The * Innovation

“Innovation” is a word used for almost everything these days, we’ve been told it’s no longer wise to use the word in a grant proposal, when promoting something new, because ‘everything is innovative’. English has such limitations but I’ll persist, since we can’t use the word, this is how we see it (word) at Be! Fund

For us, it’s about providing risk capital, not debt, to the poorest young people in India. When we make an investment in a business, we also make in investment in that young person. We trust them to really be an entrepreneur and to do what’s best to create a successful business with their own ideas.

For us, it’s about trust, our trust in young people to be real problem solvers and job creators in their communities, whether it is a slum in the heart of India or the smallest village not even on the map.

It’s also about having a phone number where people can call and tell us their business idea. There’s no paper application; there’s no box to tick whether your idea is to start a water business, a restaurant, or a handicraft cooperative. It’s up to you. And we’re here to listen to whatever crazy or not-so-crazy idea you may have. For us it’s about erasing obstacles and boundaries for participation, inviting all young people across India to call us with their ideas (you don’t have to speak English, have internet, or have it all written down, know someone to introduce us). The revolution is that any young person anywhere in India can call us. Yep, for us the “it”, is a phone call.

We want to break down barriers—no forms, no debt, no precedent—we want to create a a wide open field for possibility. Because honestly, if something is really that thing we’re talking about, then we should not even be able to recognize it; we will need time to understand the idea being presented to us, stretch our minds, begin to understand something new, that has no precedent, that is unproven, but yes, it may just solve the problem in that community, at that time. This is where the trust factor comes in. We must accept that a 19-year-old young woman with a high school degree, who is explaining an idea that we might not fully understand yet, is more of an expert on her business idea and market than we are. We believe that the ‘it’ can be surprising, confusing, humbling and inspiring all at the same time. And truly underscoring the word fun, you won’t even know what it is!

Then on the other hand, we also believe IT doesn’t have to be a brilliant idea that no one has ever heard of. We’ve all heard of solar lanterns, but Mageshwari has pushed the boundaries in her old mining village, not only creating solar lanterns for children to study in evening tuition centers but also retro-fitting children’s desk lamps for home use too. She’s created small lanterns that run on a solar charge for nearly six hours and cost Rs. 400 (less than $8.00), including the solar panel.  She’s even put together one panel that attaches to three household light bulbs, bright light to over 100 houses in her village. She is creating new products, new technologies for people who need them the most. We call that the IT factor. Yes, that’s IT.

The thing we’re talking about could be the product or service, but it can also be the market it is reaching, or the way in which it is reaching those people. 20-year-old Yellawa sells bitter gourd pickles., but no one was buying them with as much relish as they did her sweet ginger chutney. Her customers thought that the pickles were actually bitter. What did she do? She created Rs. 5 ($0.10) sample packets so they could taste how delicious they were – a small change with big impact – suddenly her bitter gourd pickles were a huge hit. That would be IT. It’s also about creating innovative solutions to problems that large companies overlook. They solve problems through identifying market gaps and filling them with their own small businesses.

Gowramma experienced firsthand the high-cost of basic nutrition supplements. Her husband lives with HIV as do many others in her community but they cannot afford branded nutrition powders, which boost their immune systems and keep them healthy. She decided to work with a sector expert to create her own brand Nutrition+, improving the health not only of HIV/AIDs families but also of those suffering from malnutrition. Gowramma’s idea was so brilliant it sparked a competing business nearby but her beautiful label with nutrition facts and a number to call makes her different, makes her more successful. 

We also consider IT, the new idea, to be relative to the community where our entrepreneurs are from. For me, a roti is a piece of dried bread. For Kavita, a member of a low caste community in Northern Karnataka, her roti business is a way of breaking down caste barriers as she sells her tasty goods to high caste hotel owners.

‘It’ for us is risk capital, a phone call, trust, & the young person who trusts us enough to come forward and tell us their plans.

Trust, just might be he biggest ‘innovation’ out there, trusting that you don’t know and someone else does, trusting the unknown because it just might be the youngest poorest young person on the planet who has the key to changing the world.

Go on, trust someone today with their idea.

Interlocking bricks, a check-list for becoming an entrepreneur

  • Young and bright:Vilas Gade came to collect me from Aurangabad city on a chilly winter morning, in the back of the car he explained our plan for the day: we’d go to his village, his friend’s manufacturing site, a potential site he has selected for his own business and yes, he’d tell me more about why he wanted to be an entrepreneur.

    Vilas shows us a home that was under the process of construction. They decided to use interlocking bricks midway once they heard of it’s benefits!

  • Skills: Our first stop was at the manufacturing site KRS Enterprises, about 10-15 kms from the city. Vilas has a friend whose interlocking bricks business has been his inspiration.  Excitedly Vilas introduced me to the site and talked me through every step. The amount of fly ash used, the proportion of cement and the quantity of stone dust that is required to manufacture the bricks. He showed me the mixer, the dye (mould) that is used to give shape to the bricks and then which the bricks should be lifted to ensure that they do not break in the process.
  • Good advisors:We asked Mr. Shinde, the supervisor, if he’d mentor Vilas as he sets up his business, so he can help him trouble-shoot. Mr. Shinde said YES.

    Vilas explains how the bricks actually Inter “lock”

  • Supportive family:Next, we went to Vilas’ home in a village. At tea with Vilas’ parents I asked them “Why are you supporting your son to take a risk to become an entrepreneur?” Vilas’ parents are farmers, the had to cut corners to have him educated and they are proud to see their son so motivated and driven: they support him in his choice to be an entrepreneur. This is not common, usually parents want their sons and daughters to get jobs. I made a point to ask them more about it – their belief in Vilas’ idea and their support for Vilas to take a risk is the source of one of our stories for children in our schools program. We needed to know why some parents are supportive, and how to inspire more to be.

    Vilas in his home with his brother and niece :)

  • Community support, need: Next we went on a village walk. Vilas’ village has 400 people and most of them are very poor., from lower castes and it’s cut off from the highway, high up in the hills.  There is no gram panchayat in the village since the population is below 500 and its administration is being handled by another village. Consequently, development here has been slow. The village has only 1 government school, run by the state government, up to class 5. Vilas himself has studied in this school as a child. The school for class VI-VIII is located in a village 5 km away. Also, the school for classes XI-X is located in another village, which is also about 5 km from Vilas’ village.  Vilas proudly shared the story of his struggle as a student when he walked to each of these schools each day to continue his education. He also claimed that in class XI and XII, there were about 17 children who made it to the school but only 2 boys managed to pass the exams, one of them was Vilas.  Overall education of the villagers remains low. The main source of income in the village is agriculture. The area is rain dependent and water is scarce through the year.  The only well in the village has dried up and people walk long distances to fetch water. Most people cannot afford tankers.
    1. Researched demand, has first customers: I was convinced Vilas’ village was poor and that they needed young entrepreneurs and new enterprises, so next we went to visits builders and contractors who are potential buyers for Vilas’ bricks. One of them even has an upcoming housing project and said he would like to experiment with interlocking bricks if Vilas sets up his business. Regular bricks are labour intensive and require clay which is fast becoming a scarce resource. On the way, Vilas even showed us a house which was in the process of being built with regular bricks. Once they heard about the benefits of interlocking bricks, they opted to complete their construction using interlocking bricks! It was reassuring to find a growing demand for Vilas’ product. 
  • Aggressive Marketing:After my visit, I realised Vilas would have to work a great deal on his marketing plan and we’d have to explore the size of the market in his village and beyond, the number of jobs he’d create as well as the number of people who would benefit from interlocking bricks. However, Vilas has realized early on that he would certainly need to market his product strongly to create a demand for a new product like his own. He has sought help from Be! Fund and asked to be introduced to an architect. He believes a good architect can assist him to convince potential buyers who are builders and contractors. He will not only tell them about the benefits to the environment in the use of interlocking bricks, but a buyer will be persuaded by being informed of its probable benefits for the construction process. Most importantly, he will let them know that the cost of construction is likely to go down by 30-50%.

    Vilas’ School

  • Vilas has been on the lookout for any information regarding business management and interlocking bricks ever since he decided to be an entrepreneur. He has now found a new company to supply to him the machinery at a lower rate. They even provide training on how the machinery is used! After the site visit, we’re particularly excited about his project and we can’t wait to see him get started.

Next week: Cows! Cows! Cows! Site Visit for Ujwal’s Dairy Business