RTBI's Conference on Rural Opportunities for Business and Sustainability, Part I
Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy, chief evangelist, reports from Chennai
Vijay Anand needs no introduction. If anything defines his present role as New Ventures manager at RTBI at IIT-M, Chennai, it is his passion for entrepreneurship and startups. The proto.in brand ambassador, who is now concentrating on rural side of the businesses, showcased his ability to bring together a network of visionaries, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs active in the rural entrepreneurial space at the RTBI’s Conference on Rural Opportunities for Business and Sustainability on March 3, 2010 at IIT-M Research Park supported by Department of Science and Technology, Government of India and TiE, Chennai. The select few at the audience were taken on an amusing journey of what it takes to succeed in the rural entrepreneurship space. If a person employing deaf people can succeed in founding and running a courier service in the Mumbai hotbed, what more inspiration you need to go rural.
In India, where entrepreneurs are obsessed with technology and the benefits it brings and our ability to be a game changer in 10 years in the IT service space, rural entrepreneurship is more often looked upon as a non-profit social venture in which money goes out and not comes in. This is a myth that needs to be broken and if anybody is trying their heart and soul at identifying opportunities, there could be no better person than Prof. Ashok Jhunjunwala. He was introduced as a keynote speaker at the conference and as a visionary, inspiration, speaker, and most important of all, the person who executes. His keynote was a towering example of what passion could do to a little known sector – application of technology for bettering rural India. The flow you could see was beyond his person and control. Ideas just flow from him. He narrated the India of the 1980s and India of the now. If a person back from the United States in the 1980s has to wait for years for a telephone connection, gas connection, and a scooter, he would have made a decision to head back to the US. Prof. Jhunjunwala is not a man willing to give up. He has “created” the rural technology space taking a cue from outsourcing of work from developed countries to India. Using the same method, he foresaw innumerable opportunities if urban work is outsourced to rural areas.
Prof. Jhunjunwala’s success lies not just in being clear about opportunities in various segments like technology, fossil fuel, and education but in bringing together people who will execute work. If he could convince Saloni Malhotra by a passionate speech in 30 minutes to found a rural BPO DesiCrew, you could understand what the professor is capable of. The credit for people going gung-ho about rural technology and business goes to this visionary professor. The sector in which companies have been created are rural outsourcing (ROPE, Vastra, DesiCrew, eJeevika), managing risk for farmers, language training (Language Mentor the language learning service offered by TRAYI [Training and Research to Advance Youth in India]), telemedicine, power (Intellizon, solar-powered lamps for rural areas), and rural banking (Vortex).
Paul Basil, CEO, Villgro, is a man who has tread the path others could not even imagine in their wildest dreams. Create rural businesses through identification of rural innovations that impacts the rural poor. A potential risk proposition. Any venture capitalist, banker, or a funding agency will not buy your idea. Paul has done it with his patience, thorough homework, and by keeping ears on the ground. Villgro’s work now is world-class. Paul and Villgro are at an interesting intersection of rural entrepreneurship being identifying as a potential opportunity sector and their own journey going on to the next level before it leapfrogs into the league of a superstar organization. Cultivable land, water, and labor are dwindling resources in rural India. Hardly could anyone imagine that this is the case. Urban folk always imagine rural India to be full of land and water. Backed by accurate statistics on land degradation, water resources, and labor shortage in rural areas, Paul listed out opportunities in various segments like reclaiming salt water-eroded land, contract farming, micronutrient supplements, water harvesting, bee keeping, rural credit, farmer insurance, knowledge delivery mechanisms, poultry, floriculture, farm processing, paraskilling, channel sharing, only to list a few. He signed off stating patience is needed as it takes a long time for a rural business to scale up. If one person has shown it as a living example, it is Paul himself.
Anuradha of Venture East and Pradeep of Aavishkaa provided the funding perspective of the businesses in rural areas and what they look for in a venture before they fund them. It was interspersed with 10 minutes of success showcase by a diversity of rural entrepreneurs.