Learning the ROPEs

Hello everyone! My name is David Schwartz, a junior majoring in English and international relations with a concentration in global health, nutrition, and the environment. Currently, I’m in Thenur, Tamil Nadu, India, with Tufts’ BUILD: India along with other Empower Fellows Nithyaa Venkataramani, Allie Wollum, Jennifer Sanduski, Charmaine Poh, Rena Oppenheimer, and Manas Baba. We’ve been blogging on our own (feel free to follow our journey here), but we will be updating this blog with entries related to the business element of our projects.

So what has BUILD been up to? Over the last few days, we’ve experienced blackouts, heat, and the second-longest beach in the world. We’ve also had quite a few meetings with local and national social enterprises which have a range of specialties from artisan crafts to solar energy. But, there was work to be done. See, the research element of our one month trip to India involves looking at fair trade and socially conscious business models, especially those working with rural populations in India. We scheduled a few meetings with Chennai-based organizations to see how they operated and what they could teach us.

Our first meeting was with the Centre for Social Initiative and Management (CSIM). They have courses for students of all ages in Chennai, Tamil Nadu (where we are right now) who want to learn more about social entrepreneurship. The representative told us about the fundamentals of a good social enterprise and helped us question our ideas thus far.

The next day, we met with Desicrew. Desicrew is a social organization that arranges rural outsourcing which proves to be monetarily beneficial to both corporations and rural communities. Desicrew’s effectiveness has made it very popular–the representative told us that 80% of Africa on Google Maps was mapped by Desicrew workers. What was also interesting was the impact on the girls who worked for Desicrew that extended well beyond economic empowerment. Not only did their esteem increase but in many cases, girls delayed marriage as their parents recognized the importance of their economic contributions that the family. Desicrew capitalizes on the idea that transportation costs are much more affordable than the cost of living in cities, empowering villagers to commute to well-paying jobs. The close proximity of these employment opportunities to rural communities means that revenue generated by the jobs is reinvested in the communities themselves.

We gained valuable insights from Desicrew about our computer center that will be opening in Thottiapatti. We learned how to maximize the new resources it will provide this village and continued to develop our model for utilizing the computers to connect villagers to job opportunities.

Nithyaa’s chittiappa (uncle) works with solar panels and gave us very helpful information about them in regards to government subsidies, warranties, and maintenance. Tomorrow, we will be meeting with the district collector, or mayor, of Perambalur in order to investigate a possible government subsidy for the two Eco-San toilets we are installing in Thottiapatti. The waste from these toilets are composted into fertilizer that can be used to increase agriculture yield within the village itself.

The next day, Nikhil from SELCO came to our flat to talk about his organization. Our original interest in SELCO came from the idea that it could install affordable solar panels on top of the computer center to power the computers which would not only be better for the environment but ensure the computers’ usage even through the regular blackouts in Thottiapatti.

SELCO is an interesting organization as it is a private one with NGO shareholders serving low-income villagers. Unlike most companies which have set prices and regulations, all 28 branches of SELCO adjust their models and prices depending on the villages’ specific situations. Interested? (You should be) Watch this video for more information.

This discussion helped us understand that we need to further evaluate the energy needs of Thottiapatti and the computer center. It also taught us about the breadth of solar panels: we could give solar-powered lights to students to use for nighttime studying and to serve as incentives to go to school as that’s where the chargers would be located. Nikhil gave us several different case studies of where solar panels had helped a variety of different villages in various ways. Finally, we learned about N-computing, which seems like a viable and cost-effective options for the computer center.

We’ll hopefully be moving forward with our solar panels to ensure a constant access to electricity in our constructed computer center with a collaboration between SELCO and Project Chirag, a student-led organization that works with solar panel technology. Their solar panels are primarily assembled by paraplegics in order to bring light to villages that are in the dark.

A few members also met with Rural Opportunities Production Enterprise (ROPE), an artisan social enterprise. ROPE outsources low-skilled work involving the creation of products mainly in the areas of home decor (e.g. placemats and cushion covers), packaging, and lifestyle (e.g. bags) sold on a small scale to local consumers and on a large scale to international companies like Ikea that can amount to 100,000 of a single product/month. We met with the founder, Sreejith, who discussed his enterprise model and offered us advice as we move forward. This meeting gave us valuable insight about our ethical and cultural concerns about new job opportunities in Thottiapatti, how to produce artisan works in a globalized market, and the process of product creation and securing a market. All of this was essential in the evaluation and further development of our business model in the village. We were comforted by the fact that he, like us, considered a variety of approaches (in different market sectors) before arriving at the most successful one. As the founder himself said, “It’s all very trial and error.”

Finally, we met with the South Indian Producers’ Association (SIPA), an artisan collective, which is an organization with a strong belief that the artisan market is, in fact, not saturated. SIPA follows a model with each artisan that begins with confidence then goes to production, business skill, and management skills. Its role is to decide what goods are suitable for the market and to help artisans identify consumers’ interests. SIPA, as does most of the organizations with which we met, rejects the “sympathy market” as its niche.

Meeting with all of these organizations has taught us a lot about the vast diaspora of business structures that deal with rural India. Each gave us a better idea of how to formulate our own business model which we hope to incorporate in Thottiapatti. Options like outsourcing and organic farming presented a new angle on the development of BUILD’s business plan. We plan to develop a business solution in collaboration with our partner, Payir, a rural empowerment organization run by a man named Senthil whose big ideas remind me of Ganesh himself, the destroyer of obstacles.

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