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Social & Green Entrepreneurs

Anup Akkihal, Founder, SamaanGuru

Team YS
posted on 14th November 2010
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AnupSamaanGuru – Inventory Gurus of India

Someone who describes themselves as “an Indian-American who grew up in "hill country" West Virginia” would hardly be expected to be the harbinger of change for Rural India. However that is exactly what Anup Akkihal is. His admiration of his economist fathers work in social educational entrepreneurship coupled with a strong connection to his Homeland led to his own transformation into a social entrepreneur.

His resume is incredibly impressive, with experience in implementing field/tactical logistics systems for the United States Army, managing an SAP implementation for a retail bakery chain, and advising USAID, WHO, UNFPA and World Bank through JSI on supply chain and technology matters. After a decade as a systems engineer in supply chain software across a range of industries, he has come up with SamaanGuru. He describes what they do as “strive each day to strike an appropriate balance between business sustainability and social development”.

SamaanGuru is the flagship offering of Logistics for Global Good Inc. that uses mobile technology penetration in Rural India to deliver affordable services.

Yourstory learnt more about Anup’s story of social entrepreneurship and how SamaanGuru is the herald of more good things to come.

1) How would you describe SamaanGuru’s work in reducing costs with logistical improvements through mobile technology?

SamaanGuru delivers Fortune-500-calibre supply chain services via common mobile phones at prices affordable to the BoP.  It strengthens rural supply chains by enhancing market linkages for villagers, producers, and managing inventory/procurement for village retailers in ways that maximize profits, ensure reliable availability, and foster self-reliance.  Channel integration of this kind is broadly applicable cross healthcare, pharmaceuticals, retail, crafts, agriculture, dairy and disaster response.

2) What advantages does SamaanGuru have over other supply chain management services?

Samaan GuruWe offer a unique mix of simplicity, scalability, flexibility and price.  The mobile interface is so intuitive -- using simple menus, colors and numeric entry -- then even semi-literate folks find it easy to use.  Our technology -- a mobile+cloud logistics platform -- is designed to support a rapidly scaling user base and high transactional intensity.  The tools are flexible enough to support heterogeneity across industry verticals, and are applicable to any warehouse, kirana shop, clinical stockroom, orchard, camp, truck, or backpack.  Finally, our prices are kept low enough to generate widespread BoP adoption.

3) How did your experiences lead you to formulate the business idea for SamaanGuru?

In 2006-2007 I had the privilege of working as a contractor (via defense giant Northrop Grumman) in a U.S. Department of Defense program called Single Army Logistics Enterprise (SALE).  My role supported Global Combat Support System (GCSS) Army Field/Tactical -- designing and engineering tactical logistics systems for field operations and the battle theater.  Military logistics challenges -- such as designing "disconnected architectures" and "system redundancies" -- are surprisingly analogous to the challenges of supporting remote villagers' needs.

Realizing the sophisticated gizmos (RFID tags and durable handheld devices) connected via SATCOM were largely replicable using common mobile phones and GPRS data channels, it generated an interest in engineering systems for social advancement.  This interest was reinforced by my personal experience as a slight Indian-American kid falling sick on annual family visits to India.  Sure, if the kirana shop didn't have the medicine I needed, we'd just drive to the next one; but this is a luxury not afforded to poor folks.  So the idea was incubated at MIT, in Jose Gomez-Marquez's Innovations in International Health lab, and encouraged by Media Lab guru Joost Bonsen.  It wasn't long before we formed a boots-on-the-ground research team (Amit Akkihal & Sharath Chandangoudar) to conduct surveys in 120 North Karnataka villages.  What we learned about needs, feasibility and interest confirmed our instincts and made a strong case for building it.

4) Can you tell us more about the upbringing that influenced you towards social entrepreneurship?

I'm an Indian-American who grew up in "hill country" West Virginia, a terrain similar to the Western Ghats.  We've held strong ties to our family in India, and visited almost annually.  My father actually grew up in a small village outside of Belgaum, and was the first person in our family to attend high school.  He became an economist (via Bombay and the USA), and over the past decade developed his own penchant for social educational entrepreneurship here in India.  His story heavily influenced my decisions toward advancing the condition of the poor.

5) Have you found suitable partners to enhance and evolve your business idea? Has your target audience taken in the SamaanGuru concepts?

We have fostered strong partnerships in both pilots and research.  We are active in the Deshpande Foundation Sandbox in 5 districts of northern Karnataka.  In Andhra Pradesh, CARE Hospitals has kindly allowed us to pilot SamaanGuru for CARE Rural Health Mission (CRHM) -- a network of 200 rural clinics managed by local nurses covering a population of 1 million.  We're also very excited about a new partnership with Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP) -- an amazing organization of 72000 women in 11 states across India.  We are learning from them how to leverage mobile technology for disaster preparedness and response.  We've also begun engaging small pharmaceutical distributors in northern Karnataka, and are poised for a large HIV-drug distribution project covering 800 clinics in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Further, we have growing research tie-ups with MIT and the Gobee Group (a research and consulting firm created by graduates of the University of California at Berkeley).  These investigators have academic interests in our activities, and serve as unbiased 3rd parties when evaluating the impacts of the technology and management behaviors that it encourages.

Regarding acceptance, the concept has been embraced almost universally.  Most people understand the inherent usefulness of it, and are less surprised than they are relieved that it has finally arrived.  Moreover, rural entrepreneurs in Karnataka are able to articulate the mechanisms and what it means for their bottom line -- while user experience testing amongst pharmacists and nurses have revealed that usability is no obstacle to adoption.  During our typical 30-minute training sessions, we often find trainees after the first 5 minutes saying, "Please move on. We get it.  It's easy."  Apparently it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to count stuff!  All this is encouraging, but despite corporate acceptance, our tools are yet to be proven with individual consumers.


6) What are the lines along which you plan to grow SamaanGuru in the coming five year period?

The success of early movers will naturally encourage competition and the subsequent emergence of a wide array of service offerings from many companies over a range of devices/platforms.  On one end of the spectrum you'll find niché offerings targeting a specific vertical -- likely bundled with other related services.  On the other hand, you'll see highly focused logistics/SCM services applicable across many sectors, but appealing to a specific business sensibility (e.g. lowest cost, or best quality).  The market will (hopefully) grow to millions of users across many sectors.  In terms of impacts, I first envision new market connectivity paradigms re-shaping rural commerce, followed by productivity gains as a result of widespread use.  Not only should a wider-range of essential products become more reliably accessible, but also the typical "middle men" will be forced to add more value than simply being the "relationship on which commerce relies upon".  NGOs, cooperatives and corporations will have to deliver more value, in more ways, to the villagers' benefit.  Call me optimistic, but technology diffusion and management behavior appear to drive a winning scenario.

SamaanGuru should become a medium-sized company competing on quality -- because that resonates with our core supply chain and technology competencies.  This implies deeper examination into "impact metrics" to differentiate from competitors, especially potential new entrants coming from the traditional business software space (like SAP or Oracle).  Furthermore, you can expect SamaanGuru to be increasingly directed towards private enterprise customers, deepening our involvement in nutritional security and healthcare, and making great efforts to collaborate with organizations empowering women and girls to address the gender gap.  We feel these domains are of paramount importance.

7) How have you positively monetized the SamaanGuru revenue model?

The sale of software as a service (SaaS) on a monthly transactional basis will drive revenues.  As a heuristic, the monthly price is roughly 50 INR per user.  With such thin margins, our aim is to achieve scale for sustainability.

8) What are the joys and challenges you have experienced as a social entrepreneur?

Joys:  Having a strong purpose in designing rural-centric tools, and sincerely upholding the interest of villagers feels great.  Practically everybody is supportive of this -- even rivals -- because proving the paradigm is a success for everyone.  It is also an opportunity to put our skills to use in challenging contexts.  To be perfectly honest though, we get quite a lot of recognition simply on the basis of our "social" focus; this naturally excites us, though I often wonder if it is deserved.  After all, the line between a social enterprise and any other business is a blurry one.

Challenges:  Building consensus amongst my team and partners.  As a startup operating in an emerging market, the traditional "rules" are often challenged and new evidence is uncovered weekly.  Expressing leadership is difficult until our mental models are aligned -- a very difficult task requiring patience.  My style to invite a diversity of opinions and build consensus, so we often move more slowly than I would like.  Thomas Jefferson once said, “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”  This tends to work for us.

9) Could you tell us more about the people who make up the SamaanGuru team?

I'm very proud of my elite team's diverse backgrounds and expertise.  We have 5 full-time "core" members.  Our engineering head is Arun Ramanujapuram, who is a native Bangalorean with leadership experience at Xerox Parc and Yahoo!  He brings an unparalleled passion for social service.  Ryan McWhorter is our Bay Area-based operations leader, bringing a unique background in science, engineering, global health and diplomacy.  Sharath Chandangoudar, whose entrepreneurial energy and hands-on rural experience laid the foundation of our learning about the BoP, is currently our Indian sales spearhead.  Our erudite strategic thought-leader is Amit Akkihal -- who always puts our work into historical and cultural context, has guided our strategy and played all roles in-between.  We also have a 8-member volunteer base working on code (Kalyan Kanuri & Vani Hemmige), user experience testing (Adesh Singh), quality assurance (Ambika Janardhan), research & analysis (Shardul Phadnis).   All together, we express competencies in technology, mathematics, design, and even in the history and anthropology of regions in which we work.  I'd encourage you to check out our full team page online:  http://samaanguru.org/team.html

10) What are the expansion plans that you are currently executing?

We're running several pilots in parallel and across sectors that we think are critically important to improving human development (Agriculture, Dairy, Healthcare, Retail, Pharma & Disaster Response).  In most of these, we have invited independent 3rd party researchers to evaluate and quantify impacts to costs, performance and other behaviors.  Using the results, we should more effectively scale-up in each vertical.  This is decidedly not the "get big fast" style of expansion.  We're more "slow and methodical" because we're competing on quality (impacts).

11) What are the predicted stats and effects that SamaanGuru will have in 2011?

By January 1st, SamaanGuru will have 1500 users via 6 pilots.  In Q2 2011, we expect to add 5000 more users, many from sub-Saharan Africa's global health sector.  Interesting patterns: Inventory optimization can diminish operating costs for the most remote villagers, creating further incentives for adoption.  We can minimize the average 220 INR (sample size of 120) for replenishment pick-up journeys approximately every 10 days.  In some cases, our research partner at MIT found that preparing a fixed schedule can increase profit margins by 54%.   This is an extreme case, of course, but anecdotally powerful in understanding what lies ahead.

Yourstory wishes Anup Akkihal, and SamaanGuru success with their visions and dreams. We hope to see SamaanGuru emerge true to its title as the “Inventory Guru” of India while bringing better prices and services to Rural India. To see their work online and understand how it all works check out their website http://samaanguru.org

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