I wasn't expecting a grandeur and spic-n-span office premises when I was asked to attend "ICT Partners Meet" at Shiksha Sankul in the pink city of Jaipur. Neither was I expecting a state-of-the art conference room with a neat welcome kit - session details, handouts of all the presentations, stationery items and bottled water - on each participant's table. As though the shock wasn't enough, I was left embarrassed when I conveniently entered the meeting room fifteen minutes late assuming that with government officials involved, the meeting couldn't possibly start earlier than half-hour past the scheduled time.

With Shubra Singh's (State Projects Commissioner, Rajasthan)  welcome note, the stage was set perfect for the quarterly Rajasthan Education Initative's  (REI) partners meet. I was blown away by the bureaucrat's impressive mannerism and her near-perfect articulation of the expectations from the meeting. With representatives from the corporate world - CII, Intel, Microsoft, Cisco and IBM - and development organizations such as World Economic Forum, GeSCI and UNICEF, I presumed the stage couldn't have been set more perfect for a landmark public-private partnership. It was only in the meeting that I realized that the REI is one the among only three public-private partnership in education across the world, the other two being education initiatives in Jordan and Egypt.

However as the discussion progressed, the ground realities of this project unearthed. It is disquieting to know that though this initiative has been in existence for two years, there is still no dedicated project management unit to overlook the initiative. Even though this initiative boasts of high-profile core partners such as WEF, GeSCI and CII, it is incomprehensible that it was only in this meeting that it dawned upon everyone that drawing a road map for the initiative would make sense. I wonder whether this is the kind of professional maturity that such organizations bring elsewhere too. I wonder how learnings from Jordan and Egypt's initiatives seemed a far-fetched idea to the core partners.

The co-partners, which incidentally includes HiWEL, seemed to be keen in advancing ones own agenda and were primarily concerned about raising issues of how government inadequacies and bureaucratic processes were delaying ones projects. Many, including me, who were attending this kind of meeting for the first time, didn't know the proceedings of any of the previous meetings. To ones wonderment, none of the private players were aware of any of the others' initiatives. There were only a few ad hoc suggestions made in the air for exploring possible synergies. What was glaring was that there was an evident discord between the co-partner's core competencies and the projects they had taken up as part of their CSR activities. I fail to appreciate why Cisco was involved in PC maintenance training, while Intel and Microsoft were  conducting teacher trainings.  

It was incognizable as to how this initiative could remotely be called a Public-Private-Partnership (PPP). There was neither a perceivable professionalism in strategic planning nor any operational efficiencies that the private partners brought to the table. Though there was no dearth of earnest concerns about  the pathetic educational scenario of the state, all of the players seem to suggest the same old traditional philanthropic route to reforms. The government on the other hand, let alone make an attempt to benchmark itself against other states, was not even cognizant of best practices from other states. Even after two years of existence, it does not seem to realize that it is indeed reinventing the wheels.

There is no doubt that the enormity and complexity of the education in the country demands much more than a sheer lip service from private players. Nobel Laurette Amartya Sen recently called for synergy between industry and teaching community (Read more here). However, until the time public's concern and private player's competency match and converge, such initiatives can be best relegated as another one of those Poor-Public-Private-Partnerships (PPPP).

~ Santosh


(..continued from previous post)

The morning discussion on "Rural markets and Entrepreneurship opportunities" had an interesting mix of panelists - one from corporate sector, two social venture captialists, an entrepreneur and a village panchayat head. While Sanjay Kapoor from Bharti made a marketing pitch of how Airtel sees a huge business opportunity in rural, Elango Rangaswamy, who has been heading the Kuthambakkam Village Panchayat, posed a question on why most corporates look at rural as a pure consuming class and not look at ways to increase the dispoable income of the families. As a true Gandhian, Elango spoke very passionately about his community and how his institution has been trying to do its wee bit on the developmental front. From his humble attire and not-so-well- polished speaking style, one cannot possibly make out that he is an IITian who quit the mainstream career options to make a difference to his village (Click here to read more). Not sure if one Kuthambakkam amongst 265,000 Gram Panchayats in the country can be viewed as glass half-full. 

Later Aavishkar Venture Management co-founder Vineet Rai spoke on how they have partnered with Elango's Panchayat on one of their projects to manufacture burners. Now that the demand for the burners couldn't be serviced from the village alone, owing to its production limitations, the firm was looking for other communities that it could partner with. 

All in all, though the panel did manage to throw some interesting tit-bits, it failed to focus on the theme of entrepreneurial opportunities in the rural market. Though the panelists managed to hover around the subject, neither the entrepreneur nor the two social venture capitalists in the panel could bring to light some of the opportunities and challenges of entrepreneurship. It would have been good to hear on some of the entrepreneurial initiatives on ground that the VC firms have funded and how they have created a social impact. Probably, someone from Acumen Funds, Ashoka Foundation or Skoll Foundation would have been more appropriate considering the theme.  

The panel discussion on "Financial Products for Rural Consumers": had a better panel mix - Vijay Mahajan of Basix, Somak Ghosh of Yes Bank, Viral Acharya of LBS, Priya Basu of World Bank and Rajesh Balaraman of Diamond Consulting. Talking about about recent findings (check my earlier post) on missed opportunity in the rural sector, Rajesh spoke about how apart from Product, Cost and Convenience, Eligibility Criteria needed much focus. Many of the rural consumers surveyed lacked financial literacy and preferred borrowing from the money lender owing to huge ambiguity that surrounds the paper work with a formal financial institution.

Priya talked about policy implications and how it would be good to have "Priority Sector Lending" part of a bank's obligation tradeable so that the counterparts more competent in rural banking could do it more efficiently and effectively. Speaking on how from a banking perspective the urban poor was not any different from that of a rural one, Somak Ghosh called for more action from all domestic banks - both public sector and private sector ones.

Taking a tangential view, Vijay Mahajan spoke of how it was not product offerings, but channel that has been a barrier in expanding to the rural market. In his words - "Products is a glib MBA talk. What is needed is one to travel to slums and deliver the product at the poor's footsteps". Speaking of customer friendliness, he cited his experience with a bank in Salempur, which is in the heart of the city, had created such a perceivable barrier for a bank customer, let alone a prospect,  to make any transactions. In a country where one has cumbersome, and in some cases no options, to get a birth certificate as a proof-of-age, it is ridiculous that a formal financial institution mandates this document as prerequisite for opening an account of any kind. He proposed a 3P focus on channel strategy - Place, Process and People.  In his view, STEMS - Single Terminal Enabling Multiple Services - and pre-paid debit cards such as Zipp Interchange, was the key to provide low-cost, yet friendly, banking services to the rural.

In the subsequent key note session, Abhijit Banerjee, Director of Poverty Action Lab at MIT, spoke about primary education and its challenges. His talk was primarily centered on Pratham's ASER report and findings from experiments conducted by MIT. It was sad however that the talk did not dwell on the entrepreneurial opportunities in the sector. More so, not much was spoken about the limitations of a technology in improving the access and quality of education. 

Though the following panel discussion on "Supply chain and Logistics" had dignitaries from Reuteurs, Reliance, HLL and Mahagrapes, it failed to throw any insights into the opportunties and challenges. One interesting thing that came out of the session was RML - Reuters Market Light - a BOP service from Reuters that provides mobile information services to the farmer. It was good to hear some evidences, though anecdotal, on how this information service helped farmers in making better decisions and subsequently in making higher profits.

Overall, the second India Business Forum could be termed informative. However, there was probably a scope for more insightful & quality discussions. The conference seemed to rather just scratch the surface of business opportunities and hurdles in the countryside. It is sad that none of the politicians invited to the panel discussions did not make it, despite this being scheduled on Sunday. I hope such conferences are not an end in itself but a beginning to more fruitful brainstorming, action plans and cross-sector partnerships. I keenly await to see how LBS takes this forward.

~ Santosh 


Who would not want to listen to  the distinguished likes of Nachiket Mor, Dr. Swaminathan Aiyer and Vijay Mahajan, even if it meant  dragging oneself out of bed on the wee hours of Delhi's coldest Sunday morning? I couldn't resist missing the Second Annual India Conference organized by London Business School on the theme "Exploring Business Opportunities in Rural India".  Well, given that it was something to do with rural, I wasn't expecting the gathering to be dressed in the best of business suits. Luckily I was not dressed way out of place. I could manage to hide in the corner and focus on more important things. 

Let me begin with kudos to LBS students for their commendable effort in putting together this conference, especially given that they had to conceive, plan and organize the event sitting in UK. After conducting one such event (Social Responsibility Conclave at ISB), I can imagine and vouch for the amount of efforts that would have gone into this event management. The theme could also have not been more appropriate given the unprecedented interest from all sectors of society in rural economy.

Nachiket Mor was at his usual best in the opening key note setting the stage for subsequent sessions. Though he spoke more from ICICI Foundation's initiatives end, the strategies outlined - strengthening the rural delivery channels and creation of operating business models - seemed relevant to anyone interested in rural business. Touching upon the potential of and risks involved in Microfinance, he compared Grameen model with that of Compartamos (refer to my earlier post). While he was all praise for Grameen model, he cautioned on the commercial model of Compartamos, for in the shareholder's interest, it is virtually impossible to reduce the already exorbitant interest rates charged to the borrower. He said the irrational interest rates that Compartamos could charge was due to the illiquid immature market in Mexico.

He then went on to explain how some of the innovative rural products such as weather insurance which was pioneered along with Basix, as a better alternative to crop insurance, failed for the simple reason that there were not many weather stations close to the farmer's village. In a place where the local weather information was fed from a nearest weather station that was a 100 km away, why would a farmer pay for the premium? The post-analysis showed that in order for this product to make any inroads, a whooping 50,000 additional weather stations were required in the country. Nachiket also made a case for listing India's rainfall index, like that of other countries, in the international market. Moving from the financial products front, he later talked about the need for operating business models such as Fab India and Indonesia's Ramayana stores and networked enterprises such as Rural BPO and Rural tourism in the rural space. 

Taking on questions from the attendees, he mentioned the reason for proliferating ATMs in India. It was interesting to know that though the per transaction cost in a ATM model was much higher than a Teller model for the bank, it was the option that many banks embraced to get around the branch licensing restrictions. He ended his energetic talk on a note that he personally did not believe that market per se was not the panacea for reaching rural poor. 
The next speaker Dr. Swaminathan Aiyer, in a typical journalist kurta, started off saying he was asked to fill in the shoes of Tata Sons' JJ Irani just last night. He wondered why one assumes a journalist, owing to their apparent instant wisdom, is always assumed to be able to talk any topic. What was surprising was he had managed to put in a carefully thought out presentation with  3 relevant preconditions for rural economy to take off - Infrastructure & Connectivity, Capital, and Education and Skills development.

Talking about rurbanization, he went on to explain how due to lack of infrastructural support, an Indian village with 10,000 population was still called rural while an American village with 800 population was considered urban. Tamilnadu, the most urbanized state in the country (44% urban), owes credit to its unparalleled connectivity. He noted from his observation how once he could only cite a couple of tea shops on Delhi-Dehradun roadway when there was no highway. When he recently heard of a 8 crore worth robbery on the same highway, he said, on an albeit lighter note, on how this was indeed a sign of prosperity owing to good connectivity.

He then cited his shocking experience at Dhaka where he was trying to find if microfinance was the panacea to poverty. It is ironical to note that all the recipients of the microfinance were better-off, but in larger picture, the village was not any better-off. There were only limited entrepreneurial opportunities that were viable in a village. Well, it is unrealistic to expect to every microfinance borrower to open a tea shop in the village. He also cited how a woman due to social dis-empowerment has hardly seen a customer and hence cannot think of anything but buying a buffalo, in some cases goats, for livelihood. He ended stressing on the need for expanding the total available business space in the rural India.  

The syntactical oversights ('manks' in the place of 'banks') on and plain template of his Powerpoint presentation was evidence of how short a notice he was given to address the gathering. Anyways, who would complain after such an informational talk that drew lessons from his personal experiences. After all 'Swaminomics' would not have carved a niche and emerged from no where!

To be continued.. (check next post)

~ Santosh


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