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Villgro's Unconvention brings together grassroots, rural innovators

Think Change India
13th Dec 2009
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TC-I Guest Blogger Tracy Williams lives in Hyderabad where she is working with the Naandi Foundation to launch a new social enterprise connecting smallholder coffee producers with global markets. Prior to taking the India plunge, Tracy worked at the policy team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and on US economic policy issues with The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution. Tracy has a masters in development studies from the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) at Sussex, where she studied as a Marshall Scholar, and a BA in economics and political science from Stanford University. She enjoys scootering around Hyderabad and questing for the perfect cup of Indian coffee.

I just returned from Villgro’s first “Unconvention,” an event in Chennai dedicated to social entrepreneurship and innovation. Having flown to Chennai right after closing out Hyderabad’s Khemka Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, I was slightly worried about incurring social entrepreneurship overload. Happily, the worries were very much misplaced: Villgro did an impressive job hosting an event that mixed traditional conferencing with a business plan competition, awards, an innovation fair (InnoHub), and cultural performances, all cast with the distinctive hue of Villgro’s focus on rural India.

 

Founded in 2001, Villgro aims to transform rural lives through innovations. To date, Villgro has activated close to 1500 innovations and impacted more than 1.3 million lives. The Unconvention brought together actors from across the rural social enterprise space – from entrepreneurs to incubators to funders – to discuss pressing issues in social entrepreneurship and to share and celebrate business innovations making a difference in rural lives.

 

Many of the main agenda items were familiar ones. The panels touched on the issues of scale (why and when do we need it? how do we get it?), funding (what kind of subsidies and profits are appropriate?), social impact (how do we evaluate and quantify?), and the unique challenges and opportunities posed by India’s rural landscape. Yet the Unconvention offered a refreshingly frank take on much of this standard fare. Paul Polak, founder of International Development Enterprise (IDE) and author of Out of Poverty, made the case for “obscene” profits as a way to drive scale and revolutionize the way businesses serve the rural poor. A session on investing explored all angles of the debate, with Agnes Dasewicz of the Grassroots Business Fund suggesting careful use of “blended” (part grant) funding could support social entrepreneurship while Jill Tucker of the Lemelson Foundation warned against the use of grants to seed social enterprises. In the same session, Vineet Rai of Aavishkaar tackled the social return on investment issue head on, stressing that entrepreneurs need to measure social returns whether we like it or not. Targeted panels on energy, ICT, health, water, talent, and government allowed for similarly rich discussions featuring small-scale entrepreneurs as well as giants in the field.

 

But for me, the best part about the Unconvention was its strong grassroots orientation. Traditional dance and music performances provided a cultural connect while a healthy showing by grassroots entrepreneurs enriched the innovation fair (InnoHub), panel sessions, and networking opportunities. The InnoHub fair featured an enormous range of rural technologies, from an affordable, time-saving milking machine to a banana yarn separator that transforms agricultural waste into silk grade fiber yarn. Meanwhile, the networking breaks and conference “down time” provided room for a wealth of serendipitous discoveries: I learned about the incredible work of Inclusive Planet in providing web-based solutions for the visually-impaired; the vision behind Samhita, a one-stop-shop for the social entrepreneurship community to connect to partners, funders, and investees; and eFarm, an innovative farm-to-home supply chain platform that leverages existing entities to match supply and demand, providing economical and efficient market linkages for farmers and buyers.

As a nominee in Villgro’s Wantrapreneur business plan competition (representing Araku Originals, a social enterprise driven by the Naandi Foundation to connect small producers with global markets, starting with Fairtrade organic coffee, I also had the privilege of getting to know the other nominees, including the gentlemen at Energytic, dedicated to providing solar-powered energy solutions for all, and Pranjal Baruah of the Mushroom Development Foundation, an inspiring organization that offers mushroom cultivation as a solution to help small and marginal farmers out of poverty. Pranjal was one of the competition winners, along with Ossian Agro Automation for a remote controlled water pump technology and the Natural Educational Environmental Agricultural Development Society (NEEADS) for its innovative approach to manufacturing rice husk ash-based bricks.

The Villgro Award winners included the Acumen Fund (investor); Suminter India Organics (social enterprise of the year); the ICRISAT Agri-Business Incubator (incubator); T. Muthu Ayyappan for an aquatic feeder (grassroots innovator); Shree Padre for his work in rural journalism at the magazine Adike Patrike (journalist); and CNBC-TV 18 for its Young Turks program highlighting young social entrepreneurs (media house). Sulabh International’s founder Bindeshwar Pathak received the Lifetime Achievement Award to recognize his work in rural sanitation.

All in all, it was a fantastic event. Villgro aims to make next year’s Unconvention even bigger and better, so be sure to put it on your radar now.

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