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The myth of scalability in Indian social enterprises

Pic: courtesy blog.druva.com

Last summer, I attended a few sessions of the Acara Summer Institute – a three-week crash course in social entrepreneurship at the university level. I introduced myself to the group with the usual song-and-dance about why I was passionate about social enterprises and why we needed more of those instead of millions of well-meaning (but mostly un-scalable) NGOs. During one of the session breaks, Shehnaz (a participant whose parents hail from Bharthouli Shareef – a small village in Bihar) walked up to me and talked about the numerous positive changes her family’s NGO had brought about in Bharthouli Shareef. Perhaps she took umbrage at my terming NGOs as “children of a lesser god” but her question stuck with me – “Do the villagers really care whether the organization helping them is an NGO and not a social enterprise?”

The answer is obviously no. As long as the organization deliver its services (low cost education, health clinics, training for livelihoods, etc.) and remains true to its promise, would the beneficiaries be asking questions like “how scalable is the organization’s business model?”

Wanted: More ‘Idiots’ to tackle grassroots innovation challenges

In this captivating 2009 TED video (embedded below), IIM-A’s Professor Anil Gupta talks about the evolution of the Honey Bee Network, showcases the inventions of rural innovators, and laments the paucity of innovations to help the pathetic lot of millions of tea pickers and paddy replanters. The entire 23 minutes are worth watching but the most relevant and eloquent point (for this post certainly) pertains to scalability (from 14:00 to 15:45).

Scale should not become the enemy of sustainability. There should be a place in the world for solutions that are only applicable in a locality, and yet one should be able to fund them. One of the greatest tragedies we’ve been finding is that investors would often ask “where is the scalable model“? As if need of a community located in a space and time and has those needs only located in those places have no legitimate right to get those needs fulfilled because they are part of this large scale.

More recently, Professor Gupta delivered a memorial lecture in Colombo where he reiterates many of the points in the TED video and invokes the iconic character of 3 Idiots’ Rancho – We really need an army of Ranchos to go after the unresolved challenges in everyday innovation. Success, even on modest scales, can bring immediate relief to millions of men and women from their daily drudgery.

We often hear about the success of Amul in jumpstarting Gurarat’s milk cooperative movement, a movement which eventually led to the creation of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) which replicated Amul’s success in a multitude of states across 346 districts. A superlative achievement indeed! But it doesn’t mean that India only needs ‘Amul size’ successes. An army of Ranchos innovating in thousands of villages across India — oh! wouldn’t that be something to wish for at the start of 2012?