On The Ground

Peter Cain and Thulsi at Aravind Eyecare Hospital

Rising expectations

Editor’s note: last month, a group of Acumen’s closest advisors traveled with Jacqueline to visit several of our investments in India. The group went to Hyderabad, Madurai, New Delhi, Bihar, and Mumbai, where they visited LifeSpring Hospitals, WaterHealth International, Aravind Eye Care Systems, Husk Power Systems, and d.light. In this post, longtime Acumen Advisor and Investment Committee member Peter Cain reflects on shifting expectations in Indian society.

A big take away from the trip for me was what we learned from our in-country advisors about rising expectations.  It really changed how I look at our efforts.

Our advisors in India are fantastic.  And they’re leading change.

We met two of our Indian global board members – GV Prasad, who runs one of India’s largest pharmaceutical companies, and RD Thulasiraj, the executive director of Aravind Eye Care Systems, which has had 35 million outpatient visits. Prasad talked to us about the interaction between breakneck economic growth and the need for strong political systems to support it. And Thulsi showed us what scale and respect for the customer can look like when providing services to very low-income people.

Peter and Thulsi at an Aravind Eye Care hospital

We also met Nandan and Rohini Nilekani.  They hosted us – so graciously – at their home in New Delhi.

Nandan explained the Unique Identification program he’s leading for the government.  For the first time, every individual gets his or her own ID number.  It’ll help deliver services and reduce corruption.

But it’s also having broader impact.  It’s telling people, “You are unique, you matter.  You can expect services, help, opportunity.”

Nandan told us it’s very popular, though our group wondered how it might threaten entrenched interests.

Rohini is a social entrepreneur and very involved in education.  She not only hosted us, she joined us for the most adventurous part of our trip.  We took a 13-hour overnight train from Delhi to Gorakhpur, then drove all over Bihar, visiting rural villages lit by d.light and Husk Power Systems.

Rohini was like having a second Jacqueline on the trip – at once a force, but also light-hearted and completely lacking any airs.

As we traveled, we talked about how expectations are changing and about the sheer number of young people who can’t remember when the economy was closed.

We talked about new Freedom of Information-type laws, and how they’re being used to uncover corruption.  And we also talked about how powerful people are now being prosecuted.

Rohini Nilekani talking with schoolchildren

Rohini constantly quizzed everyone we met about their lives and their futures.  She spoke with a group of school girls who were about 13 or 14.  They all said they want to continue going to school so they can leave their villages and find good jobs.  It may not happen for all of them, but what people want and expect is changing.

So as we visited our companies, I started looking at them through this lens of rising expectations.

Take WaterHealth International.  They have thousands of outlets providing clean, affordable water.  And they’ve inspired an entirely new industry of community water providers.  But even beyond scale and replication, we also saw that they are educating millions of people to value and demand clean water.

Take d.light and Husk.  Not only are they providing rural villages with safer, cheaper lighting, they inspired one politician to announce that his would be the first rural district in his state to be kerosene-free.

I realized that after innovation, growth and replication, there’s another step to scale.  And that is to change the expectations of what opportunities society should provide to everyone.

Our companies, and the efforts of many others – leaders like Prasad, Thulsi, and the Nilekanis, are changing the lives of millions, but they are also acting as accelerants by raising expectations and creating widespread demand for change.


Peter Cain is an Acumen advisor and serves on the Investment Committee.


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