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Sankalp Forum: Social Enterprise Reigns in India

The social enterprise space is alive and well in India.  This is my overarching conclusion having spent all day Tuesday at the inaugural Sankalp Forum, hosted by Intellecap in Mumbai.

Sankalp – which means “pledge” or “determination” in English – focused on the role of business in driving social change.  When I arrived on Tuesday morning, the main plenary hall was packed with attendees from across the social sector – entrepreneurs, investors, business executives, media, think-tanks, non-profits and students.  It was heartening to see such a diverse crowd.

The first plenary panel was among the best of the day.  It featured three investors, a journalist and a consultant.  I’m sure there’s a joke somewhere that begins with such a cast of characters!  Vineet Rai, of Aavishkaar – a BoP investment fund – suggested that C.K. Prahalad’s 2004 arguments have evolved, and that selling shampoo isn’t social enterprise.  (You won’t find much disagreement here.)

Unlike other Prahalad critics, however, Rai offered his “Four S’s of Social Enterprise” in retort: Social, Small, Sustainable, Scale.  Whether he intended it to or not, this 4-S framework persisted throughout the day – especially in the investment panels.

Investment panels?  Sankalp was not a typical conference – it was also a social enterprise investment forum.  The event was home to the final round of judging, identifying 15 high-impact enterprises serving social ends through market-based means from a field of 300 nominees.  Some of the interesting enterprises I saw at Sankalp include – in no particular order:

Ziqitza Education: (Editor’s note: Updated the link; this is direct to the right site. Thanks Abhishek for pointing that out!) Also known as “Education Access for All”, Ziqitza Education is a young social enterprise operating private schools and e-learning tools in Rajasthan, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.  Can there be chain private schools?  In India, where the demand for good private education is universal, the answer is probably yes.  (Parents of all but the poorest kids are willing to pay school fees, research shows.  Education spending is the first priority after food and shelter…)  If you are looking for a new company to keep your eye on, Ziqitza Education might be a good place to start.

Vaatsalya Healthcare: Vaatsalya won the Sankalp High Growth Award in the Healthcare category.  It’s a corporate hospital operating in semi-urban and rural areas – a first for India.  With a strong presence in Karnataka and coming expansion to Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, Vaatsalya is another company worth tracking.

Gramin Suvidha Kendra: This is a partnership between the Multi Commodities Exchange and India Post to use postmen – ubiquitous across India – to bring price information to rural farmers.  It’s allowing farmers to access futures contracts for the first time, which allows for cash flow smoothing.  For all the talk of microfinance, the kind of work GSK is doing is really the bricks and mortar of a functioning agricultural supply chain – which could do more to alleviate poverty than many of these other, more complex, companies.

D.Light Design: A social enterprise that sells solar-powered LED lights in East Africa and India, D.Light works to eradicate kerosene lamps from the world.  These lamps are inefficient, costly and terrible for your health.  A D.Light lamp – they have a range of brands – gets at all three of these problems.  (Full disclosure: Acumen Fund is an investor in D.Light.)

There were dozens of entrepreneurs at the event, all of them with inspiring business plans in various stages of development and implementation.  I hope the investors present left with pockets full of business cards and plenty of new ideas about the viability of the social sector here in India. I was also thrilled to see my colleague Vikram Raman on stage to present the awards for healthcare. Vikram was the lead judge in that vertical at Sankalp, a real testimony to his deep knowledge of the social enterprise space and of healthcare in particular.

In many ways, Sankalp reminded me of the 2004 Eradicating Poverty Through Profit conference, which was arguably the first significant event ever to focus exclusively on the intersection between development and enterprise.  (I should know – I helped plan the 2004 event as a World Resources Institute employee.)  As in 2004, there was a palpable buzz among participants Tuesday – that finally, there was critical mass around the idea of using business to do good.  As in 2004, however, there were also too many panels and not enough networking time.  And there was a nagging feeling that it might be a little inappropriate to run a conference about alleviating poverty and environmental problems in a 5-star hotel with the air conditioning set at a chilly 68 degrees Farenheit.  You heard the same criticisms of the 2004 event, held at a high-rise San Francisco hotel.

I should restrain my criticism, however – Sankalp was a great event.  Personally, I was glad to see colleagues from India, Asia and as far away as the United States during the tea breaks.  Despite all the talk of recession – or perhaps because of it – the social enterprise space is alive and well. 

Yet there is much to do.  Antony Bugg-Levine, of the Rockefeller Foundation, suggested in the closing plenary that we must be afraid of the hype.  Social enterprise might be alive and well, but it has not arrived, at least not yet.  Let’s remember that it took 30 years – and substantial subsidy – to get the microfinance sector fully developed.  Impact investing – and BoP business strategy – can be done quicker and better by learning from microfinance, but it won’t be an overnight change.

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