Social Entrepreneurship: Understanding India

By: Rajiv Tewari

Based on a conversation with Rahul Dev, Managing Trustee, Samyak Foundation, Former Editor, Jansatta(Indian Express Group), Aaj Tak, ZEE News & a well known face on the Indian TV Channels as a special invitee on major national issues.

The Social Entrepreneurs need a differentiated model for India. “An economically and socially sustainable social enterprise for India would need a deep understanding of India from a social & cultural perspective” said Rahul Dev. When the Indian markets opened in the nineties, several MNCs had failed with their global branding models. Michael Jackson had to be replaced by Juhi Chawla in the Pepsi ads, and the Pepsi team soon realized that the southern part of India had its own film icons. The common factor, however, was cricket in Pepsi Ads later on, which is like a national religion uniting the entire nation. The global players soon understood that India was different from the rest of the world due to its complex cultural and social diversity. Social Entrepreneurs too have a lot to learn from these experiences.

According to Census of India of 2001, India has 122 major languages and 1599 other languages. With so many recognized languages, India is indeed a highly fragmented market. A Social Enterprise even if it is for profit would need to have societal support to succeed. Operation Flood launched by the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) succeeded in transforming India from a milk deficient country to a milk surplus country due to its connectivity and understanding of socio-economic linkages and relationships apart from local culture at the grass roots level. This understanding has created such strong brand equity for Amul that even the MNCs have failed to dislodge it from its No 1 position in spite of investing huge resources at their command. To understand India in the context of social enterprise we need to go back in time for a better understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities & threats. Only then, we can look forward to creating sustainable models for the road ahead from where India stands today.

Till about 200 years ago the Indian model of entrepreneurship was based on an age old system of castes and communities. Communities and sub-communities often specialized in specific businesses, trades and sectors, having learnt and honed up their practices and skills with great success over hundreds of years. These communities, while competing in the market place with their competitors, supported and nurtured their young members in setting out as entrepreneurs by way of contributions in cash and kind. Kinships were prized and rewarded. Many of these communities not only did business within India but they also traded with the rest of the world which had given them a global vision for their businesses. Successive rulers till the time of the Mughals protected and nurtured these communities and they too supported the rulers with huge amounts of wealth. The State was there to support enterprise and not to curb it through too many regulations and interventions.

This system was shaken up with the arrival of the East India Company whose main objective was to take over and control the Indian business system in a way that they would be the sole gainers. Old systems were systematically decimated through political domination and legal regulation which in certain parts of India went to the extent of replacing food crops with commercial cultivation which could help the British Empire in producing more clothes and help in dominating the global markets. English became the language of the elite and the masses were discriminated on the basis of language, caste & class. They were treated with contempt by the elite classes. The damage was so deep that India is still struggling to recover and restructure to meet the challenges of our times. With this background in mind let’s look at some of the key points a Social Entrepreneur should include in his or her strategic planning for India:

1.Community Engagement Model

Community platforms provide a very cost effective as well as powerful means of connecting with India at the grass root level. One has only do a little bit of research to find out the various caste, religion, geography and profession based communities. These platforms will provide connectivity, knowledge, skills and opportunities to recruit volunteers for social causes. These platforms can also provide an excellent opportunity for low cost communication models.

Just a few years back, I had used this model to launch the Rockland Hospital in Dwarka, Delhi, by organizing a Bhandara (community lunch after religious prayers), for the Rickshaw Pullers who were served by the Resident Welfare Association (RWA) members, local village heads, chemists and doctors. Rickshaw pullers were chosen as in Dwarka they were found to be the best source for locating a place, specially in an emergency. In India, the food suppliers as well as the tent & chair suppliers give a huge discount as a part of their contribution for Bhandara.

The results surprised everyone as against a marketing & communication budget of Rs 75 Lakhs; the cost came to a mere Rs 68,500. Message reached maximum numbers through just one event. What was even more significant that the community volunteers came out in large numbers to ensure that it was a success which could have beaten any experiential marketing technique.

2.Hyper Local Leadership For Diversity Management

The example above clearly illustrates the value of having local leaders who understand the community’s psychology and behaviour. Copy pasting an idea would have cost Rockland Hospital a huge amount and that too without any bonding with the local community. There is an old saying in India that the language and the taste of water changes every few miles in India (कोस-कोस पर बदले पानी, चार कोस पर वाणी). This saying is for explaining the diversity of India. It will be too costly to employ people to cover such a vast country; therefore getting connected with the local opinion leaders is the right way forward. There is no dearth of volunteer ship and the tendency to help others by sharing knowledge and donating time for a cause are very much present in our social system. All that is needed is to understand the value of connecting at the ground level and giving the local opinion leaders the respect they deserve.

3.Value of Patience

India is a democracy so everything is debated; often fiercely. But once people agree on something the world is surprised at the results. In the sixties food shortages were so extreme that our leaders had to go with a begging bowl to the developed nations for food. India was a country with huge milk and egg shortages. For many; the India story was over. It was called a dark era. But India rose as one nation and rewrote a completely new story in the seventies by becoming the world’s largest producer of milk, became self-sufficient in food, liberated Bangla Desh in spite of threats from a super power and exploded a nuclear bomb to assert its rightful place in the new world order.

We were again written off in the eighties due to terrorism and collapse of the economic order resulting in India using its gold reserves to save its face on loan default to the IMF. With the assassination of a mighty leader like Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India it appeared as the nation was leaderless. But India rose again with a roar as an IT Super Power and opened up its markets to teach the world news lessons in managing businesses by managing diversity. When 1.2 billion people make up their minds, India leaps forward like no other nation. India has a decade trap so those wanting to create a successful enterprise in India need lots of patience to be able to survive and sustain for a period that can range between 5 to 10 years. This has happened in several sector like Auto, Telecom, Information Technology and so on so patience is a necessary input for getting the desired output in India.

This is India’s Time

The whole world is looking at India as the land of opportunities. This is certainly a good time for India and all trends are turning green in its favour. For the first time, after a long gap of 30 years, Indians have elected a single party government with full majority after experimenting with several coalition governments. This is a significant change in the political thinking of the nation. With 356 million 10-24 year-olds, India has the world’s largest youth population which does not even know that there was a time we did not have internet. This makes India a great source for talent and also makes it a huge market for products and services.