D.light’s d.sirable business success

But what really has us excited is the excitement at the consumer level.  If you have a chance, visit D.light’s website to see hear some of the remarkable stories of their customers and how light has impacted their lives. And also take a look at the letter that D.light just received from a resident in Orissa living in D.light’s first 100% solar village. We’ve got thousands and thousands of villages to go, but a very exciting start.

From a Nextbillion.net article on this disruptive company aiming to provide solar energy to India’s rural poor. This article emphasizes what is one of the most important aspects of a successful business, partcularly startups, which is knowing your customer and focusing on developing your entire business model to what they need and want.

Upcoming Competitions, Awards and Challenges

Here is a summary of some interesting opportunities for our readers:

1.The Great Indian Developer Award: “The Great Indian Developer Awards 2008 recognizes trailblazing individuals, technologies, and organizations contributing to the evangelism, productivity and innovation excellence of the Indian developer ecosystem.” [Source: PluGGd.in] Go here to vote.

2. TIE-Canaan Entrepreneurial Challenge 2008: “Canaan Partners and TIE, today announced the launch of the TIE-Canaan Entrepreneurial Challenge 2008, a business plan competition open to early stage entrepreneurs from across the country.” [Source: PluGGd.in] Deadline for submission is May 12th, go here to submit. A template for a b-plan can be found here.

3. YouthActionNet Global Fellowship Program: “Launched in 2001 by the International Youth Foundation, YouthActionNet strengthens, supports, and celebrates the role of young people in leading positive change in their communities. Each year, 20 exceptional young social entrepreneurs are selected as YouthActionNet Global Fellows following a competitive application process.” [Source: Let Me Know] Deadline is May 12th, go here for the application. (Santhosh posted on this fellowship previously here).

4. BiD “Entrepreneurship in Development” Photo Contest: “In this Photo Contest, BiD is focusing on entrepreneurs around the world who are working for innovative changes towards sustainable economic growth in developing countries. You can submit your photos to the competition by simply uploading your image on www.bidnetwork.org. To do so, you must be registered as a member of bidnetwork.org first.” [Source: Nextbillion.net] Deadline April 30th, go here for website.

World Challenge 2008 Nominees due by May 31st

Here is a fantastic opportunity for funding and support for social businesses:

World Challenge 08 is organized by BBC World and Newsweek, in association with Shell, and is about championing and rewarding projects and business which really make a difference. The winner will receive a grant of USD $20,000 to put back into their project/business, and two runners up will each receive USD $10 000.

The application is due May 31st and more information can be found here.

[Source: Nextbillion.net]

InternetSpeech – The New Digital Genie?

In a recent interview with Fortune Magazine, Muhammad Yunus beautifully articulated his dream of a “Digital Aladdin’s Lamp”, which would provide poor women around the world with access to global markets and trends for local benefit:

“A genie comes out of it and asks, ‘What can I do for you, ma’am?’ And she says ‘I make these baskets but nobody buys them.’ And the lamp says ‘I will find somebody to buy it.’ And the lamp comes back with buyers. She doesn’t know about a keyboard or a computer. She just asks questions of the genie.”

Sound like a fantasy?  Well, it seems we aren’t so far from realizing Yunus’ dream.  How?

Previously, we wrote about the “Question Box,” which aims to “bring some of the benefits of the information on the Internet to places that are too remote or poor to sustain a live Internet link.”  Now, there is another access point for the BoP – audible internet accessible over the phone (developed by InternetSpeech).  Let me say that again – internet access over the phone, no literacy, keyboards, or screens necessary.

It seems that new trends in mobile phone technology are ushering in a new era of connectivity, access, knowledge, and power for the rural and urban poor.  Can you imagine what the future holds?

Imagine a farmer in a remote village using her voice and her $20 People’s Phone (which only works as a phone and doesn’t even have a screen to send or receive text messages) to check market information via Reuters, and then log onto an eBay-like market to offer her crafts.

A few hours later, she could log listen to the bids received and settle a transaction through e-mail.

Sound too good to be true?  Click here to listen to a demo.

Source:  NextBillion

The fine line: New research on what defines successful entrepreneurs

In an effort to figure out what actually distinguishes a successful entrepreneur from an unsuccessful one, Social Equity Venture Fund (S.E.VEN) has invested $100,000 to conduct primary research.

S.E.VEN has awarded this money to Harvard poverty expert Michael Kremer, as a part of a total of $400,000 that it has invested in researchers working on enterprise based solutions to poverty. Kremer’s study will look at entrepreneurs in both Kenya and India to “understand who these individuals are, what in their environment contributes to their development as entrepreneurs, and social, institutional and personal barriers to further growth.” These two countries were chosen because “most of those subsisting on less than a dollar a day live in South Asia and Africa.”

Nextbillion.net recognizes how these markets present entrepreneurs with unique challenges, including “fluctuating currency, interest rates, political unrest, population migration, and technological and infrastructure upsets.”

Over the weight limit …

Anyone who has flown recently can relate to the frantic attempt to remove clothing, shoes and other packed items from your suitcase in order to meet the weight requirement that is draconiously enforced upon unsuspecting passengers. In a similar fashion, here are some additional articles that may be of interest that I could not fit into my op-ed below.

  • Nextbillion.net’s Francisco Noguerra wrote about how existing corporate knowhow can strategically benefit BoP buisnesses scale up to the next level.
  • From Nextbillion as well, a discussion over how to form one’s social venture and the decision of becoming a for-profit, non-profit or both
  • Not content with simple indexes, one visionary is trying to build a social stock exchange. Source: Xigi.net

Agora Fellows Program

As an update to a prior post entitled “MBAs without Borders” (MWB), it has been brought to our attention through NextBillion that Agora Partnerships, in collaboration with MWB, has launched a fellowship program that aims to address issues of long-term management, specialization, expertise, and sustainability in the social enterprise sector:

The Agora Fellows program is a new initiative by Agora Partnerships to bring extraordinary entrepreneurial talent directly into developing world small businesses during their critical growth phase. Agora Fellows are management, finance, and development professionals who work in-country for 4-6 months to assist the leadership teams of Agora portfolio companies in setting up managerial processes and executing the business plan.

Continue reading

Fair & Lovely, and may be a little bit of Dignity

Derek Newberry, a blogger at Nextbillion has a very interesting post on Ethics in the BOP Market. He uses the case of Fair & Lovely, the skin whitening cream marketed in India by Hindustan Lever, the Indian subsidiary of Unilever. The company has constantly used a advertising strategy that depicts women of darker complexion as being inferior (the most controversial being such women being unable to find a suitable groom). Derek posted this Fair and Lovely ad, which uses a similar strategy as mentioned above.

BoP critics like Aneel Karnani (University of Michigan, Ross School of Business Professor) have used the Fair & Lovely example to show how companies make ethical sacrifices in marketing products and services to the poor. His paper “Doing Well By Doing Good – Case Study: ‘Fair & Lovely’ Whitening Cream” can be found here.

Derek proposes a simple two-point framework to deal with such ethical challenges in working with BoP markets (He calls it the BoP Litmus test):

  1. Dignity: Does this activity tap into BoP markets in a dignified manner? The BoP hypothesis, after all, is all about treating the BoP with dignity by including them in the global marketplace, so does the business model treat the BoP with dignity or exploit insecurities and race/class divisions?
  2. Sustainability: Does this activity align with a vision for a future economic system that is environmentally sound? Or is it at least not clearly a major detriment to the Earth’s resources?

I think for many traditionally profit-minded organizations, its a tough test to pass, especially with regard to the products and services that they are pushing into the BoP markets. Fair & Lovely has played in well to exploit the race/color insecurities that has plagued Indian society for centuries, to sell skin ‘whitening’ creams. I guess one of the comments by a youtube viewer after viewing the video sums it all up – “this is just wrong on so many levels”

If you build it (a map), they will come (and build solar panels)

There are few things hotter than BoP. One of them may be renewable energy, particularly solar (no pun intended) and wind. Well one would imagine that anything that combines these two fields of unusually high interest that there would be a flourish of activity on the ground. Not so fast argues Kenneth Westrick, CEO of energy consulting group 3Tier, who says the real thing the field of BoP renewable energy needs is more information.

To respond to this need, 3Tier has created an interactive map that visualizes the best areas to build renewable energy plants all over the world. Nextbillion writes:

Ken contended that what the renewable energy sector really needs right now to successfully tap BoP markets is a map. In particular, the online map that 3Tier launched on Monday – this technology will utilize the most recent available research to show in any given 5 km space anywhere in the world the viability of wind and solar energy based on how much sun or wind that area is exposed to on a regular basis.

This effort by 3Tier intends to map the entire world in only the less than two year to prove to potential investors that numerous opportunities for scalable investments exist throughout the world’s emerging economies. Such efforts that are global in scope provide some hope that the developing world could actually achieve the same leapfrogging with energy that they did with mobile phones (key word some).

Sustainable, Scalable Philanthropy

As brought to our attention by NextBillion, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven J. Levitt, authors of Freakanomics, published an article in the NYTimes yesterday entitled, “Bottom Line Philanthropy,” in which they discussed the need for applying business models to philanthropic organizations for the purposes of sustainability and impact.

The article highlights two individuals – Rafe Furst of what is informally called the Cure Cancer Annuity Fund and Brian Mullaney of Smile Train. Furst’s model posits that effectiveness in the social sector lies in the incentivization of innovation through prizes and profits – in this case, for the purposes of curing cancer. As stated in the article, “inspired by the X Prize Foundation’s sponsorship of innovations in space travel and other realms”, Furst conceived of a “charitable business model” – the Cure Cancer Annuity Fund – which employs a two pronged, incentive-based approach to cancer research.  The Fund aims to not only benefit donors in the form of annual returns, but researchers as well, who stand to win a prize of $10 billion for finding a cure for cancer.

The second example mentioned in the article is that of the Smile Train, which employs local resources, social marketing strategies, innovative technology, and cash incentives for the purposes of administering cleft lip or palate operations in developing countries. As stated in the article, “Smile Train works as a charity because it is run like a business”: 

 Fixing a child’s cleft lip or palate is a relatively cheap procedure with outsize payoffs: cleft children in many countries are ostracized and have a hard time going to school, getting jobs and marrying, and the surgery reverses those disadvantages. Indeed, when pitching a reluctant government, Mullaney refers to cleft children as “nonperforming assets” who can soon be returned to the economic mainstream. He fights bad incentives with better ones: when Smile Train learned that midwives in Chennai, India, were being paid off to smother baby girls born with cleft deformities, Mullaney started offering midwives as much as $10 for each girl they instead took to a hospital for surgery.  

 Smile Train has also harnessed technology to create efficiencies in every aspect of its business, from fund-raising to charting patients’ outcomes. It developed surgery-training software that helps educate doctors around the world. There are high-tech quality-control measures: using digital imaging, a Texas cleft expert grades a random sample of operations performed by Smile Train doctors around the world, in order to know which surgeons in, say, Uganda or China need more training. These are the sort of innovations that likely make Smile Train one of most productive charities, dollar for deed, in the world. Over the last eight years, Smile Train has performed more than 280,000 cleft surgeries in 74 of the world’s poorest countries, raising some $84 million last year while employing a worldwide staff of just 30 people.    

Both examples highlight the potential for employing innovative business practices for the purposes of creating sustainable, scalable social organizations. In the end, the purpose of any philanthropic organization is to eventually become purposeless. In the case of Smile Train, which is currently at the “historic break-even point” of “performing more operations each year than the number of children born each year in developing countries with cleft deformities”, this strategy seems to be working.

Experimenting with Internet Access in Rural India

How can rural communities gain access to the internet without the infrastructure required to support an internet connection? Even more importantly, even if rural communities were to have access to the internet, how would the illiterate population avail of these services? What is the use of providing internet access that cannot be used by the community it purports to service? Clearly, either internet services need to be supplemented by literacy classes and computer usage tutorials, or there needs to be another, more innovative solution.
This is precisely what Question Box hopes to do (Through NextBillion):

The Question Box is a project from UC Berkeley’s Rose Shuman to bring some of the benefits of the information on the Internet to places that are too remote or poor to sustain a live Internet link. It works by installing a single-button intercom in the village that is linked to a nearby town where there is a computer with a trained, live operator. Questioners press the intercom, describe their query to the operator, who runs it, reads the search results, and discusses them with the questioner (it’s like those “executive assistant” telephone services, but for people who live in very rural places)

Currently, there are two question boxes in operation in the villages of Ethida and Poolpur, both of which are located outside of Noida, Delhi. To read the entire post on NextBillion, go here.

HT highligts Creative Capitalism

Dr. Muhammad Yunus has talked extensively about reconceptualizing “capitalism” in his new book, “Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and The Future of Capitalism,” suggesting that “capitalism” posits human beings as one dimensional profit maximizers, devoid of complexity and multi-dimensionality. He proposes the reconceptualization of capitalism in the context of social business, where the market contributes to the social good through what he terms “social business entrepreneurs” (SBEs). In the same vein, Bill Gates recently spoke at the World Economic Forum about “creative capitalism”. Hindustan Times in a recent piece covered the speech with a focus on how creative capitalism will impact brands, (Through NextBillion)

At the recent annual World Economic Forum, Davos, the redoubtable Bill Gates spoke of “creative capitalism”-an approach where governments, businesses, and nonprofits work together to stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or gain recognition, doing work that eases the world’s inequities. There is an increasing recognition and acceptance of this new and more complex definition of business. And at a different level, it could be the harbinger of a new way of building sustainable brands and corporations.Unilever group has a tool called ‘Brand Imprint’ that essentially requires the company to qualify and quantify the impact that its brands have – emotionally, socially, physically, spiritually, intellectually and environmentally. It’s like a tool to figure out if there is a holistic contribution towards bettering of the communities being served. This recognition is not based on a sense of charity alone, it could actually mean reaching out to a new market that was largely untapped, but has much potential. More often than not, market forces fail to make an impact in many segments not because there’s no demand, or because money is lacking, but because not enough time, effort and resources, are spent studying the needs and limits of those markets.

Its interesting to see that the idea of Creative (and Kinder) Capitalism is getting traction and coverage in India. Of course, It was not long ago that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a controversial speech at a CII gathering, highlighting the need for Inclusive Growth.To read the entire HT article, go here.