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.

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

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.”

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

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

[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, 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 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.

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[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.

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[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.

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SocialSync: Creating a web presence for Indian non-profits

SocialSync is a exciting new Indian social sector start-up. I pulled out the below presentation from their homepage. Turns out there are 500,000+ NGOs in India and many of them lack a real web-presence. At the same time, there are 40 million web users and 10 million on Orkut alone! So, SocialSync has created a simple platform to create a web identity for non-profits in India. What does this translate into? As a non-profit partnering with SocialSync, you can:

  • Create a professional looking website
  • Promote and draw value from your web-identity
  • Keep your website up to date on the click of a button
  • Maintain a blog
  • Publish news and event updates regularly
  • Post pics from your events
  • Participate in the growing community at

Looks like they are running out a limited pilot. If you are a non-profit in India and want to benefit from what SocialSync has to offer, you can apply here

Pioneers in Microfinance, Part 2: MYRADA

Today, published the second part of their “Pioneers in Microfinance” series, in which they continued their interview of a pioneer in microfinance, Aloysius P. Fernandez, Executive Director MYRADA and Chairman of the Board of Microfinance Institution Sanghamithra Rural Financial Services.   To refresh your memory on Part One of this series, read this earlier post by Vinay.

The interview continues where it left off in Part One by outlining both the impetus and the process involved in establishing linkages between the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and Self-Help Affinity Groups (SAG).  In the interview, Fernandez describes how MYRADA attempted to implement changes on a policy level by approaching RBI and the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) regarding the lending process:

In 1989, he [NABARD President and CEO P. R. Nayak] asked me, “Now, what policy change do you want?” I said, “Allow the banks to give loans without asking for the purpose. Why are you so particular about giving based on viable loans and unit costs?” They would give loans for sheep. There would have to be 20 female sheep and one male sheep, so that was supposed to be a viable unit. But, if you give such a big unit to a single woman, she has to leave all her other work and look after this. So, in order to survive she will sell two sheep. There goes your viable unit. We found that 60 percent of the recovery didn’t come from the asset, so why are you wasting your time? Let people decide [how to use their loans].

Fernandez then goes on to talk about the proliferation of NGOs based on the SHG model in India, and their perceived limitations, including potential for growth in the future: Continue reading

Semam Microfinance Investment Literacy and Empowerment (SMILE) and Gram-Utthan receive loan of $2.7 million

As per the most recent newsfeed, reports that Semam Microfinance Investment Literacy and Empowerment PVT (SMILE) of Madhurai and Gram-Uttham of Orissa have both received loans in the total amount of $2.7 million from Oikocredit, a Dutch cooperative fund.   A profile of the two NGOs follows:

Semam Microfinance Investment Literacy and Empowerment PVT (SMILE) is the largest Grameen-model microfinance institution in Southern India. Established originally in 1999 as Mahasemam Trust, SMILE is a non-bank financial company (NBFC) that targets poor women, offering microfinance services including savings, loans, and insurance to promote poverty alleviation and sustainable development in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. SMILE currently has over 175 thousand active borrowers and a total loan portfolio of USD 16.4 million with total assets of USD 20 million as reported by The Mix Market. Their return on assets (ROA) was reported at .46 percent as of December 2007 with a return on equity (ROE) of 6.15 percent.

Gram-Uttham is a microfinance institution founded in 1990 in the eastern Indian state of Orissa as part of the CARE India/ Credit and Savings for Household Enterprise (CASHE) project to facilitate social and economic development in poor rural villages. Gram Uttham offers credit, savings, insurance, and self-help group services to clients, focusing on local fishing villages. Gram-Uttham currently has over 41 thousand active borrowers and a total loan portfolio of USD 5.5 million and total assets of USD 6.6 million. Their return on assets (ROA) was reported at -.8 percent in March 2007 with a return on equity (ROE) of -221.22 percent.

Kanavu – Where Dreams are Built

In the words of Paulo Freire, Brazilian educator, activist, philosopher, and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

Self deprecation is … characteristic of the oppressed, which derives from their internalization of the opinion the oppressors hold of them.  So often do they hear that they are good for nothing, know nothing and are incapable of learning anything – that they are sick, lazy, and unproductive – that in the end they become convinced of their own unfitness. 

They call themselves ignorant and say the ‘professor’ is the one who has knowledge and to whom they should listen… 

Almost never do they realize that they, too, ‘know things’ they have learned in their relations with the world and with other women and men.

Such is the nature of the battle for Kanavu, a non-traditional school for Adivasi children in the Wayanad district of north Kerala that, according to its founder, K.J. Baby, aims to “not only educate [Adivasi children], but also cultivate a sense of pride in themselves.”  There is no official curriculum for this school, no classrooms, no syllabus, no rote-learning, no memorization-driven exams.  The teachers are the students, and the students are the teachers – quite literally, as the school is now run by graduates of the program, who do everything from managing the school to teaching.  Inherently, the school is, in Freirean terms, liberatory in nature:

More after the jump. Continue reading

Change-Agent Profile: Shedding Light on Poverty

Change-Agent: Harsh Hande; Company: Selco 

From Deutsche Welle (Germany’s international broadcaster): 

   57 percent of the population in India has no electric light, and many would be unable to afford regular electricity even if it were available. But Harish Hande is working to improve the situation. He set up a company called Selco in Bangalore, which now supplies some 80,000 people with solar power. He’s helped improve life for many in Karnataka and Kerala, making it possible for children to study for school by lamplight and allowing small independent businesses to keep working even after nightfall. His project has been very successful – and it’s environmentally-friendly, too.

Two lines from this video struck me especially:

“Harsh Hande established his company over a decade ago.  At the time, he was in his mid-twenties, and didn’t have much money himself. ‘If I could go back to that time, I would still say I should start with 30 dollars, primarily because when you have less amount of money, you try to innovate a lot, and innovate in terms of financial models…and because your back is to the wall, and basically survival is the issue…and survival brings innovations…’” 

This brings up an interesting point about the nature of social innovation.  Is it necessary to have a substantial seed fund in order to launch a social venture, or is it enough to be impassioned about a social issue, and be willing to find creative outlets to translate passion into reality?  From Harsh Hande’s perspective, the latter is the more difficult, yet potentially more productive route, as survival instincts breed innovation, and humble social entrepreneurs to see the world from the perspective of their communities. 

More after the jump.  Continue reading

Sristi: Nuturing Grassroots Innovations

Vinay just posted an interesting video made, produced by Discovery Channel on grassroots innovators in India. The organization behind identifying and nurturing such innovators is Sristi:

SRISTI is a non-governmental organisation setup to strengthen the creativity of grassroots inventors, innovators and ecopreneurs engaged in conserving biodiversity and developing eco-friendly solutions to local problems

Sristi was founded by Prof. Anil Gupta, Kasturbhai Lalbhai Chair in Entrepreneurship at IIMA. He is a prolific social entrepreneur and a passionate activist. Prof. Gupta teaches a interesting SE course at IIMA, titled ‘Shodh Yatra’. As a part of this course, students walk through a particular region within India for a period of fifteen days, where they explore social and economic conditions, and discuss innovations that can lead to grassroots change.

Prof. Gupta’s blog and published work can be accessed here. Sristi has also has online database of grassroots innovations which can be found here.

A safe haven for war torn girls

Often it is easy to become so engrossed with the political and strategic factors of a conflict like that in Jammu/Kashmir that we completely overlook the devastating effects that such violent endeavors have on the innocent bystanders stuck within. The most obvious example of this is orphaned children, who must suffer from images of death, loss and absolute tragedy.

For young Kashmiri girls like Ruqiya, Shazia and Jamila, who recently visited Pune as part of an exploration trip, their childhood memories are not of playing in a school compound, building toy homes, dressing up dolls or soaking in the picturesque beauty of Kashmir.

Instead, their minds are filled with a series of nightmares – of explosions ripping apart human bodies, of constant exchange of gunfire between Indian soldiers and terrorists, of attending the funerals of near and loved ones. For them, the word ‘parental love’ has become a distant concept, one that can only be imagined, never felt.

One grassroots organization in is trying to change that by providing shelters for these victims of such violence. The Borderless World Foundation provides education and shelter to war stricken girls from the J/K region.

The BWF family is a group of youngsters with a humanitarian outlook towards life who aim to work towards alleviating the poor and the needy, the abandoned and the deprived, the suffering and the victimised people of the border areas of India and beyond towards their physical, psychological, educational, economical, social and political well being by implementing rehabilitation and developmental projects.

A short video and more about the organization is after the jump.

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