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.

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.

echoing-green1

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

Are we humble enough?

I hope many of you did not miss this excellent op-ed by Rohini Nilekani on this Sunday’s edition of The Hindu. A philanthropist herself, Rohini talks about the changing face of philanthropy in India. Rohini has an interesting take on this new movement to create change:

But as I look around now, a lot of us, especially in the newer foundations, are in a big hurry to achieve social change. We want to reduce inequity and we want it now! We want measurable outcomes, we want replicability and we want scale. Some of this impatience to improve things quickly comes from the corporate ethos, where performance measurement is embedded in the  culture. Much of the new talent in the foundations and in the new citizen sector organisations comes from business.

For the answer to emerge, we will need patience, compassion and reflection. We will have to stop looking at issues in silos and constantly, and with humility look to support the elements of integration that build community; that recreate human values rather than just ‘things.’

Its a good time to point you to an earlier op-ed written by Vinay on this blog. He was highlighting the debate about the need for humility among social entrepreneurs. My guess is that there will be even more discussion on the topic in the coming years, as we start seeing bigger foundations emerge with even more money to spend. I only hope we are constantly reminded of the need for ‘patience, compassion and
reflection’.

[TC-I Changemaker]: Earnkarma lets you find your own way to volunteer locally

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.

This week, Vinay sat down (over Skype) with Gulshan Ramesh of Earnkarma.org, which links individuals/organizations that are in need of volunteers or any other kind of non monetary assistance with people who are looking to help them. Here, simplicity appears to be the initiative’s strength, as the site’s straightforward design is symbolic of the organization’s no nonsense attitude.

Vinay Ganti: Thank you for taking time to speak with us today? What exactly does Earnkarma.org hope to accomplish?

Gulshan Ramesh: The mission of Earnkarma is to be a website for volunteers, non-profits and so forth to post their requests for assistance so that those individuals that wish to help can do so. This way individuals that are passionate about a particular cause can locate an individual/organization hopefully near them to provide assistance.

The one major requirement is that none of the posts may involve requests for monetary help. We want to be a conduit for volunteering only. We will monitor every post to make sure this is the case. We do not want to become affiliated with charitable causes as then people may start becoming concerned with where exactly their money is going or how it is being used.

VG: Which areas of India can use Earnkarma?

GR: Actually we initially intended to have it provide volunteer opportunities throughout the world, but for now we are working on building out the United States and India. It is difficult to get the database for other countries. Within India, it is currently available in every state and every major city.

This website is intended for both organizations and individuals. You do not have to be some non-profit or NGO to benefit from the site. Let’s say that I have the desire to teach English on my weekends to local teenagers. I can post it on Earnkarma to see if anyone else in my area wants to join, and coordinate with them from that post. In this way the site could help create new organizations locally.

Continue reading

From Sex Workers to Successful Entrepreneurs

We reported here on TC-I couple of months back about India’s first sex-workers bank being set up in Mumbai. A group of sex workers in Mysore have gone a step-further and emerged as successful entrepreneurs. Organized under an organization called Ashodaya Samithi, the group of 150 female, male and transgender sex workers have set up a successful community kitchen which sells lunches. The initiative recently won the ‘Development Marketplace‘ competition conducted by the World Bank [via Rediff.com]

The short-listed 75 finalists from among the 1,000 were invited to Mumbai to set up a stall, exhibit and explain their proposal to a team of jurors and convince them on their proposal. A sex worker and Ashodaya secretary Bhagyalakshmi did the promotional work. She convinced the jurors on the innovativeness, replication and sustainability of their project and made Ashodaya qualify to receive the World Bank grant of $40,000 on May 15 in Mumbai from actor and UNICEF envoy Shabana Azmi

Its interesting to note that the theme of the comeptition this year was “Tackling HIV/AIDS Stigma and Discrimination”. For the sex worker community, running a successful business not only provides them a rerliable income opportunity, but also a better chance to tackle stigma and discrimation – a welcoming side-effect.

Unitus to recieve $9 million support from Omidyar Network

IndiaWest Online reports that Unitus, Seattle and Bangalore based organization providing consulting support to MFIs, just received a $9 million grant from Omidyar Network. The grant is meant to support expansion of Unitus programs beyond India.

The article features one of Unitus partners, MokshaYug Access (MYA). MYA recently received $2 million funding from Unitus Equity Fund (UEF) and we have featured MYA in this space before:

One of Unitus’s success stories in India is Moksha Yug Access, founded by 36-year-old Harsha Moily. MYA is based in Bagalkot, a rural district outside Bangalore. The organization partnered with Unitus in 2007, its second year of operation.

“The consultancy service from Unitus brought more efficiency to our operations which translated into lower interest rates for our borrowers,” Moily told India-West by telephone from Bagalkot. “I have access to the brightest minds at Unitus,” he said.

[TC-I Changemaker]: CGAP’s Gautam Ivatury on the linkage between technology and financial empowerment of 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.

This week, Vinay sat down (over the phone) with Gautam Ivatury of the The Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), a consortium of 33 private and public development agencies focused on working together to expand poor people’s access to financial services. Such services include but are not limited to microcredit and branchless banking. Within this organization, Gautam is the Manager of CGAP’s Technology Program (their blog on India can be read here), which focuses on researching, identifying and disseminating knowledge on how technology will help financial institutions deliver such services to the poor. The Technology Program is co-funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Vinay Ganti: First, I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with ThinkChange India and its readership. Why don’t we start out generally. Can you speak more on CGAP’s goals and how the aspect of technology plays a role?

Gautam Ivatury: CGAP is about building financial systems that work for poor people. However, there is more to it than that as we want this financial system to be integrated with the mainstream financial system at large. We do not want to create a state where the poor bank in some parallel world completely disconnected from the resources and financial options that other people enjoy. In essence we envision one inclusive financial system that provides tailored products to all types of people, including the poor.

This desire for inclusion partly stems from the need to develop financial institutions for the poor that are sound and stable, and one of the most effective ways to do that is to link them to the mainstream financial architecture. Poor clients need to have the same level of security regarding their savings and deposits as do individuals elsewhere in the traditional banking structure.

To address the stability while also providing a wide array of financial products, CGAP recognizes that there must be an approach that moves beyond just microfinance institutions (MFIs) and includes other players in the space to maximize choice for the consumer and to help us attain scale. When one looks past the traditional MFI, one observes postal banks, agricultural banks and other actors that are already helping the poor.

This is where the technology program becomes so critical as it is charged to identify those technologies that will best assist this wide range of potential providers to reach out to the poor regardless of their location or personal circumstances. Right now, the one obvious solution is the mobile phone and the rise of branchless banking that can be done via that medium.

VG: CGAP’s website highlights three key players — financial service providers, public and private funding organizations, and government policymakers and regulators — that are stakeholders in CGAP’s work. Can we discuss the conflicts that emerge among these actors?

GI: All of these actors are critical. Without governments implementing the proper regulatory framework for banking, it cannot be done. Likewise, the other stakeholders also play a vital role. In fact, there is a fourth actor, whom CGAP does not deal with directly, who are the actual customers themselves. In any market these can at times become opposing forces. Government wants safety plus access; businesses want to make money. This forces CGAP to take a practical approach with each stakeholder.

Each player has different incentives and needs, and therefore when our conversations with them require differing skill sets that reflect these distinctions. When you sit down with a banker you have to understand their perspective. She will ask what services am I supposed to give and how should I give them? Do I want to provide them at the branch and encourage the poor people to come inside or do I want to do it in a way where it can happen remotely? What sort of incentives must I provide my employees to provide these services, and what is the structure in which the employees interact with these new clients?

In contrast, when we deal with an MFI, there concerns are more technical with regard to the management and oversight of their loans or disbursements. Questions regarding improvements to portfolio tracking software, customer relationships and external fund raising all dominate the conversation.

Continue reading

[TC-I Changemakers]: Interview with Maya Ajmera of The Global Fund for Children

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.

Maya AjmeraMaya Ajmera is the Founder and President of The Global Fund for Children, an organization thatGFC logo provides grants to grassroots organizations around the world that work to advance the dignity of children and youth. ThinkChange India’s Prerna Srivastava and Shital Shah spoke with Maya about GFC, her experience with children’s issues, and what it takes to be a successful social entrepreneur. Special thanks to Laura Fenton for her assistance in arranging this interview.

You can listen to the interview here:

The transcript is here: GFC Transcript

As Maya mentioned in her interview, GFC is currently in the beta phase of developing a new model for measuring social impact. We hope to follow up with her once the social metrics model is fully developed.

Interesting excerpts and relevant links are after the jump. Continue reading

[TC-I Changemakers] A book for every child — the mission for Pratham Books

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.

This week we had the opportunity to speak with Gautam John, who works for Pratham Books. We have written

Pratham Books

about Pratham in the past, but have yet to write about this part of the organization. Pratham Books’ goal is a book in every child’s hand — by no means an easy task. Pratham Books also has its own blog, which you can read here, and also has a Facebook group — click here to join. Utilizing the wonders of Skype, TC-I’s very own Vinay Ganti was able to speak with Gautam (who is currently situated in Bangalore) about the amazing things Pratham Books has done and what they hope to do looking forward.

Vinay Ganti: I wanted to first thank you on behalf of the ThinkChange india community for taking the time to speak with us today. Why don’t we start with the obvious question of what exactly Pratham Books does and why it was started?

Gautam John: At the simplest level, the goal of Pratham Books is to place a book in every child’s hand in India. Or to be more emphatic, we want to provide access to books to the last child in the last village in India and promote reading as a habit. The need for Pratham Books arose four years ago and came out of the umbrella organization’s activities. Pratham is a large scale movement aimed to make every child in India literate. [Note: A videocast with a Vikas Taneja, a member of Pratham USA’s Executive Committee, will be posted in the near future.]

The chairperson of Pratham Books, Rohini Nilekani is also the chairperson of the Akshara Foundation, whose goal is to have every child in school and learning well, across the state of Karnataka. Pratham Books supplies books to the Akshara run programs.

VG: This goal is by no means an easy task. The first issue that comes to mind is how many of the poor will be able to afford to purchase these books.

GJ: Pratham Books was designed specifically with this issue in mind, and is just as much a proof of concept as it is a publishing house. We wanted to show other publishing companies that one can profitably and sustainably provide books to children, and for this reason none of our books are priced at more than Rs 25. We have also recently adapted our books to a story card format, abridging the content to fit in an A5 sheet that is richly illustrated, laminated and is priced at Rs. 1.50.

Continue reading

Interview with India’s Rural BPO Guru

Its been almost three years since Businessworld India published a feature on Rural BPO, writing about a company called Lason. Lason had just just set up its first rural BPO unit in Kizhanur village, 50 km from Chennai. The unit was the brainchild of Pradeep Nevatia, then managing director of Lason India, a subsidiary of the $167-million BPO firm Lason. The company’s efforts were arguably one of the first Rural BPO experiments in the country.

Since then, Pradeep has left Lason India to start his own company called Ninestars Information Technology. The Hindu just published an excellent interview with Pradeep, highlighting his vision for the distributed delivery model and rural BPO in India:

As soon as we recognise that BPO and manufacturing are essentially no different, the problem of ‘city vs village’ would vanish. I have personally experimented ‘village BPO’ including the first-ever ‘village BPO,’ and the results are extremely good.

The cost reduces by minimum 25 per cent owing to lower infrastructure cost and manpower cost. The employees stay with their family and spend negligible time and money on travel.
The other important advantages seen are in lower absenteeism, lower attrition and strong discipline leading to higher productivity, quality and employee retention cost.

It will be interesting to see if Ninestars can give much needed momentum to the Rural BPO space.