Villgro’s Social Enterprises Research Project to Encourage Social Entrepreneurship by Unearthing Information from the Ground Level

6th Mar 2011
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Expected outcome: More social businesses that work to alleviate poverty

Villgro recently launched a three-year research project “Learning from Pro-Poor, Market-Driven Innovation in Asia” funded by International Development Research Centre (IDRC) to act as primary and secondary research sources to study growth and scale of social businesses in India. Prof. M.S. Ananth, Director, IIT-Madras, who launched the project, feels that there is no enough data available in India, citing example of air pollution. “A complete data set is available for Los Angeles and not for Chennai to teach air pollution course at IIT. Why will someone be interested in data for Los Angeles?” he points out. He adds that it has been found that user-centered research that falls under Pasteur quadrant has only been able to attract funding, and other bright ideas or fanciful research have not been able to get funding. “Although social enterprises existed from long ago, terminology to define the same set of activities undergoes change over time and there has been lot of interest in this sector now,” he observes. He further states that this kind of research is needed to fill information gap that exists. The Centre for Social Innovation and Enterprises at IIT-M will be one of the partners for this research, says Prof. M.S. Ananth.

Veena Ravichandran (Senior Program Officer, Innovation, Technology, and Society, IDRC) says “industry-academia is one of the pathways to innovation, which has proved successful in the West, but there are umpteen other options. One of the ways is to obtain information from ground-level researchers who work on the field.” Her expertise is the development of policies on science, technology, and innovation to alleviate poverty in developing countries. Her work mainly focuses on innovations that help social development (clean water, vaccines, essential drugs, access to information, etc.) and on finding alternative pathways for innovation in developing countries. The IDRC, which has funded this project by sanctioning $565,000, is a Crown corporation created by the Parliament of Canada in 1970 to help developing countries use science and technology to find practical, long-term solutions to the social, economic, and environmental problems they face. IDRC’s operations in Southeast and East Asia are guided by its regional office in Singapore, established in 1971. The office coordinates the Centre’s operations in 12 countries. In the past 30 years, IDRC has supported more than 2,000 research projects directed and managed by Asian researchers and institutions.

Why is this project needed? Prof. R. Nagarajan, who heads the Centre for Social Innovation and Enterprises is of the view that students who want to take up social entrepreneurship are hesitant as there exists no information. The centre has been formed to educate students on social entrepreneurship. “If you walk in with an idea, you can walk out with a prototype” is the goal of the centre. Citing enhanced entrepreneurial activity among students who become entrepreneurs as early as in their second year of college, he adds that “this research will generate interest in them to take up social entrepreneurship.

For whom is the project aimed at? The founder CEO of Villgro, Paul Basil, says that “about 400 million small and marginal farmers have lot of needs. Our interest is in finding market-based solutions to their needs through this research.” It is an irony that agricultural sector contributes very marginally to the national GDP although agricultural farmers form a little over half of the workforce in India. Still farmers struggle under the scourge of poverty and policy makers have done little to address this problem.

Why is the need for this research? Ranjith Koshi of Villgro says that policy makers in India lack knowledge on social enterprises in India as there are not enough research or data available. Asia scores poorly in research on social sciences, for example, producing only one book and three peer-reviewed research articles on social entrepreneurship compared to 10 books and 36 research papers in Europe and 9 books and 32 research papers in the United States until 2007.

What should be the expected outcome of this project? If the project generates useful information on what people living at less than $2 a day need, and is able to suggest or showcase successful business models that can help these people overcome poverty, there will be an increased awareness among entrepreneurs and budding entrepreneurs on the opportunities that exist. There are many entrepreneurs willing to quit their careers for a social cause. This research might bridge their aspirations with quantifiable research information on the reality at the ground level so that they can devise market-based solutions to establish sustainable businesses.

–Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy, chief evangelist, YourStory.in

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