How do we go from here?

I read Atanu Dey’s take on Innovation and Entrepreneurship in India in response to a question put forward by Sramana Mitra on her blog Why is the entrepreneurial ecosystem in India not coming together as well as it needs to?

Atanu makes a strong pitch for leveraging existing solutions for development, reasoning that India has not yet reached a stage where we need “cutting edge research and development.” It is sufficient to implement known innovations, he conjectures. A compelling argument but I feel there are a lot of points that need to be bought out in this respect.

To start with, let us understand that we are talking about two things “Does India need (more) innovation?” and “Why does India not innovate as much as it needs to?” And, in my opinion, the answer to the latter does not lie in the former.

Coming to the first question, India does need more innovation, in fact it needs lots of that. Why? A few reasons:

1. India cannot simply follow the development process that US followed. It can take cues but trying to imitate exactly the same cycle will lead to half baked results. To be sure, innovation does not necessarily imply high technology. It also implies a technology/concept that apart from being “innovative” is implement-able too. We did not have to go through the “pager usage phase” to reach “cell phone mobility” even though we did try that. Lets take up rural innovation. We need to innovate and find out ways to increase yields on small land holdings. We need to innovate when it comes to connecting villages to the national mainstream using IT and Internet. Innovation not just in terms of technology but in terms of pricing, marketing, sales & distribution. Isn’t the Amul cooperative model innovative? Ecoflo from Bhinge Brothers[PDF] is one such innovation in rural technology.

2. India needs scale. Incidentally while attending a class at CSIM, Chennai on Saturday, I had stated the same point. India cannot blatantly import models of growth or innovation from developed countries because of its sheer size. Being a democracy makes the task even more challenging. Taking cues from countries like Brazil seems more pertinent especially when it comes to designing solutions for the masses. Dr K L Srivastava at CSIM Chennai made a point in the class, that scale is not always the case – citing disability related issues as an example. In my opinion, looking at absolute numbers the “niche” in India dwarfs similar numbers in US. Scalable solutions are really important.

3. India is a unique country. When I say this, my point is not to allude towards our rich culture and the related. I am trying to draw attention to myriad languages, populations, cultural differences, attitudes, motivations. Even solutions customized for India may not necessarily work for the entire country. Regional innovation is also important. To give you an example, an Internet based micro lending organization like Rang De faces a lot of initial skepticism from lenders because of the non-profitable NGO thinking that social development is generally associated with.

4. India needs to leverage the technology to create more technology. The “low hanging fruits” of existing innovation may have either gone bad or may not even suit my palate. But I can use the seeds of these fruits to create hybrid varieties which I may be able to consume.

Coming to Sramana’s question of why are we not as innovative as we need to, a lot of answers have already been put on her blog. However, innovation is an exponential function. And the required start has been made. Readers can read this blog to find out innovations being undertaken in the social development sector. Not to mention, the Indian solutions like Tata Ace and Nano, Bajaj’s experiment with fuel efficiency. Aravind Eye Care may be cited as an exception that proves the rule – innovation is to be expected from the youth. But, nevertheless, it does prove that innovation can come from any field/age. We have organizations like RIN (Rural Innovations Network) and SRISTI which are fostering and encouraging innovation. One field that is seeing considerable traction is financial inclusion and for the right reasons, of course. I am hoping to see more progress in this one field which in turn will be one of the catalysts for more innovation.

I have been amazed at the optimism we share at TC-I, but it should not be mistaken for foolhardiness. It may be because we have the right balance in terms of experience and intellect.


Back to the drawing board? — A harsh look at microfinance

To start, I want to say that my mind has been racing despite sleep deprivation and jet lag since I touched down in Mumbai at 0135 IST this morning. This is the first I have set foot in India since 2005 and thus my first visit since the inception of TC-I, which makes the experience all the more exhilarating. But on to the post …

In the past, I have criticized microfinance’s shortcomings, particularly with regard to its inability to actually stimulate significant job creation. However, I also have recognized that despite its downfalls, microfinance still serves as a useful tool in the arsenal of a poverty alleviation strategy.

Now, microfinance has come under more scrutiny, as opponents argue that this financial product actually hurts the interests of the poor and that it can lead to the romanticization of the bottom of the pyramid, creating dangerous consequences. These new arguments further support my point that microfinance is relative to other approaches not an effective tool in combating poverty.

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To Profit or Not to Profit

According to Mr Chu, “to roll back poverty rather than to merely alleviate it”, any solution needs to be able to reach massive numbers, deliver permanent results that can help many generations, provide continuous effort so it gets better and better at what it does, and provide continuous efficiency so it also becomes cheaper and cheaper. Mr Chu believes the only state that can offer all these four requirements is business.

From a review of a debate between the father of microfinance Mohammad Yunus and Michael Chu, former President and CEO of ACCION. Given that today’s Blog Action Day is focused on poverty, it seemed fitting to highlight this issue. 

Can we truly reach microfinance’s potential without the efficiency and scalability gains that business and for-profit models provide? Is profiting off of the poor unethical, and as Yunus argues, should we only be looking to sustain the model at the lowest possible point of surplus?

You can read the rest of the recount by Amy Rennison here at

On Bailouts, Boons and Bill Clinton

So living in New York City has made it damn near impossible to not be wrapped up in the minute by minute saga that is the US financial crisis. Moreover, the fact that here at Stern Business School, over 50% of our job prospects have evaporated with the slew of bankruptcies and buyouts has effectively forced this issue to the fore of nearly all of my conversations with people.

Given the magnitude, surprise and potential dangers of this crisis, I am about to break one of the unofficial rules of this blog and actually talk about something that is happening outside of India’s borders. I am doing this for three reasons: first, the effects of this financial crisis will no doubt have ripple effects the world over including people all the way in rural India; second, this financial crisis has very unique characteristics that we can learn from with regard to microfinance; and third, the global implications of how the US deals with this crisis has huge symbolic and practical ramifications.

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Ceding the floor to the other side, even if just for a moment

The greater point is that not all products and services are the same, and in some cases creating sustainable markets may be all but impossible. Though it is certainly not “ideologically attractive,” I strongly believe Kremer and Miguel are correct in reminding us that for at last some essential public goods and services “There may simply be no alternative to ongoing subsidies financed by tax revenue raised either from local or national governments, or international donors.”

This is the penultimate paragraph of a great post by Dan Kopf on the India Development Blog. It recognizes an unfortunate yet necessary limitation to the quest for finding sustainable solutions for some problems. Sometimes, you cannot do it. But the most poignant comment of this post is the recognition that accepting that such goods exist will be very unpopular in today’s development community.

The paper that Knopf referrs to, titled the “Illusion of Sustainability”, can be found here.

Is Urbanization Really The Answer?

Atanu Dey’s article and analysis on the Urbanization and Development of India lends itself to interesting opinions and conclusions on an important topic that encompasses many cross-cutting issues. Dey follows the model of linear development in his conclusion:

Therefore the rural people have to be urbanized for India’s development and growth. Every economy has followed that path which begins with agriculture being the main source of income for the majority of the population and ends with agricultural employment being a very small fraction of the total labor force.

While the general tone of development in countries across the world is centered around cities, I wonder if such a model is healthy for a place like India, where most of its population lies in rural areas. The implications of the migration shift could be destructive, from family issues to shifts in labor markets to environmental impacts.

Another surprising aspect of the article is that Dey asserts that people actually prefer to live in urban slums:

Most Indians living in villages would welcome the chance of living in well-designed efficient cities. They are already doing so as is evidenced by the fact that tens of millions of rural people migrate to cities – often choosing to live in urban slums. They are voting with their feet saying that life in an urban slum is preferable to life in a village.

Perhaps the issue is more about the lack of economic opportunity in villages – given good employment prospects and the availability of basic services in rural areas, I’d venture to say that more people would opt to stay in a place where they have stake over the land and the possibility of a higher standard of living.

Although I believe his conclusion is arguable, the question Dey sets out to answer is a valuable one: is urbanization really the answer? Should India focus more on creating these “mega-cities” rather than developing rural infrastructure?

Stern words for climate change and development

Made famous by the epynomous report on climate change, Sir Nicholas Stern spoke recently on the need to reframe the climate change debate through the lens of development. He said that the two were tied at the hip. Here is the video.

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Here is an excerpt taken from the speech:

Development and climate change are the two big issues of the 21st Century. And unless we tackle them together we will fail on both of them. Climate change, if it goes on unmanaged will undermine development. Any response to climate change which appears to stall development will fail. It will fail politically and it will deserve to fail. Unless we tackle them both together we are not going to be successful on either…Now, how does all this work? Well, climate change starts with people and it ends in people. [Source: Global Development: Views from the Center]

My 2-cents after the jump …

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