Preetam Kaushik | HuffPost Business UK | 17 February 2013
It has become increasingly imperative for businesses to contribute to social causes these days and a Corporate Social Responsibility division is de rigueur in almost every major business. Every top Indian business company, across sectors, whether it is Tata, Reliance or Kotak, is immersed in offering value through their CSR activities. Dedicating resources to social causes is seen as a profitable move either in terms of enhancing one’s image or helping to attract a customer base, while also making a difference.
Globally, many businesses are even exclusively turning a profit by doing social good. Known as social enterprises, an entire generation of young entrepreneurs has taken to it with gusto and this trend is very prevalent in India too. Defined formally, Social Entrepreneurship “is an innovative, social value creating activity that can occur within or across the non-profit, business, or government sectors” (J.G. Deeds, Stanford Business School).
Given the surge of technology and technology-oriented businesses in India, many young entrepreneurs are attracted to tech enterprises, and social entrepreneurship in the country is being increasingly driven by technology. This, while keeping the values of this form of entrepreneurship at the forefront. Social entrepreneurs in technology businesses in India pay heed to development, inclusive growth and uplift of people. That there is a huge need and opportunity to do social good, an emerging market scenario, and an appetite for technology, makes the country ripe for social entrepreneurship, led by technology.
A case in point is VNL, which was recognized in the m-Business & Commerce category of the 2010 mBillionth Awards, this recognition was preceded by a feature on the company in Fast Company. VNL has been extremely innovative in helping rural India get mobile connectivity.
Although mobile technology has become cheap and connections are easy to obtain, the vast expanse of the territory in rural India has no access to two important basics – power grid and roads. VNL overcame the problem by setting up small, low power (100w) Base Stations that use solar energy. Further, they can be easily fit onto two bullock carts, thus making them portable in the region.
Their services, of course, are designed to earn a profit, which they continue to do, even with subscription for as low as $3 a month. VNL is just a drop in the ocean in the face of the possibilities that India holds for social entrepreneurship and proof of how it can driven by innovative technology.
India has over the last few decades seen the growth of a huge number of not-for-profit organizations that work for both rural and urban poor. The country has a thriving non-profit sector, and in the face of poor coordination with the government, charges of corruption and in many cases, lack of funding, large scale change has been hard to drive and achieve. However, given the motivation of profit in social enterprises and the sheer scale of market available to the sector, because of the size of the country, population of poor people and underdevelopment, an unprecedented opportunity awaits social enterprises. The need for these enterprises has come about in India and other developing countries due to the failure of the state to act and provide adequate support for growth. It has taken India a long time to embrace capitalism, and to a large extent, many sectors are state regulated, like Banking, or have been till recently, like power and energy. It is interesting to note that by the time the country truly embraced capitalism, the global trend, which is mirrored in India as well, has led to the evolution of capitalism with a social conscience.
An important aspect of social entrepreneurship has been microfinance, although there is less technological innovation, and more the implementation of basic banking structure. In fact, India’s neighbor, Bangladesh has been the testing ground for Nobel laureate and microfinance pioneer in South Asia, Mohammed Yunus. In India itself, microfinance has experienced a series of false starts and hiccups on the way. The reason for this has been the government’s tendency to intervene and write-off the loans with an eye on elections and also malpractice by microfinance companies itself. Tech social companies should keep these circumstances and mistakes in mind and avoid them. Ethical business processes are important more than ever in social entrepreneurship and there is potential for huge, long-term success if the short-cuts are avoided.
By boosting productivity, increasing access and changing our lives in numerous ways, technology has revamped the world. Similarly, technology has the power to take social entrepreneurship to the next level. Another example of the use of technology to make a difference is the 1298 and 108 ambulance services in India’s major cities. Emergency services in the country are particularly poor and with the use of GPS (Geographical Positioning System) and mobile communication technology, tapping into the infrastructure available in the cities, and employing skilled medical personnel, the 108 services is plugging a huge gap in the country’s emergency service grid, and has in fact saves 50,000 lives as shown by an independent study.
A most recent endeavor by a technological social enterprise may end the era of tech-darkness for India’s vast swathes of rural children, and urban and semi-urban poor. A tablet PC, costing just $20, can transform the rate at which students access computers. Because the large portion future workforce will emerge from India, and with the all indications pointing to the strengthening of the Knowledge economy, it is imperative for the country to develop a base of knowledge workers, and with the advent of this tablet PC, known as Aakash, meaning the sky, the sky is literally the limit.
The fact that the Indian government is working with various private social ventures shows that they acknowledge the failure of the state. With the motivation for social entrepreneurship strong as ever, and technology gaining a strong foothold in the country, the future of social change, driven by responsible capitalism and technology, is bright.