Article on Atlas Corps and Deadline for Fellows April 1st

Here is an excerpt from a Washington Post article on Scott Beale and the Atlas Corps, an organization we have written on numerous times in the past:

His creation is Atlas Corps, which lures highly-skilled non-profit decision-makers from India and Colombia to the United States for a year, running Sept. 1 to Aug. 30.

He concentrates on India and Colombia because he speaks the languages and because they have highly-developed non-profit sectors. They also have a high opinion of the United States, Beale said.

To join this program, go here before April 1st, which is when the applications are due.

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mKrishi – More power at farmers’ hands

The Hindu reports about mKrishi (mobile Krishi) a mobile agro advisory system launched by Tata.  It can help farmers get personalized advise and updated information on their mobile phones about factors that may affect their crops such as weather.

Prima facie, this looks very similar to Nokia’s LifeTools that ThinkChange India reported a few days earlier.  However, there is one critical aspect in which mKrishi goes one step further. mKrishi mobile phones, that run on Tata Indicom’s network, are equipped with sensors that can read and send data about the current status of their crops.  This combined with an on-phone camera, should help agricultural experts provide specific advise experts understanding the on-field situation correctly.

According to K. Ananth Krishnan, vice-president and chief technology officer, TCS, personalised information and advice are given after farmers submit the soil nutrient and farming pattern data (The Hindu)

Further, it is also usable by illiterate farmers to make a query from a cell phone using voice-specific functions and get a response as an audio message.

This initiative has fetched TCS Wall Street Journal Global Innovation Technology Award for 2008. As I researched further to form my own opinion, I came across Ramesh Jain’s post on mKrishi.  He is a Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at University of Michgan, Ann Arbor and an entrepreneur.  I suppose his testimony should have better credibility than mine!

This project is truly revolutionary — it goes farther than most similar projects do.

[TC-I Changemakers]: Echoing Green’s Cheryl Dorsey

Editors’ note: The ThinkChange India staff is committed to providing our readers with first-hand insights from groundbreaking changemakers. Readers will be able to see other conversations under our TC-I Changemakers tab.

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Cheryl Dorsey is the President of Echoing Green, a leading global nonprofit which “invests in and supports outstanding emerging social entrepreneurs to launch new organizations that deliver bold, high-impact solutions.” Since its inception in 1987, Echoing Green has awarded more than $27 million in start-up capital to over 450 social entrepreneurs. Unlike typical venture capital firms, they are authentic collaborators in the process of effecting social change:

We consider ourselves active investors-not just providing funding, but also helping our social entrepreneurs achieve their maximum potential through a range of support services, including training, networking opportunities, consulting, and championing. Similarly, we view our fellows as investment partners, with whom we collaborate as they build and grow their organizations and with whom we hope to have a long-term relationship.

Cheryl became President of Echoing Green in May 2002, ten years after being awarded the Echoing Green fellowship herself for “Family Van,” a community-based mobile health unit for at-risk residents of inner-city Boston neighborhoods.

ThinkChange India’s Prerna Srivastava and Shital Shah spoke with Cheryl about Echoing Green’s path-breaking work, and solicited her insights regarding the future of the social entrepreneurship sector. Special thanks to Shalena Broadnax for her unflagging spirit during the process of arranging this interview.

We were struck by Cheryl’s groundedness and passion for this field. Overall, Cheryl emphasized the importance of being embedded in the local community, sticking by one’s core values, the “human capital” side of the equation, and the ability of anyone to get involved in social change even if they are not an entrepreneur.

The full interview follows below.

The following questions were discussed over the phone. The answers are not verbatim.

ThinkChange India (TCI): Can you start by briefly describing the work of Echoing Green, including its history since inception? How has the organization evolved since 1992?

Cheryl Dorsey (CD): Echoing Green was started in 1987 by the founding members of a private equity firm, General Atlantic, LLC. The idea was to bring meaningful venture capital principles from the private sector to philanthropy. They provided wraparound technical support services to give the organization the best chance of success and be on the cutting edge of social entrepreneurship for positive social change. The organization started as a private foundation with secure revenue from many sources, but has since evolved into becoming a public charity. Now, Echoing Green is a social venture fund. Continue reading

Pizzas are good for these senior citizens

What do the words “new start-up”  and “garage” bring to your mind? The old stories about how all the tech companies started off to make today’s Silicon Valley? If that sounds a little too boring now, here is something as appetizing as a pizza. Started right here in India’s Silicon Valley by by Padma Srinivasan, 73 and Jayalakshmi Sreenivasan, 75 (as against in The Silicon Valley by a bunch of youngsters), Pizza Haven pumps in the revenues that it earns by catering to school kids and software companies (like HP, now that is some coincidence!) to running an old age home – Vishranti.

“Granny’s pizzas are a hit among the software professionals, not just because they are delicious, but also because they are sold for a cause,” said Padma.

The profit from pizzas and generous donations from some well-wishers have helped in completing the home for the eldely, named Vishranthi (Rest), in June 2008 (news from newkerala.com)

What is there to be learnt from this story? Of course, a for-profit model makes this home’s future secure. But there is a more important lesson. Sustaining a social initiative doesn’t always need a complex innovation! All it needs is for one to look around yourself and identify what they are looking for!

With the current model up and running, is the Vishranthi executive team looking for expansion? Absolutely!

“In Vishranthi, I am also planning to start an orphanage and vocational training centre for poor rural women. And again our pizzas will come in handy to finance all our projects.”

Nokia poised to help farmers to expand its rural base

Nokia is about to launch a set of “Life Tools” to be embedded in its mobile phones in an effort to expand its base into rural India. These Life Tools cater to the needs of the rural community with information on three different sectors namely Agriculture, Education, Entertainment. On agriculture, the Life Tool is likely to offer updated information on weather and market prices for the farmers produce on the mobile phone in the farmers native language.

As the old proverb goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Nokia’s datasheet on Life Tools provides an easy-to-understand picture. Evidently, this tool is developed not just to penetrate into rural India, but rather to the “rural world”.

If my everyday observation is any testimony, Nokia seems to have a wide user base at the lower economic sections of India, and this tool can be an excellent vehicle for informational empowerment of the rural Indian community. However, given that the rural buy is likely not going to buy these phones off a Nokia Priority Showroom, how Nokia is going to market this tool so that the buyer buys a low cost Nokia phone for its Life Tools rather than its ruggedness, ease of use or longer life would be an interesting point to observe. This may also be the crucial factor that may determine the tool’s success.

Round 2 with CGAP’s Gautam Ivatury

The ThinkChange India staff is committed to providing our readers with interviews with people we believe are at the brink of something special but have for the most part been overlooked by the mainstream media. Readers will be able to see other conversations under our TC-I Changemakers tag.

This week, Vinay sat down (over the phone) with Gautam Ivatury of the global microfinance center CGAP, which works to expand poor people’s access to financial services. Such services include but are not limited to microcredit and branchless banking. This interview is a follow up to one conducted on May 4, 2008, which you can read here.

Vinay Ganti: Could you please review yourself on the following topics, which we discussed in our last conversation?

  • Reaching beyond MFIs:

Gautam Ivatury: This still continues to be a major focus of CGAP’s mission. Across all of CGAP’s work we continue to look for ways to partner with a range of institutions and providers, including but not limited to MFIs, to be able to massively expand financial services for poor people.

GI: With regard to branchless banking, we set out to accomplish a number of goals. Overall we have been happy with the results of CGAP’s work in this area over the last six months, despite the fact that it has taken longer than expected for our project partners (in countries like Pakistan, Kenya, Mongolia, South Africa and elsewhere) to roll-out the branchless banking channels we helped design and finance.

Since our last talk, CGAP has expanded its policy and regulatory diagnostic work in branchless banking. New markets analyzed have included Colombia, Argentina and Indonesia, and we’ve continued to maintain close dialogue with the Reserve Bank of India and regulators elsewhere.

Also, the actual awareness of mobile banking in the field, i.e. what is and how it can work, has increased dramatically in the past. Last May we co-organized the first major annual event on “Mobile Money” for the unbanked in Cairo with the GSM Association (the industry body for the world’s 700+ mobile operators), IFC and DFID. That event got more than 500 paid attendees, most from private industry. And this week at the GSM World Congress in Barcelona, GSMA and other private sector players will announce additional activities in the space. DFID announced its new FAST program to encourage branchless banking this week. Initiatives like these are critical to get widespread adoption of the concept and to achieve scale. Moreover, major consulting and research outfits like Aite, Monitor and McKinsey have started research and published reports on the topic.

At the same time, our seven branchless banking projects have been slower to launch than we all expected two years ago. There have been some notable achievements — our Philippines partner has entered three new rural provinces and signed up about 80,000 new mobile banking clients, and Telenor bought 51 percent of Tameer Bank (our partner in Pakistan) to jumpstart its mobile banking initiatives. But in general the implementation of mobile / branchless banking has been slower than anticipated.

VG: Why do you think this is? Continue reading

[TC-I Changemaker]: NComputing makes $70 PC for the Poor

The ThinkChange India staff is committed to providing our readers with interviews with people we believe are at the brink of something special but have for the most part been overlooked by the mainstream media. Readers will be able to see other conversations under our TC-I Changemakers tab.

Last week, Vinay sat down (via webcast) with Stephen Dukker, Chairman & CEO of NComputing , a company that has developed a low-cost, robust virtual pc platform that enables numerous workstations to be run on a single desktop machine. While the company originally intended to
take corporate visualization products like VMWare head on, Dukker and the rest of the management team recognized early that their inexpensive architecture would be ideal for the developing world as well. Predicted by
some to be the next Google, the company has positioned itself to explode in India. Dukker took the time to speak with TC-I about the unique features of NComputing’s platform.

Editor’s update: At the writing of this interview, NComputing had just hired Raj Choudhury, formerly at BEA India, as Country Manager for India. Full story can be read here.

Vinay Ganti: Thank you Stephen for taking the time to speak with me and the TC-I community today. Let’s start out at the beginning, what exactly has NComputing set out to do?

Stephen Dukker: To break it down to its simplest point, we are offering the world a $70 PC. We have developed a means for profitably providing a computing workstation for $70 each that includes all of the necessary virtualization hardware and software – a price point we believe will finally make access to computers a reality throughout the globe.

VG: Wow, $70 for a PC seems rather incredible, especially given how much attention the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) has gotten for reaching the $100 price point (NOTE: that was their goal, they are selling for $177 FOC China). How exactly does NComputing manage to provide a PC for only $70?

SD: NComputing effectively leverages the continuing trend of increasing processing power of the everyday desktop computer. A typical $700 desktop found in a home has effectively become as powerful as a mainframe. With 3Ghz of power and multiple gigs of ram, these computers usually utilize less than 1% of their processing capabilities. In essence, many desktops waste their capacity and as a result waste energy.

Continue reading