. He says the entire process (selecting trees, beneficiaries, monitoring), is entirely plug and play and they would like to scale the program across India and the world, they would like to work with the network that the SVC brings.
3. MicroX Labs
Even a simple blood test requires you to travel to the hospital and wait for hours. MicroX labs is a medical devices startup incubated by IISc Bangalore that aims to resolve this problem through a cost effective medical testing device doing tests like CBC (Complete Blood count) that can indicate several diseases. They are working on similar devices that can provide tests for diseases like Dengue and HIV. MicroX labs’ innovation has been showcased at the World Economic Forum and Skoll World Forum among others.
Prabhat Kumar, Co Founder of MicroX Labs says that for any enterprise, getting funding at the right time is important, and they are no exception and things are hard for them since they are a pure technology enterprise not into ecommerce or any other more popular line. Despite winning several challenges across India and abroad, Prabhat says funding and getting to true scale with their product is a lot of work. They plan to fine tune their product in a few more months and look forward to opportunities that winning the SVC will bring them like funding and further technology expertise.
Drinkwell provides clean and affordable water to areas impacted by arsenic and fluoride poisoning with a novel technology that requires 1/16th the power and 1/4th the cost as compared to conventional solutions. Drinkwell uses a micro-franchise model (locally fabricated water filtration technology and business tools) to establish local water businesses in places affected by arsenic and other heavy metals (even bacterial contaminants). Thus, Drinkwell creates jobs, generate income, and improve health outcomes.
Minhaj Chowdhury CEO/Co-founder of Drinkwell says their main challenge lies in scaling up their processes. To ramp up operations, they need the IT back end, the quality control processes and technology like android open data and GIS. Minhaj says, “Being able to visit the Valley and getting the insight and guidance from actual technology companies we’re using (like Salesforce) will help us rapidly scale up our approach. We’re also excited about the possibilities by leveraging the Internet of Things (IoT) that will interface our water ATM system, (water quality) sensors, etc., and there’s no better place to do this than Silicon Valley. Of course, the team is excited about seeing the innovation in the valley and networking with influencers and other entrepreneurs.”
Garbage is a growing problem in the world, and especially in India. Saahas believes that when waste is managed at source, it becomes a resource. Saahas works with all generators of waste, (especially bulk waste generators who generate over 40% of the waste) to implement best practices in waste management so as to create ‘Zero Waste Communities’. Saahas is one of the few entities who have a business model around waste management. Currently, Saahas works with 22 entities and manages about 7 tonnes of waste per day, to impact the environment and create livelihoods (through composting for wet waste and recycling for dry waste).
Wilma Rodrigues, founder of Saahas, says that in the next few years, they want to increase the amount of work they do and manage about 80 tonnes of waste, as decentralized waste management becomes more accepted and common. Wilma says the biggest challenges is the current system of waste management where the focus continues to be on disposal rather than management, and poor enforcement of the legislation about waste management. Waste generators don’t understand that there is a responsibility to correctly manage the waste too.
About the potential of the SVC, Wilma says there is a need for these questions to come up, for these solutions too to have visibility. Saahas would like the opportunity to meet other entrepreneurs and investors though the SVC so that they can understand how they have scaled up. “It’s important to move from 7 tonnes/day to 80 tonnes in the next 3 years,” says Wilma, “To get the confidence to make that move is something we’re looking at through the SVC.”