Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Scrap the MBA

Part of the Big Ideas Series for The Smart CEO

What we need are Masters in Enterprise Building (MEBs)

Ask MBA (Masters in Business Administration) students what they want to do after they graduate and the answer is usually a variant of ‘Get a good job’. A good job, they will explain to you, is a job with a good salary, good personal growth opportunities, good work environment and good facilities. Large multi-national corporations will top that list. At the recent IIM-A Confluence, Satish Pradhan, executive vice-president, Tata Group likened business school placements to the Pushkar Mela. wherecandidates, like camels, are dressed up, paraded and sold to the highest bidder. . A student countered that they were ‘trained’ to find jobs.

What’s wrong with that, you might ask. For a country, where less than 10 per cent is employed in the formal economy and where the college capacity extends to less than 7 per cent of the potential college age population, access to a higher degree like an MBA is competitive and coveted. It is natural then that people see this as a rite of passage to personal financial success.


As posted on

There is a certain romanticism that we all carry about rural living. For many of us it represents the simple life, a place where you go when you need to slow down and not do much. And it is precisely that. The world’s relentless march forward occurs in the cities. Almost three quarters of the world’s productive output, its GDP, comes from its cities. There are simple reasons for this. When we cluster closer together into large agglomerations it brings us close to resources and information. City living is more expensive because we are willing to pay more for the choice and opportunity that this results in. For the entrepreneur, it allows you to access the resources you need quickly and efficiently from legal to administrative to people and gives you rapid access to a larger market. For the job seeker, thriving entrepreneurship means more jobs, more choice of jobs and therefore an implicit safety net that if one job doesn’t work out there are other jobs to be found. For the consumer it means more products available just outside your doorstep. There is immense value in all this.

Happy Nation

As posted on

Many CEOs and HR folk will tell you that happy people make for more productive employees. In fact there are even studies that demonstrate that when you are happy you are more productive. Therefore, the reasoning goes, it is important for companies to make employees happy so that they will be productive. Some even go so far as to say employees first, customers second. An article in the recent issue of Outlook on happiness made me wonder if they haven’t got it all backwards.

Monday, November 7, 2011

One World, One (Giant) Language

As posted on

Take a risk. Use your imagination. Transform your world.

Try to say this in any Indian language. I challenge you. You will fall short. Short on comparable, easily accessible vocabulary, short on that easy feel of flow and short on memories of when you last heard something like it said. English is the language of progress and possibility. English is the language of technology. English is the language of change.

To be progressive, therefore, one of the most powerful things we can do in this country is make English mandatory curriculum in every school, and then in the next generation just switch to English as the sole medium of instruction. One world. One language.

OK, I hear the critics. Some of our languages are so beautiful. So much of our culture will be lost. Then quick, start translating. English is one of the fastest growing languages in human history. According to the Global Language Monitor, the number of English speakers has grown from 250 million in 1960 to some 1.53 billion today. In China alone there are apparently now 250 million English speakers. In India, 100 million.

Cigarettes and Swans

As posted on

In my last post, I mused about who actually knows what something is worth? Beyond survival, ‘value’ is simply collective perception, a construct of our collective mind. So what do we mean when we talk of ‘value’? What is our mind ‘valuing’ and for what purpose? For an entrepreneur this is a fundamentally important question. On a very simple level you could claim to be creating value so long as someone sees it as valuable enough to pay money for it. However, there are people willing to pay money for all sorts of destructive things like drugs and cigarettes and exorbitant amounts of money for completely worthless things like crystal swans. Of course that is my value judgement I’m imposing on it. I have friends that would argue me down that the drugs help their creative process and the cigarette smoking calms them and helps them be more productive. And as for silly looking crystal swans – some people derive happiness from having them perched on a shelf in their house. However, on the other hand, if you ask a large room full of people to name products that are of fundamental value to society, they will disproportionately name a few – two wheelers, mobile phones and internet access are ones that come up frequently.

Monday, October 10, 2011

What is it worth?

In 1989 as a 17 year old college student I had a childish view of what it took to get by in the world. Foolishly, I thought that $150 (7,500 Rs.) was sufficient to spend a month in Greece (it was my own hard earned money and seemed a lot to me at the time). $150, I found out, is not a lot of money. It worked out to about $5 a day. In purchasing power parity terms it was somewhere below $2 a day in an India. What followed was hardly a sightseeing tour but an exercise in subsistence living. For $1 there were hostels that would let you roll out your sleeping bag on their roof. If it rained they would accommodate you in the corridors by the bathrooms. In Athens I could not afford the entrance fee to the Acropolis but discovered that if you climb the hill from behind the Plaka you can scale the wall and see it for free. On my budget bus travel was wildly expensive but if I spent long enough it was somewhat easy to hitch a relatively trustworthy ride. I had to save most of the money for food. On most days I used to buy a loaf of bread, a piece of cheese and a tomato and stretch it out for the day.

For me it was a game, an experiment, but half the world lives in this kind of subsistence paradigm. In rural India, according to the NSSO studies, people use 50 to 70% of their income to buy food, to fuel the survival of the body. My statistics were virtually identical. Aggregated over time about 60% of my daily expenditure was for food. 30% for shelter. The remaining 10% for transport and for one 30 second phone call to my parents from a post office in Thessaloniki (Of course I’m fine, see you in a few weeks. Where am I? What does it matter? OK.. OK..don’t shout, I’m in Thessaloniki). A good part of my day was spent comparing the size and price of loaves of bread and pieces of cheese. Excuse me, please can I have that one instead? (It looks just a tiny bit bigger). At the end of the day I was always a bit hungry so I had an acute sense for the caloric value I needed to derive from the money. Under these constrained circumstances my value judgements were very self-centred and tangible. ‘Value’ was almost entirely a calorie conversion.

When we operate in surplus of subsistence, however, there is a fundamental transition in our valuation paradigms.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Relationships Not Productivity?

As posted on

Some weeks ago I received a rather acerbic email from a reader lambasting me for my relentless focus on productivity. Life is not just about productivity, he said. It is about relationships. Have I thought about this? Maybe people don’t want to be working day in and day out in factories or offices. People derive happiness from relationships not money and being poor doesn’t mean being unhappy. Our country will suffer because of people like me who come with western ideas to spoil the fabric of our society. And as I have come to realize, this particular reader’s opinion is a fairly common one.

Last week I was going through the Kerala backwaters in a small boat with my kids and I almost could see his point. Life expectancy in Kerala is 78 compared to the 55-65 range in the rest of the country. Literacy is 100%. The villages we passed were clean and beautiful. What is it you would want to change about this scene? Is there some burning need for ‘progress’ here?

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Glitter of Gold

A couple weeks ago my newly married maid came asking me for a loan to pay the rental deposit on her flat. I knew she had saved up much more than the amount she needed so I asked her what she had done with the money. She told me she had bought gold jewellery with it.

With all of it? I asked her. Why did you do that when you knew full well you had this expense coming up?

I had to she said, without gold they won’t let you get married.

Who is ‘they’? I inquired.

Everyone, she told me. All my relatives in my village

At the time I told her she was foolish. Now I’m not so sure.

Monday, August 29, 2011

What do you know about village life?

As posted on

A couple weeks ago we surveyed readers like you to see what your perceptions were of rural India with regards to mobility and connectivity. We also wanted to get a sense for how different your own behaviour and access is from the villagers. We asked you to guess different parameters about infrastructure and behaviours in the region of Vadipatti (i.e. Vadipatti Taluk excluding the town) which is in central Tamil Nadu. Whoah! you guys were way off. Most of you guessed that the villagers had less access, mobility and connectivity compared to you but you just didn’t realize HOW MUCH less. Here are the results:

Who answered the surveys

125 people answered this survey online. 75% were from the major Indian cities. Of this half were from Chennai which is the closest major city to Vadipatti Taluk and the rest spread out across Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai. 10% were from Western Europe and the United States and 5% were from small towns in India. In Vadipatti we surveyed 1000 people across 125 villages of which 540 were entrepreneurs running a business.

The results

Excluding the town of Vadipatti there are 10 petrol bunks in Vadipatti Taluk which is 1 per 20 to 25 square km. Most of you underestimated the number of petrol bunks. Your median guestimate was 3 petrol bunks and average was 7. A large number of you guessed that your city had 100 Petrol Pumps (Median value). Your average guestimate was 340. For Chennai for instance, which is 164 sq km your median guess is that there is 1 per 1.6 sq km which is around 15 times the density. This means a villager in Vadipatti Taluk has to travel about 15 times as far as you do to get petrol.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

From Subsistence to Suprasistence

As posted on

Over half the world simply subsists – caught in a cycle of supporting ones immediate survival. More than half of India is a subsistence economy. The word subsistence is a derivative of the word ‘exist’ which comes from the Latin word existere meaning ‘to emerge’ or ‘to be’. But what does it really mean to subsist? Typically it is thought of in terms of poverty – some amount of money that people earn - but to me it is not equivalent – I think it is better defined in terms of an energy use cycle.

Here’s what I mean. In rural India, according to the NSSO studies, people use 50% to 70% of their income to buy food which means the majority of expenditure goes towards fueling the survival of the body. Compare this to the United States where it is around 20%. Similarly, an NCAER survey in the late 1970s showed that around 90% of fuel consumption in rural areas in India is used for cooking. I assume it’s improved now but venture to guess that it’s probably still in the range of 70% or more. In the United States only 15% of household energy consumption is for the kitchen. Furthermore, fuel consumption in rural India is still largely biomass – firewood ranks highest followed by dung and crop residue. An NIC report (I’m not sure which year) estimated that 89 million households spend 31 billion hours annually in biofuel gathering. That’s a lot of time. The subsistence cycle is thus to eat to sustain the body, use the energy to gather fuel and tend to the fields and livestock and then use the energy from these efforts to once again fuel the body. Petroleum, electricity and LPG together are minimally used not because of availability but because they must be paid for with money rather than time. And in this is an implicit judgement of human worth – that its value is little more than the kCalories expended per unit time to gather fuel or transform food on the cooking stove.

Monday, August 8, 2011

What do you know about rural India?

****This survey is now closed******
We have some interesting results that will be officially announced in a ten days or so and not on the 15th as previously promised.

Think you know what rural India is really like? We are doing a short quiz to understand your perception of rural India and to get some information about your ecosystem that we will use as comparison. The survey will take you about 2 minutes and we will post the results next week along with what the real numbers look like.

Take the quiz!*

Please do take 2 minutes to participate!

*For folks outside of India - 'Petrol Bunk' is India speak for 'Gas Station'.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Different Species

There is this strange sense of duality that India seems to bring upon you. On one hand there is this feeling of being on the cusp of something extraordinary. The giddy experience of watching something once so far removed from the developed world morph so rapidly and palpably into a modern society. The sense of possibility, the sense that something big is about to happen is now regular dinner party conversation.

The journey of one generation to the next has been so fast that parents often have little context for the lives of their children. Particularly for the lives of the children who have been abroad and returned speaking, dressing and acting differently. This new India is English speaking, moves easily from one city to another, sometimes one country to another. It is hyperconnected and watches all the same TV shows as the rest of the English speaking world, hears the same news, and eats burgers and chicken nuggets almost as often as dhal and rice. This is more significant than you might think. “You know”, a friend tells me at dinner last week, “when I was young when we met kids who had grown up abroad we never knew what to talk about. We used to feel so awkward – they watched shows you never heard of, ate things you never heard of and talked about things you never heard of and had an accent you could never understand”. “But now it’s so different”, she says “recently my kids met some kids that had grown up in Singapore and the US and they got on immediately playing games with the same characters and constructs”. There is the feeling that we are increasingly becoming one world. Another friend who runs a global business and has lived in London, New York and Moscow has decided to now base out of India because its “here that its happening now and you want your children to understand it”. It’s easy to go to the US or Europe and get into the system in a few years, but to understand India is much harder, he contends.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Productivity Line

When tackling any sort of problem, it matters immensely how you frame it. The construct and language you use to describe the problem will inevitably direct and guide how you formulate solutions. Let’s take a look at the economic topography of the world – there are places where a great deal of innovative products and services are created that many have access to and other places where much less is created and fewer people have access to the little there is. The medium of exchange for these goods and services being money, the issue of this global inequity among human beings has been constructed in the context of money. It has been framed as an issue of ‘poverty’, the lack of money and therefore the ability to acquire. With this framework lack of money becomes the central issue and we draw ‘poverty lines’ – how much money is reasonable to have and formulate solutions that focus on how to redistribute money and give people ability to acquire.

What if instead we had framed the issue in the context of productivity – in terms of what you give or create and not what you take or acquire? Then instead of looking at the world and wondering why so many people are able to acquire so little, we would ask why so many are able to create so little and why we are so grossly lopsided in terms of productivity. Instead of seeing people as lacking enough money to be above some poverty line we would look at it in terms of people lacking in ability to be above a productivity line. If we saw it this way we would construct our solutions profoundly differently. Rather than focusing on money – which is simply a token of exchange – we would be forced to focus on human capability and the conditions that drive it.

Microfinance 2.0

As published in The Smart CEO as part of the 'Big Ideas' series

The last decade has seen a sensational rise and fall of microfinance in India. After the crisis in Andhra Pradesh (AP) that claimed debt related suicides on account of exorbitant interest rates and high pressure collection tactics, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has finally put in place regulations based on the recommendations of the Malegam committee. With massive defaults to contend with and the new regulation that places caps on the rates and spreads, the industry is struggling to find its feet again. Many of the less efficient players are out of luck and out of business. Others are tightening their belts and getting more efficient in their operations. But, is microfinance 2.0 just about process efficiency? Or can it be something greater?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Gross Domestic Poverty

As posted on

For those of us with a memory of India in the 1980s and before there is no doubt at all that this is a country moving forward economically. From my schooldays when there were only two or three sub-standard brands of everything from soft drinks to soap to chocolate to cars, today’s India is remarkably different. It’s not just that there is every major brand available today. There is construction everywhere and sleek glass buildings are slowly but surely replacing old concrete structures. And there is a palpable feeling of change and a growing national pride. Incredible India. Every so often I get caught up in it and then I look at the numbers and I realize how easily we can distort our self-perception.

Here are the facts. India and China are often compared as the Asian giants, both with over a billion people. But China’s economy is three times as big as India’s – a GDP of 5 trillion US dollars compared to India’s meagre 1.4. According to the Global Language Monitor, The Rise of China has been the most frequent news story for over a decade across over 75000 print and electronic media publications. India doesn’t feature among even the top 20. For further perspective, Tokyo, which is the largest city economy in the world, has an economy the same size as India – 1.4 trillion. Tokyo has only 13 million people though, which means that they are pretty hard at work there. About a third of them are either kids or old folk which leaves about 8.5 million people out there getting it done each day, producing an output as large as our entire country.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Like a Diamond

As posted on

About 200 years ago it was discovered that diamond, like graphite, was made entirely of carbon. One brilliantly reflective, the other black; one hard, the other soft. How was it possible that two things with properties so contrasted could be made of the same thing? With this discovery came an extraordinary insight: what mattered was not the element itself, for the single carbon atom in isolation had no particular properties. What mattered was the bond structure.

So what does this mean? A chemical bond is simply a probability of how much time electrons from one atom spend hanging around in the space of another. In the case of the diamond the carbon atoms are strongly bonded to each of their four closest neighbours giving it the property of hardness. And so closely engaged are these atoms that when light energy enters it is not welcomed and it bounces around simply leaving the system giving it its reflective sparkle. In contrast, in graphite the carbon atoms are not all tightly bonded but rather some of them associate with one another in more fluid nature giving it softness and the ability to accept or absorb light energy to make it its own.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Learning to Organize

Back in 1996 when I was in business school we used to sit around and make fun of our organizational behaviour classes. Soft stuff. Not hard core like finance. Now I know better. Finance is the easy stuff. Organizational behaviour on the other hand is complex and can profoundly change socital outcomes.

So what is organizational behaviour about? If you really think about it, it’s about how human beings come together to share their knowledge and abilities to create, build and get things done. And why should we do this? Because when it is done well, the outcome can be far greater than the sum of the parts.

Paradigms of progress are exemplified by large scale organization. In the United States and most European countries, for instance, somewhere between 5 and 10% of working adults are entrepreneurs. In India it is almost 50%. What that means is that entrepreneurship in the developed world results in larger scale, more people coming together to get it done. Indian entrepreneurs, on the other hand, tend to operate in structures of 1 to 3 people. There are probably a great many reasons for this. Not least that most Indian entrepreneurs operate in micro scale markets – village communities of hardly a few thousand people that don’t provide an opportunity for scale.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Cumulative Advantage

(As published on

The attraction of the United States for immigrants has been the hope of social mobility. That with some hard work and good ideas you have a shot at a better economic life. In India social mobility is far more elusive. For a long time there was little expectation of it. People knew and accepted their place. Today something is changing. Hopes are emerging. Aspirations are rising. But what does it take to create conditions that allow social mobility? Why is it so hard the world over to achieve and hold on to?

Our biology and natural social structure works against social mobility. For starters, we generally pass on our wealth to our children rather than to society at large. In India a little over 80% of the rupee billionaires inherited their billionaire status (compared to 20% in the United States). But that’s only a small part. What we do for our children runs far beyond simply passing on wealth. More than any other species, we humans spend inordinate time and effort raising our young, struggling for 20+ years over where to live, school choices and how to get our kids to behave properly. And what we are doing is essentially working hard to integrate them into society – linking them into social networks as well as knowledge and information networks. Our children inherit not just wealth but relationships and access.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Branded by Poverty

(As posted on and in SmartCEO under the title 'Brands for People, not Poverty')

Over the last ten years, with the publishing of CK Prahalad’s book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid and with inclusion gaining ground as a national buzz word, companies have been looking in larger numbers at rural markets for all sorts of products. Yet for every success in rural India, the marketplace is littered with many, many failures. What has been the problem?

From my vantage point inside a company that operates predominantly in villages, I have a first-hand view. Not a week goes by when we are not introduced to a company with a product opportunity that they would like us to help them market in rural areas. It is an innovative product they tell us, specifically designed to solve a problem, meet an urgent need. And it is affordable. Shouldn’t that be enough? People from the villages should flock to it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


As posted on

The greatest differentiator of humans and our triumph as the alpha species on the planet has been our increasing ability to record and share our collective knowledge. With this ability, each new generation, rather than reinventing the wheel, can stand firmly on the shoulders of those before to reach further. Today with the internet we can do this better, faster and among more people than ever before. Wikipedia is an incredible example of this. Today Wikipedia has over 15 million articles contributed by several hundreds of thousands of people and is one of the largest and most actively accessed public repository of human knowledge. These articles are in 281 different languages. Yet almost 30% are in a single language – English. No surprise. The top ten languages – all western European with the exception of Japanese and Russian, account for almost 70%. I’m still not surprised.

I scroll down the list of languages on Wikipedia, sorted by their article count, searching for Indian languages. Right away I pass Chinese (Mandarin) at number 12. With about 331,000 articles it is just close to 10% of English. But 12 is not a bad rank. I keep going expecting to find Hindi and Tamil in close succession....I see Ukranian (15), Vietnamese (17), Indonesian (21), Arabic (25), Lithuanian (28)..Volapuk (31)... I’ve never even heard of Volapuk. I click the link.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Hear Ye! Hear Ye!

As posted on (yes, it is adapted from an earlier post with the same title)

For tens of thousands of years of human history the world over looked like our village landscape - no running water, no electricity, no cars, no phones, no printing press and low literacy. You have to wonder then how all of a sudden some parts of the world experienced an explosion in innovation and enterprise over the short span of a few hundred years to bring this all about. What was the driver? Surely it didn’t happen because of a king handing out gold coins or jewels from his coffers to the peasants (‘financial inclusion’?).

Some time ago I was lamenting the difficulty of getting new product information to people who live in the villages – no phone, poor road connectivity - and my husband very helpfully offered up that it sounds like we need to have heralds, messengers and town criers like they did in medieval Europe. That got me thinking.

A little bit of scouting turned up that in medieval Europe, messengers were hard-working, talented folk. They had to be excellent horsemen, able to travel up to 100 km in a day, skilled topographers able to navigate unmapped terrain and talented communicators; a tough combination. These were prestigious jobs, well paid and protected by official decree. ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’ was in fact law. And it wasn’t just the Royal government that employed messengers. Businesses employed them as well. Interfacing with the far traveling messengers were the town-criers, who shouted out news on everything from wars, taxes and jobs to local markets and events. What struck me was that in England and some other parts of Europe, Town Criers were a government position, appointed by the Mayor of each town, to keep the citizens informed of matters of both national and local importance. In fact, interfering with a Town Crier in the execution of his duty was once a serious offense. The British Empire apparently took the job of spreading news and information very seriously. It strikes me what an extraordinarily powerful system this was and I would be willing to wager that the rise of civilizations and the spread of empires were closely correlated to faster mechanisms of information flow.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Who cares about the average income!

as posted on

Apparently this last year the per capita income of Indians increased to Rs. 46,492 per year. That’s Rs. 3874 ($85) per month. Glory days! The ‘average’ Indian is no longer living in ‘poverty’. But really, per capita income is an average and who cares about the average income when the average Indian hardly exists. The distribution of income is highly skewed and looks like this (see my last related post ‘It’s not a pyramid’). You can see where that places the average.

Yet when we think of an average we make certain assumptions about the spread or distribution of the values that go into this number. If you say the average height of people in India is around 5’ 5” with a standard deviation of 5”, it’s pretty intuitive what that means – that when you arrive in India you will find most people around 5’5” with about 5 inches variation this way and that. In large part it means that we all look similar and can fit in the same seats, sleep on the same size beds and fit through the same doorways. So if we hear that the average height of Indians has increased, we think immediately that we are collectively growing taller as a population and not that a small group of freak giants suddenly emerged. Similarly, reports of an increase in the average income suggest to us that we are collectively better off. Are we?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

It's not a pyramid!

As posted on

CK Prahalad’s book ‘The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid’ firmly established our visual impression of the world’s economic landscape as a pyramid. So much so that ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’ or ‘BoP’ has become part of daily lingo. Except it’s not a pyramid. A 3D visualization of how income or wealth is distributed in most countries, including India, looks nothing like a pyramid. It looks like this:

So what’s in an image? A lot actually. There’s a reason for the saying ‘an image is worth a thousand words’. The pyramid suggests to us that the problem of poverty is a lot less dramatic than it actually is. The real picture presents a problem of far greater magnitude than we might ever have imagined. If you are seeking the fortune at the bottom, you might think that this suggests a far larger fortune – a bigger market. However, when you consider that the total amount of money in the system is controlled, it means that that as you get down towards the bottom, wealth becomes increasingly stretched thin across much larger segments of humanity. Maybe not as glinting and magnificent a fortune after all.

Monday, February 14, 2011

When there are no words...

A couple weeks ago at an internal strategy meeting at Madura we were talking about the connotations of the word ‘transformation’. Transformation meant change that was dramatic and rapid, not slow and gradual. To transform, we agreed, required taking bold risks, a leap of faith. How do we say this in Tamil? I asked. We work largely in the South Indian State of Tamil Nadu and the room had at least 25 native Tamil speakers. There was a moment of silence and then arguments erupted, online dictionaries were consulted. There was no equivalent word in Tamil for transformation. No equivalent word for risk. No comparable idiom to a leap of faith. It took several sentences to explain each word.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Evaluating Social Impact

(As posted on

For people engaged in the social entrepreneurship space, one of the most difficult questions is how to measure the positive social impact you make. How do you know you’re doing net social good?

What we typically do is assume that our product has intrinsic positive social value and so simply measure how many people have used our product or service. Then we make grand statements like ‘We have positively touched a million lives’. For some products this might be all it takes. Take d.light, for instance, a solar alternative to kerosene lamps that is cheaper, brighter and healthier. A simple count of product sales would be a pretty good indicator. For many other products and services though it is far more ambiguous. Microfinance, pharmaceuticals, health services, education. All of these have great potential for good but also for abuse, misuse or mistakes. Each instance of use is not always a net positive; a borrower who drinks away a loan, a person who commits suicide with an overdose of painkiler, a person who gets wrong medical advice resulting in a worsening of their condition. In some cases, the net positive impact is highly debated. Are people really better off if they took a loan? If they underwent a particular treatment? Took a particular course?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Social Entrepreneurship? Really?

(As on

Social Entrepreneurship is the new buzz word in India and marks a shift in thinking away from non-profit models to market based solutions that can operate at large scale and therefore create social value more systemically.

But what puts the ‘social’ in social entrepreneurship? We all have a notion that it means starting a business that does good for less fortunate folk. So we commonly think of a social entrepreneur as someone who is addressing a low income market with a product that can raise standard of living, either by providing greater opportunity or convenience. However, as I have discovered over the past five years, simply product and market are not sufficient.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Caps, Drugs and Microfinance

(as posted on

Of all the arguments I have heard in support of rapidly scaling microfinance the one I have heard the most is that there is huge demand for money among the poor. Of course there is huge demand. The less you have of it, the more desperately you need it – to tide over the pain and struggle of every day. The next meal, school fees, doctor fees, a pair of shoes, a movie to escape from reality, a drink or two to forget. It’s a painkiller.

When you’re in severe pain, you need a painkiller. What you care about is relieving the pain now. Today. When you are in desperate need of money you don’t have, and it is dangled in front of you, you will take it. But painkillers are insidious.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Culture of Progress?

(As posted on, adapted from my earlier post 'Culture and Progress')

As I write this column Pongal is being celebrated with fervour around Chennai. Pongal is a giving of thanks for the harvest, a celebration of the cow and a renewal of hope. For most of India this is not an abstract symbolism of a bygone way of life but anchored in a day to day reality. Yet I wonder about the joy of Pongal when crop yields are among the lowest in the world, our milk yields lag most Asian countries and farmer suicides are constantly in the news.

Where does the hope come from? On the first day of Pongal – Bhogi Pongal - it comes from worshiping Indira in the hope that it will bring good rains in the next year. The second day it comes from the worship of Surya for an abundance of crop and the third day is a dedication to the cow that gives so much of itself. And then of course let’s not forget the hope of the free Pongal bags and bonuses given out by the State government. After thousands of years of these prayers, and decades of government freebies, it appears to me that altogether this strategy is just not working.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Go on. Innovate!

(as posted at

You’d think that with almost a billion people out there in the rural areas that there would be amazing innovations to be found there every day. But there aren’t. Search as we might innovation is hard to come by. Implicit in the definition of innovation is change, but the village ethos is about tradition. It’s about holding on to age old practices. Walk into a village and life looks almost the way it did hundreds of years ago. In my column last week I talked about celebrating human innovation. Why is there so little of it? Take a look at what India looks like from the sky, ask people a few questions and the answer is quite obvious really.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Decade of the Cow

According to the microfinance calendar, the last ten years were the decade of the cow. We celebrated the cow as the path out of poverty. At Madura we even benchmarked the loan amount to the cost of a cow. What good is a loan if it’s not even enough to buy a cow? And so over the last decade the microfinance industry has supported the purchase of millions of cows across the country. Millions of scrawny cows with poor yield it turns out; a hallmark of the inefficiency of microenterprise. I for one am glad to be past the decade of the cow and am excited and hopeful that this decade we will do away with celebrating cows - and pigs and goats and chickens and antiquated sewing machines and cottage industries - and celebrate instead the human being and its capacity for extraordinary innovation.