Water Profits

WaterHealth International, a private company and Acumen Fund investee, was covered in last week’s online BusinessWeek, which also includes a video featuring the founder, Tralance Addy (tipped from Acumen Fund’s blog).  The company aims to “provide sustainable access to clean, safe water to all, including the poorest communities. ” Their work in India includes over 200 WaterHealth Centres, mostly in Andhra Pradesh, and they are expanding to meet the demand from this pressing problem.

The BusinessWeek article notes why this venture is interesting:

WaterHealth typifies one of the latest trends in social entrepreneurship. A new generation of leaders believes it can do more for poor people if they operate as profit-making businesses rather than donor-backed organizations. WaterHealth has designed both a proprietary purification process and a simple facility for housing the equipment. It sells the systems to villages, helps secure financing, and runs the plants. After eight years, when the villages pay off their loans, the money they make from sales of water goes straight to their coffers—available for village improvements.

The article quickly touches on a debate about WaterHealth’s business model, as opposed to Byrraju Foundation’s model.  WaterHealth requires its communities to invest in the system through loans, whereas Byrraju provides subsidies and the water plant is a shared investment. The debate highlights the staple question of sustainability – what is the best approach to ensure long-term feasibility? More specifically, is there a finance scheme that works better than others in achieving the intended goal?

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A New Breakthrough in Tracking Social Entrepreneurs

I’ve always valued metrics but remain wary of the extent to which numbers can be used to reveal the whole picture. Hearing about the new Portfolio Data Management System (PDMS) – an online database tracking social entrepreneurs – is proof that there is progress in the effort to measure social impact. A variety of organizations came together for this massive effort: Acumen Fund, Salesforce.com Foundation, Skoll Foundation, Lodestar Foundation, along with programmers from Google. How does the PDMS work? BusinessWeek explains:

A common set of metrics will be recorded for each organization so donors and investors can check regularly and track their progress or spot trouble. Social entrepreneurs will be able to benchmark their results against those for similar organizations around the world.

The system will allow foundations and other donors see what the return on their investment is, and compare it against other similar organizations to see if real progress is occurring. I can imagine that not only will the information be useful to investors, though, but also to other stakeholders – partner organizations, beneficiaries, almost anyone involved the same field who wants to stay informed of the value of programs and money.

Since social enterprises are relatively new entities, standards and benchmarks are not common or shared. A specific metric that one enterprise decides to use may differ with the next. The PDMS offers a solution to the current haphazard situation… Continue reading

One Mouse Per Child (even better than one virtual desktop)

Vinay just blogged about Jooce, a start-up in France that was featured in Businessweek recently. The idea behind the start-up is that, in providing access to PCs to adults and children in the developing world – its not about making more PC available but to maximize the number of people who can use a give piece of hardware. So, Jooce creates a customized environment for each person, in some sense ‘making it their own PC’.

I dont really see how this is different from creating different users in Windows. Even if I’m missing something there, the article portrays ‘Jooce’ as an alternative to the 100$ Laptop and Intel’s Classmate PC. However, close observation of PC usage within schools in the developing world has shown that children only get a specific time during the week to use computers and more often than not, many of them are huddled together in front of the same PC (and one dominant kid taking control of the input devices).

After closely observing this phenomenon, researchers at Microsoft’s Research Lab in India came up with a innovative solution call ‘MultiMouse’.  Here is a brief about the technology from the Microsoft Research website:

Pawar, an assistant researcher for Microsoft Research’s India lab, located in Bangalore, had taken note of a challenge endemic to schools in his part of the world: not enough computers to go around. In such a scenario, what typically happens is that one child sits in front of a PC, hand on mouse, while others gather round. The result is no surprise: The mouse-manipulating student learns computer skills and masters the subject at hand, and the others grow bored and disengaged.

To help share the learning among a larger pool of students, Pawar developed a solution called Multimouse, with which as many as 10 students at once can use, and therefore learn from, a PC.

In a paper entitled Multiple Mice for Computers in Education in Developing Countries—to be presented during ICTD 2006, the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development, co-sponsored by Microsoft Research India and to be held at the University of California Berkeley on May 25-26—co-authors Pawar, University of California Berkeley Ph.D. student Joyojeet Pal, and Kentaro Toyama, assistant managing director of Microsoft Research India, state, “The obvious technical solution is to provide each child with a mouse and cursor on screen, thus effectively multiplying the amount of interaction per student per PC for the cost of a few extra mice.”

Simple, isnt? The solution really understands the needs of its users and is cheap to roll out. Based on your experience, what do you think works better Jooce or Multimouse – share your thoughts in the comments.

Bangalore is HP’s laboratory for data center cooling

Because in Bangalore, just like in other big cities in India, with its poor infrastructure and intermittent power supply, you get data center up time of 24/7 by supplementing grid electricity with diesel burning generators – which is expensive – more so than grid electricity in PA. And so economically it makes more sense to refine/test it there. Additional benefits of course are emissions reduction etc.

You can read more in a BusinessWeek article here.