Live Consciously

Social enterprise in India makes steady progress

The Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai and Unltd India are paving the way for social entrepreneurs in India to succeed

Waste pickers in India: the social enterprise Sampurn(e)arth is raising their status and training them in new skills. Photograph: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Over the past decade the social enterprise ecosystem in India has grown steadily, almost in parallel to ours in Britain. Like ours, the evolution of the ecosystem has been uneven, with a surfeit of subsidised capital for early stage start-ups, a splattering of incubation hubs and a small but expanding number of universities that have sought to embed social enterprise in teaching, research, and enterprise activities (or all three).

If London is the UK's social enterprise capital, then Mumbai is India's. The city's Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) launched India's first masters programme in social entrepreneurship in 2007. Last year, it reached an agreement with the Development Bank of Singapore to fund an incubator and provide continuing financial support to its graduates. In a region where incubation for social purpose ventures has expanded over the past 10 years, but where social entrepreneurship has struggled to find legitimate recognition as a field of academic study, this unique combination of the two has served to make social enterprise a viable career choice for young graduates.

Unltd India - which celebrated its fifth birthday in 2012 - has been providing seed funding and business support in much the same ways as its UK counterpart has done. Until last year, it also provided a vital physical hub in the city for social entrepreneurs. Much more than a co-working space, the hub (now called Bombay Connect) is an oasis of calm, conviviality and creativity in a city that pulses to a manically financialised beat.

Two of the fourth batch of graduates from the TISS masters have gone on to found successful start-ups. Ketan Parmar has launched Krishi Naturals, an organic farming business that works with farming co-operatives in the western state of Gujarat. Despite being heralded as India's most technologically advanced state (its prime minister Narendra Modi appeared as a hologram in remote villages during recent state elections), rural Gujarat is agriculturally dependent, and the state is India's largest dairy producer.

In the context of an epidemic of farmer suicide - claiming one life every 12 hours - Krishi Naturals' mission goes beyond environmental do-gooding. Krishi Naturals has two related objectives: to provide a sustainable livelihood for farmers and to popularise organic farming. To meet its objectives, Parmar and his team have been engaged in advancing the development of farming co-operatives, on the one hand, and consumer groups, on the other.

Krishi Naturals' support for farmers involves disseminating advice on best practice for organic farming methods and providing technical support. Organic farming is widely perceived as far less productive than chemical methods, so persuading farmers that organic methods can maintain crop yield and offer access to new markets is a major challenge for Krishi Naturals.

On the demand side, the company is working with housing societies (co-operatives) in the city of Baroda to provide weekly baskets of fresh organic produce. This distribution model, based on seasonal subscriptions, provides farmers with a stable, predictable income and ensures that only crops that can be guaranteed to be sold will be grown, reducing food wastage. These advanced subscriptions also provide much-needed working capital. Krishi Naturals has recently partnered with Jatan, an organisation that raises awareness about organic farming and produce among farmers and consumers.

Parmar believes that the organic food market in India is still in its infancy but that, "domestic markets must be developed by spreading awareness about organic food. As most of the organic food produced in India is being exported, our carbon foot print in transporting this stuff is very high which ultimately affects the environment".

Sampurn(e)arth, another TISS start-up and Unltd India investee, is in the business of end-to-waste management. Like Krishi Naturals, it seeks to create multiple forms of value and impact. Mumbai is home to Asia's second largest dumping ground, producing a staggering 10,000 tonnes of waste every day. Waste pickers scavenge these dumping grounds from morning to night, separating the useful from the useless.

Sampurn(e)arth operates on the principle that the mass transportation of waste to these mega dumping grounds is not only hugely inefficient and expensive but also environmentally costly and responsible for perpetuating undignifying scavenging work. Its solution is to promote the segregation of waste at source and the overall decentralisation of waste management. It does this by separating dry from wet waste at sites that handle sizeable quantities - universities, corporate offices or hospitals. Where the wet waste crosses a quantity threshold, Sampurn(e)arth installs and maintains a biogas plant that transforms the waste into cooking gas and organic fertiliser. The dry waste is segregated at source and sent for recycling.

This elegant decentralisation of waste management is valuable in and of itself. But Sampurn(e)arth's innovative twist lies in its partnership with Stree Mukti Sanganatha (Women's Liberation Organisation), which has given rise to a federation of female waste pickers. Sampurn(e)arth and Stree Mukti Sanganatha train members of the federation to separate dry waste properly and to manage biogas plants and composting units. Besides providing members with much-needed transferable technical skills, firms also offer a living wage, social insurance, decent working conditions and perhaps above all, a dignified livelihood. Members of the waste pickers' federation glow as they speak of an ability to take pride in their work, to hold their heads high and to impress on their children the realisation of long cherished dreams of social mobility. Co-founder Debartha Banerjee describes these female waste pickers as "invisible environmentalists".

These high-impact, innovative solutions to market and government failures are symbols of a mounting impatience at the persistence of poverty in spite of steady, consistent growth over the past 30 years. In unequal countries such as India, where the windfall of economic gains has accrued to relatively few, social enterprise promises to empower those groups who have found themselves bypassed by globalisation's gold rush. In social enterprise circles we pay a lot of lip service to the triple bottom line, but very few organisations walk the walk like these two. The challenges lies in providing the right mix of financial, legal, moral and intellectual support for this all-important generation of change makers. Organisations such as TISS and Unltd India are at the forefront of meeting this challenge.

Dr Pathik Pathak is a lecturer in sociology and social policy and director of undergraduate programmes at the University of Southampton. He is co-designing and convening a module on social enterprise with Southampton's Students in Free Enterprise Society, who are national champions. Before his appointment at Southampton, he ran successful educational social enterprises in London and Mumbai.

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