My Journey within

Post his trip to Mansarovar, this writer finds himself on another, shorter but enlightening voyage.

How the Physical Challenge of Visiting Kailash Manasarovar Turned into a Spiritual Awakening

It was a normal pre-dawn listless ride to the Delhi Airport. While the vehicle cruised, I was stuck in my thoughts. I had a proposed investment meeting in Mumbai and the deal seemed to be necessary for our project. I was confident and in control of the situation. However, a combination of expectation and fear drained my spirits. A big ‘what if’ loomed larger than the moment.

I was a combination of nerves and restlessness and I could not focus on either the journey or the conversation which the driver wanted to engage in. There was calmness outside but a storm brew inside me.

On reaching the airport, I boarded the flight and was ushered to my chosen comfortable seat. However, by now my anxiety gave way to a feeling of suffocation. Initially I thought that it was because the engines were yet not revving fully. I turned on the vent above and waited for the oxygen flow to become better. The flight started to back up from the parking bay but there was no respite for me. It was at this time that I panicked.

I called the air hostess and complained. The lady looked at me as if to judge if I was genuine or basically a troublemaker. She stood by my side and on receiving another desperate look decided to inform the captain. Twenty minutes later, I was being rushed into an ambulance under the watchful eyes of a ground attendant. Another hour and I was being examined by a doctor at a hospital.

The diagnosis was simple, I was stressed.
I have been considered physically fit not just by myself but also by my family due to a sporty disposition, rather stable blood pressure and rare visits to the doctors. Therefore, the entire event of that day shook me from inside, and to top it all, I had missed out the opportunity of short-term relief through the possible investment.

My question to myself was the relevance of stress for a social entrepreneur. Inherently, we are supposed to be doing good for others, construed as sewa’ (service) in a literal sense. How did the stress sneak in? This question was simple to answer but it lingered inside me long enough to trigger a wave of change which changed my destiny or perhaps put me where I always belonged.
With my physical health confidence shaken, I was looking for an opportunity to bounce back. An innocuous promotional mail from a travel company would have definitely slipped unnoticed. However, I was curious to see the proposal of Kailash Manasarovar trip. Googling, I could find that it was physically challenging enough to get to the abode of Shiva to fit into my plans of proving my fitness.

A trip away from phones and work did seem to de-stressing as well. A campaign with friends seemed futile as they had other plans for summer vacations. But any number of dead ends was not going to dampen my spirit which was soaring with just the thought of a trek in the mountains. The biggest challenge was to convince the family.

I started with the kids, which was like a cakewalk. The six and four year olds became disinterested in my resolve when they realised that they were not coming along. My wife however had a few questions which soon melted when she saw my spirits.

Emboldened by my initial success I approached my mother where a stone wall awaited me. All the facts, data and examples fired by me turned into snowflakes in front of the immovable NO of my mother.

For the next few days, it was a question of who blinks first. I used my silence to stress my point and she used her ignorance to thwart my efforts. Finally, she came up with a plan B. She would come along if I had to go. This was a like a small opening in the stone wall. I thought to play along believing that she would give up once she does her own research of fitness requirements. I was naive once again to misjudge my mother’s resolve.

The next four months were spent in preparations. I was putting in more hours in the office to ensure that I would not be missed. My mother became busy shopping, web surfing and speaking to friends who had gathered the courage to trek to the top of divinity.

Finally, armed with a priceless Chinese Visa and good wishes, my mother and I reached Kathmandu on way to our individual lakshya (goal)The Kailash.

Standing on the bank of the tranquil ‘Manasarovar’ and witnessing Kailash was cathartic. All questions melted into nothingness and only nothingness remained. The stillness of fresh water amidst the strong winds seemed to be drawing its stability from God Himself. The rays of the sun were reflecting back into the sky with increased sharpness and warmth.

Everything around seemed to signify the frugality of the divine. No bells were needed to announce our arrival. Every speck of sand seemed to be expecting us and every breath was familiar.

The dark cloud curtain shielding the top of Kailash gave way to the glimpse of the majesty as we bent in obeisance. It seemed to become brighter with every act of respect at our end. Simultaneously, with every shade of the divine shining, there was a change in the colour of the barren land. It was a surge of emotion. No questions remained. The ego surrendered itself and for the first time I felt devoid of control but completely safe.

It dawned on me that six months back, sitting on that fateful flight, I was in complete control of my situation but still there was fear and restlessness. Thirty five years of my life were spent in believing that my ‘self-confidence’ was the key to my success and well-being. This simple generally accepted belief, which was the basis of my life, came crashing down in one divine moment.

I was standing like a child beside the placid lake with tears welling in my eyes. The dry storm brewing outside was matched equally with the calmness inside.

I knew that my life would never remain the same.

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“We were too smitten by our tech to see its cracks”

Our big ideas and business models often fail because we aren’t really listening to communities; nor are we involving them in co-creating solutions.

Today, increasingly, we see young scientists-turned-social entrepreneurs, many of whom are busy inventing what they believe the poor need. From solar torches tosmart classroom blackboards, from remote diagnostics to low cost spectacles to micro-banking, there are innumerable examples of technology led social business innovations that are catching the fancy of media and investors. While these are useful products, and their functionality and distribution improves with each passing year, they are making little difference in the lives of their target customers: the poor.

The ecommerce and internet led business models that we see proliferating today are generally addressing the needs of customers in cities. These include, for instance, aggregators such as the Uber and Swiggy or the payment solution provider, PayTM. In these businesses, the innovators, customers and even investors are all city dwellers. Therefore, the entire ecosystem that surrounds an innovator is one that perpetuates what they already know.

However, the same does not always apply for social businesses. These actors come from a world that is very different from that of the customer. As a result, we’ve seen over the years that when smart entrepreneurs and even smarter investors have pursued the next unicorn business model in the rural space, they have used their limited vision and understanding of the urban context to find the ‘need’ in a geography and culture which they could not remotely relate to. The results, therefore, are no surprise.

Many ‘product-focused’ social enterprises are not really listening

The laundry list of ‘needs’ articulated by a community may not be very different from what social entrepreneurs aim to address with their products. However, how the community prioritises these needs might be different. If a village’s priorities include livelihoods, healthcare or access to water, there would be few takers for a solar torch or a clean cookstove. If however, you were to ask them whether they need a solar torch, many may raise their hands. A few members of the upper-class families might even buy a few, but the volume and margins (especially given the competition from Chinese products) would be too low for achieving sustainability.

So your next move might be to focus on pushing sales. To do this, many social enterprises partner with microfinance companies, bundling their product with a loan. Today in villages across India, it is not uncommon, for instance, to have to purchase a INR 2,000 cookstove to access an INR 20,000 loan at 18% interest. Instalments for the cookstove are baked into the loan repayment schedule. This is modern-day exploitation which would put even traditional moneylenders to shame.

Social enterprises are first and foremost, listening enterprises. They start from a need and not from an idea; but more importantly, they start with communities as their co-creators. The best products, such as those developed by PRADAN in the field of livelihoods were not initiated as a business for scale or for investors. For example, businesses such as piggeries, fisheries and poultry farms were created to address a specific need. Today these businesses have far greater scale and sustainability as compared to many products whose revenues haven’t even matched the initial investment.

Social enterprises should be first and foremost, listening enterprises.Listening is an art. However, it becomes a science when it comes to listening beyond what we want to hear. The priority list of needs are ascertained by the villagers themselves, as they should be; and this is done especially by women, but in whispers, given that they are mostly expected to keep quiet in village meetings.

Women are rich in knowledge when it comes to rural needs, because they are both owners of the household budget as well as the primary consumers, especially if their husbands have migrated to the city for work. Being wise planners, they focus on the ‘need’ more than the ‘want’. I learned this through my experience of trying to bring a telemedicine kit to a village where I spent my childhood.

The telemedicine business model

As co-founder of Drishtee, an organisation that develops rural franchising, I had seen early success with our efforts. (The franchisees are rural entrepreneurs and therefore are always connected to the community they serve). We started in the year 2000 by retailing government services through ICT enabled kiosks for a fee, in villages. Back then, I would see scores of people lining up at these village centres to get their copy of their land record, or to file an e-complaint for a reimbursement as low as Rs 10 or as high as Rs 40 for a license.

social business - girls using technology
Photo courtesy: Anand Sinha

Loaded with confidence of rural selling and being at the frontier of the ICT revolution in villages, we started experimenting with various business models. Introducing a telemedicine kit which had a SIM card and could remotely connect with doctors and share necessary health data, was a revelation even for me as a social tech entrepreneur. Initially, my excitement was echoed by the villagers in the remote village of Saurath in Madhubani district of Bihar, where I spent my childhood. They turned up in large numbers to witness the ‘magic’. This time the magic box was smaller than the bulky PCs that they had witnessed earlier.

The process adopted to gauge demand—we needed to go beyond the ‘need’ to develop a business plan around the telemedicine—for on-site diagnostic and remote doctor consultancy, was simple. Each patient would first speak to a remote doctor. Based on the doctor’s advice, if there were any tests such as ECG, blood pressure, temperature, blood sugar, or others required, the telemedicine device would first carry them out. Then, the results would be sent electronically to the same doctor for the final prescription. This took a total of 15 minutes. These doctors would devote two hours remotely every week, for each village.

After this short exercise, we would ask the patient if they would be willing to pay for such a service and if yes, how much. The unanimous answer was that they liked what was being offered and would be willing to pay the stipulated INR 50 per diagnosis.

We were elated. We had cracked a very valuable service for the community. We developed a Health Franchisee model, through which someone who would invest in the telemedicine equipment and keep related products could then sell the services in the community and earn a decent livelihood.

“One year later, we officially declared the model a failure.”

The number of patients had dwindled from a healthy 20 per day to a meagre one or two, making the cost of running the operation prohibitive. I was baffled initially but soon realised that we had made the cardinal sin of asking the question which perhaps had only one answer: ‘Do you value the product that is on offer?’

They did; perhaps more than the education, energy or banking products that were sold to them. But there were other pressing needs that took precedence over their daily ailments, especially if they were spending the INR 50 sitting in their pocket.

Moreover, villagers would not wait for a week to get their remedies settled, which is the duration the doctors took to get back with a diagnosis. If the qualified doctor would identify chronic issues, patients would turn to the rural medical practitioner (RMP) who gave them low-end but quick remedies for their non-life-threatening diseases at a third of the cost. Finally, the villagers’ confidence in a machine (without the doctor) was half that in the RMP.

The model might have still worked had we taken the RMP into confidence. The on-site diagnostic threw up important data that would have been useful for even for the half-qualified medical practitioner to take informed decisions. But our model relied on the combination of technology and a qualified doctor at the backend. The villagers were being truthful when they raised their hands agreeing to pay the telemedicine fees. However, we were too smitten by our technology and our business model to see its cracks.

“We were too smitten by our technology and our business model to see its cracks.”

Twelve years down the line, we have understood that the economic deprivation of villagers has many stakeholders but only one sufferer, the villagers themselves. Therefore, it is they who must lead the change. Drishtee’s work now is that of a catalyst with a belief that majority of villagers’ problems can be solved by their coming together and taking control of their destiny. Our role is thus to merely fill the gaps, if any, from the outside.

Following this paradigm rather than the one most social enterprises start with, means that both, the community’s needs and their prioritisation, come from the community itself. Social entrepreneurs need to come out of their comfort zone and offer their competence, energy and business acumen for the good of the society, while allowing people to participate in solving their own problems.

Satyan spoke at the recent BOP Global Summit – New strategies for building BOP ecosystems, held in Delhi.

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Future of agriculture – Back to Sustainable farming

The pace of change and its impact
 We are in an age where everything seems to be moving very fast. From television to Internet and from computers to smartphone, the speed of technology and business is accelerating phenomenally. However, this movement is mostly circular. The actual impact of technology on life is changing but at a pace which is much slower than the pace of technology itself. In many ways, the impact of television on our life is being nullified by the smart phones. There are several a-ha moments in technology but they are short lived only to be replaced by another such moment. More and more youngsters are turning away from mobile phones faster than we turned our back to the idiot box. However, the same is not true for agriculture. Unlike technology, it has seen just the reverse movement. The pace of change and its adoption has been abysmally slow and the reversal, if left to destiny, would take forever.
Innovation is not a choice anymore…
Innovation is not a choice but a necessity in villages, especially agriculture. Farmers do not have the resources to ape the west in terms of modernization. Moreover, since cities may not have enough room or growth to accommodate the teeming millions, labour intensive agriculture seems to be the way forward. Innovation in Farming practices, crop choice, water management, soil productivity, processing of produce, go to market strategies are needed to ensure attractive livelihood option for nearly 150 million families. The average yearly productivity of land in terms of value has to increase from less than Rs. 25,000 presently to more than Rs. 100,000 over the course of next 10 years for it to attract the younger workforce back to their natural habitat. While, to retain them in the village, further innovations are  needed in education system, banking, health care and basic infrastructure, a strong push to increase productivity in farming would throw the village hat in the ring to compete with the resource rich cities
Role of women in farming
If there is a sex census in rural India, women would outnumber men by millions. Unfortunately, that’s not a piece of statistics which can be used to boast of growth. In fact, it represents the cracks in a system which is slowly falling apart. With nearly 600 million people living in villages, there is increasing pressure on land to provide for livelihood. With every generation, the division of land makes it harder for farming to remain economically viable. The average age of a farmer in India is nearly 50 years. While the country is boasting of having the youngest population in the developing world, the lure of cities is where all below the age of 25 seem to be headed. Farming as a profession has not just lost sustainability but has also lost the respect which it deserves, before any other profession. Elderly and experienced farmers in Northern plains are reluctant to introduce their sons and daughters to farming. The first step into the school is a step away from the field. The curriculum prescribed and taught in the schools has (or tries to) courses which neither prepare the kid for the city (given the poor quality of teachers ) nor exposes them to their surrounding.
The farm production, however, has steadily increased for cereal crops where the Government has a buy back guarantee. With increased usage of chemicals and mechanised tools, the volume over variety was a natural choice for the farmers looking to make a decent living off the land. On the other hand, the failure of the existing supply chain and and assured local market steadily led to the degeneration of the concept of integrated farming. Single crop fields and volume production for the Mandi (commodity markets) moved farming away from backyard to fields. Milk production took precedence over integrated farming when it came to offering women an opportunity to contribute towards household income or more importantly daily cash flows. But it could not offer wholesome 2 square meals a day which a women of the family aspires towards.
Nutrition of the family being at peril, women were the first to notice the failing health of the mother which in turn led to malnourished newborns. The problem however was misinterpreted as poverty by the western minds. Since the villagers had little earning (read in per capital $ terms) they were considered poor and scores of Government and social schemes were set in motion for earning a higher income for these farming families. Income was linked to agriculture and poor productivity and failure of market was considered were considered as the chief perpetrators for the low income. In came the myriad of fertilizers (and associated subsidy) and the mandi system which was designed to push products up the value chain without having any focus on differentiation. Thus died the art of age old farming and its subtle nuances of multi cropping, soil balance, organic waste usage which all used to lead to a healthier diet and a colorful plate. With a little land, women in Assam are proving the economists wrong. With one of the lowest per capital income, families in Assam are able to manage their health far better than their counterparts in mainland India.
Overall, the failure of a rural agrarian economy has led to the economic marginalization of women in the last 40 years. The picture looks dismal as there does not seem to be a consensus on the problem itself. Some people look at it as a natural decline which is cyclical in nature. Of course, sitting in cities we can afford to have a longer term global view. But the women who are seeing a steady decline in the income, health and overall well being of their family, are fighting it out and have not thrown the towel as yet.
The solution lies in developing prosumer societies
Food is too precious for humanity to be experimented on a business platform. In India, from time immemorial, farming has been associated with self and society. Families grow a variety of crop with primary focus on grains which was the major currency of exchange. The surplus was either used as a tax payout or bartered for buying other essentials. But with the entire cycle of farming within their control, the farming families were happy and contended. Their surplus slowly built a civilization which we are all proud of today. With the advent of cities, farming became a business and the agri produce became a commodity. There was no direct relationship between the producer and the consumer. Slowly, the produce for self consumption by the farming family became distant from what was sold in the market. The concept of sharing was replaced by the marketplace which changed the quality of food in terms of its input such as seed, fertilizer and output in terms of size and uniformity. Increase in chronic illnesses and life threatening diseases is not a coincidence as it has a direct correlation with the kind of food that we eat.
We are approaching near anarchy in terms of health hazards, price variations, sinking water levels and above all in lack of sustainability of farming families. Politics, technology, changing culture are the likely targets for this precarious situation. However, the single most important reason for this instability, is our inability to accept change and follow the most likely new path which emerges from it.
Prosumer societies are not a function of proximity anymore in the age of technology. For e.g., our relationships with friends and relatives do not get remote with distance. In fact, technology has helped us come closer and bond better. The same solution is the need of the hour for re-establishing the lost relationship between the farmer families and the consumers of their surplus. An efficient supply chain and a state of  the art technology cannot just carry farm products quickly and efficiently but also bring cities closer to villages.

Grow for your family share and sell the surplus is the mantra that Drishtee* would like to provide for both the urban families and rural farmers for their sustainability and prosperity.