Malaysian Minister of Science Technology and Innovation, Dr. Maximus Johnity Ongkili, Visits Villgro Innovation Foundation
On a weekend Saturday, otherwise quiet with empty offices at IIT-M Research Park and lazing into the evening, Paul Basil, CEO of Villgro, Joseph Thomas, CTO of Villgro, Ajit Narayanan, MD of Invention Labs (a Villgro incubatee), and Sreejith, CEO of ROPE (a Villgro incubatee) and team Villgro were busy playing hosts to the Malaysian Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, Dr. Maximus Johnity Ongkili, accompanied by a six-member delegation that visited Chennai specifically looking for partnerships and collaborations with R&D centres in India to implement their innovative practices in Malaysia.
Ajit Narayanan showed the visiting minister and the delegation AVAZ, India’s first commercially available Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device. It enables people with disabilities like cerebral palsy, autism, mental retardation and speech disorders to communicate. AVAZ converts limited muscle movements into speech.
Paul Basil then explained another incubatee company Masuta’s tussar silk innovation, which improves the reeling machine in multiple aspects leading to financial and social benefits for the rural poor engaged in yarn production.
Sreejith engaged the delegation on ROPE (Rural Outsourced Production Enterprise), which leverages the skills of the rural artisans to bring products to a global customer base using production centres located in rural areas. ROPE currently specializes in handloom weaving, hand knotting, crochet and other hand knitting skills using the materials of bamboo, banana fiber rope, banana silky fiber, cotton, jute, korai grass, sambu grass, sisal fiber and talipot.
Joseph Thomas explained Neurosynaptic-developed Indradhanu, an automatic weather monitoring station developed using sensor technology and ICT at a cheaper rate than its present competitors. The station measures six basic parameters like temperature, humidity, wind speed, wind direction, atmospheric pressure and rain fall.
A snapshot of Villgro presented
After lunch stretched to 3 pm, Paul Basil made a presentation on Villgro. Villgro Innovation Foundation is primarily engaged in identifying rural innovations that impact the rural poor and have the potential to scale on an enterprise level and incubates them and then provides mentoring and talent support. Talent support comes in the form of Villgro Fellows and interns. Fellows engage the incubatee company for 10 months and lend their expertise by closely working with them. The interns are harnessed from the best management institutions to work with incubatee companies.
To overcome the handicap of Villgro being not-for-profit organization investing in companies, a Villgro spin-off VFIRE, a venture fund, is being set up. To help innovations reach the last mile to the customer, Villgro Innovation Marketing Private Limited has been spun off following the huge success of Villgro Stores. Using village level entrepreneurs (VLEs), Villgro stores sell various products to rural population by locating a proper retail store at rural locations.
Paul Basil told the delegation that “many sources like the media and the patent office help us identify innovations.”
Helping villagers spend less on kerosene
Serval’s Venus burner is a novel burner with an improved design tested and appreciated by the Central Scientific Instruments Organisation (CSIO) and Anna University. The Venus burner offers the following benefits: Delivers 37% savings in kerosene consumption, lasts longer, offers more safety, and makes less noise. It is easy to maintain rural households in Tamil Nadu and also small teashops are currently using this innovation. Explaining that “people in rural areas buy kerosene from the public distribution system at Rs. 10 a litre and from the black market at Rs. 30 a litre,” Paul Basil said that the PDS supply is only able to fulfil partial needs of the villagers for kerosene and invariably the villagers have to buy kerosene at 3x prices from the open market. Venus burner cuts down kerosene consumption by 37%, thereby providing cost savings and therefore villagers can buy less kerosene from the open market.
Opportunities for Villgro
The delegation was keen to know if Villgro has gone beyond India to which Paul Basil told them that Villgro is only active in South India and looking to expand to other parts of India. “We see Africa as a big opportunity and we work with partners in Indonesia and Peru,” explained Paul Basil on opportunities available.
Dr. Ongkili was keen to know if all innovations were successful or some of them failed, to which Paul Basil said, “not all of them are successful. Out of 50 innovations we incubated, 14 have been successful and two of them have spun off as big enterprises.”
Challenges of Villgro
Having to spread thin as there is no ecosystem, lack of educated talent pool ready to work in rural enterprises, and legal structure preventing not-for-profit organization working with for-profit organizations are some of the challenges Villgro faces. For example, an investor in Serval took 49% of its stake for Rs. 8 lakhs and the company is now valued at Rs. 50 crores. If Villgro had taken that stake, it would have reaped 100x returns. But its not-for-profit structure prevents it from investing in incubatee companies. This is a challenge for sustainability of Villgro.
A delegation member was interested in knowing how marketing is done in rural areas and Paul Basil told him that word of mouth, slides in movie theatres, and local cable TV network ads are used as marketing channels in villages.
Sreejith, CEO of ROPE, presented a jute executive bag as memento to the visiting delegation.
–Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy, chief evangelist, YourStory, reports on the visit from Chennai