Udyogini Story: Looking Back To Look Forward | Vanita Viswanath

Vanita Viswanath, Advisor, Udyogini

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There is a thirst for innovation… there are a lot of people asking for out of box approaches and they want business thinking even for non-profit models.”

With her years of expertise backing her, Vanita Viswanath in this interview broadly talks about the Social Entrepreneurship ecosystem – she addresses the challenges, the gaps, the intricacies surrounding funding, and the need for a platform where stakeholders can come together. She gives us insight into the working of the Udyogini model, and also the importance of women in this ecosystem. Finally, she assess the Companies Bill and how it needs to be better utilized.

After having served as CEO from 2000 until January 2014 for Udyogini, an NGO based in Delhi, Vanita Viswanath now serves as Advisor at Udyogini. Udyogini works to empower poor women through enterprise — focusing on training, value chain development and market linkages in north and central Indian states.

Vanita has published widely and lectured in leading Universities in the United States such as Yale and Columbia. In 2012, she was a finalist for the Social Entrepreneur of the Year award instituted by the Schwab Foundation, a sister organization of the World Economic Forum. In 2011, she was one among 11 global non-profit leaders to be selected as a Senior Fellow, an honour given by the Synergos Institute, New York, to work with the Senior Fellows Network to help lead the global agenda for poverty alleviation and social justice.  She was also a member of a Planning Commission Working Group on Clustering and Aggregation in the 12th Five Year Plan. Vanita received her PhD from the University of Texas, Austin, USA.

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Teresa Khanna: Hello Vanita, Welcome to the Khemka Forum for Social Entrepreneurship. What do you think about the status of Social Entrepreneurship in India? What are the gaps, and how do you think they can be fixed?

Vanita Viswanath: Well first of all thank you very much for having me on this podcast. To answer your question, social entrepreneurship in India is still nascent. Young people getting out of professional colleges prefer to take up jobs in the social space, rather than be social entrepreneurs, because risk taking is not part of their DNA or the education arena to which they are exposed. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly I would say is social enterprises especially those established for profit are not able to transcend their urban start-up base and really connect with the grassroots.

Teresa Khanna: What do you think that despite all the hurdles and challenges and the fixed mind-set that we have which is risk averse, what is it that makes social entrepreneurs and enterprises tick?

Vanita Viswanath: You know, there is a thirst for innovation, and you know India is a country where, broadly speaking government has been so very prominent. The problem is many people don’t like government jobs. There are a lot of people asking for out of box approaches, and they want business thinking even for non-profit models particularly donors now, even the foreign donors are saying they don’t have too much money to give anymore. So they prefer to see those which have some amount of cost effectiveness and cost returns built into the models. So there is a space there for the ones who take risks.

Teresa Khanna: you have been associated for a very long time with a very large and a successful, credible, well known NGO like Udyogini. Can you take us through the Udyogini model and how it works? And any particular successes of your project that you would like to share?

Vanita Viswanath: Udyogini began in 1992, we started off with something known as microenterprise management training for grassroots women and NGOs that work with grassroots women and we were probably the first to do that. And the curriculum and the methodology that we developed for this, has been standardized with only 20 percent customization to accommodate specific community or sectoral applications. And externally as a result of this we have been able to scale to reach two lakh women or more through about 2000 NGOs and Government staff trained in India alone. The curriculum has been used in World Bank microenterprise projects in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Israel and Africa. Now the training for these entrepreneurs has now been institutionalized in a school for entrepreneurship which is co-branded by Intel and it’s now called the Intel Udyogini school of Social Entrepreneurship I-USE and its running in 2 states, MP and Jharkhand. This model I have just described has been scaled for the first time I would say in a forest produce called lac, which is a resin that is found widely in Jharkhand, which is required by a variety of industries ranging from paints to pharmaceuticals to even food products and it is exported mainly to Europe. India was actually the biggest supplier at one time for this European market, but it has now actually been over taken by I believe china and Indonesia. And now we have trained about 13,000 producers already within three – four years, and more than half these women are now earning substantial income from of about between forty thousand and three lakhs per year. And the other thing that we have done successfully is also scaling are the hundred or so village level service centres that now exist, that aggregate as well as retail to serve nearly 8,000 families. So both these products for us are successful apart from the training that we are anyway constantly doing, in business, in microenterprise management.

Teresa Khanna: Right, that is encouraging to hear, but wherever goes success, comes failure or obstacles which are attached to each other, almost like two sides of the same coin. So in your course of work what have been the larger stumbling blocks and how have they been overcome?

Vanita Viswanath: Well one of the stumbling blocks is the fact that rural entrepreneurship as a concept is actually not understood, and entrepreneurship is not always guaranteed as a success story. Also entrepreneurship is about being cost effective at the unit level and building a model first before it is scaled, however the perspective is also not understood or accommodated within a funding system that looks for numbers to impress and market, rather than evidence of impact. We are writing papers to explain the model, in order to better inform the funders, but constituency building for them as well as for government is a challenge, due to the need to give and have the money spent, that is where the focus of funders lies. So for them to sit and work with us on tweaking models and so on is still something which is nowadays a little difficult, especially in a funding scenario that is increasingly constrained.

Teresa Khanna: There is a lot of gloom in the sector I agree, with regard to funding, but also there is a lot of joy because people are increasingly being linked to markets, livelihood products are increasingly being linked to markets. What would be your top tips on how to best access markets for the livelihood products that enterprises are generating in India?

Vanita Viswanath: Ok so first one I would call market for financing. You know this is a knowledge and advocacy agenda that will involve government, financiers, social enterprises, I mean the small for profit social enterprises, and the NGOs and now corporates as well. Perhaps a forum needs to be created where all of these come together and this is a work in progress and it will be awhile, because unless everybody is on the same page, it’s not going to be easy to actually take this forward in the kind of limited funding scenario we have, everybody is working in silos, and we are not able to put this together. Second is the market for livelihood products, buyers look for volume, and more collaboration within and across clusters of same or similar products have to be created. For this there has to be at least beginning with a micro to meso level collaboration between NGOs and CSOs on the ground and the for profit social enterprises. And I think the third area is the market for what we might call impact philanthropy, this is again a new concept and a new group of people who are seeking to actually, talk about impact and who want evidence of impact, but I think this is a very underdeveloped area even now.

Teresa Khanna: Moving from markets to another area which is of expertise for you, is gender. Can you throw some light on how discrimination in this domain, with regard to especially the work that you have done and been involved in, can be surpassed and what is that women entrepreneurs should be keeping in mind with setting up an enterprise?

Vanita Viswanath: Enterprise financing is not only about making your business grow. Udyogini right now is doing something which I think hasn’t been done. In other words we’re saying that if you want women to grow, if you want them to do business then the cost to that business of violence against women have to be computed. So that’s exactly what we are doing to say to the recipients including men of this training. To say that if women are subject to this, it can be either controlling behaviour or physical or mental abuse, if you subject women to that it is you who is going to suffer, it is the family incomes that are going to suffer because they are not going to be able to do the enterprise or earn in the way that you expect them to earn.

Teresa Khanna: Ya, so going forward and continuing with our discussion on enterprises what would be your recommendation for those looking for funds? What can they expect? How much independence must they try and negotiate with the funders? What kind of funders they should be looking at?

Vanita Viswanath: Ya, funders are not a homogenous category. Financing is of different types, and suppliers of such financing are also different and they usually don’t work together. So it would be good to get something in a package to be dispersed when needed in the trajectory of growth of the social enterprise – innovation grants, loans, scale up support from government etc. But this package does not exist, and we do spend a lot of time to negotiate with each one, so while convergence is expected by all there is no ecosystem for it to work in the way needed. So actually what would be needed, would be for a bunch of I think us to get together to do a variety of things, which is partly to identify the kind of financing and supports required, as also to decide as on how it is that we get them. With everybody is sort of bringing to the table what it is they can do to change the way they currently function.

Teresa Khanna: Would I be right in assuming that maybe what is required is a platform or a network that connects all these pieces together? And do you think that such a platform exists already?

Vanita Viswanath: As I said that platforms do different things. And there are a lot of platforms for example, you had Sankalp, you had Villgro, right there are initiatives like this and I think they still exist. But they seem to be quite exclusive and you know somewhat like a club rather than you know broadening platforms on an annual basis. They start off well, but don’t seem to be growing, and sort of being more inclusive, and they are about giving out awards for the best this and the best that. That’s not what I meant by a platform, I meant by a platform places where all stakeholders have equal value and they come together and say that this is what I can control, and this is what you can control and can we come to something common to say all of us put our controls together and say that this is the way we go forward. These platforms are very small right now. The Sankalps and the Villgros do not have buy in of government and big companies. And now with the company bill and so on there is a huge opportunity to get the companies involved for the growth of these kinds of platforms.

Teresa Khanna: Right, which brings us to the next and the last question for this podcast,  which is that do you think that this entire social enterprise domain will be impacted by the passage of the companies bill and what is in it for key actors?

Vanita Viswanath: You know the companies so far seem to be struggling to figure out how to spend all this money. I’ve been at forums where they are all lamenting the fact that they’re not geared up for it. So they seem to be no big bang initiative that are strategic coming out of CSR, CSR is quite traditional like increasing the acceptability in the communities where the plants are located. I know that the CSR bill is actually saying that we encourage this. So there is a lot of CSR that is already happening around the plants. So now we are saying that with this money which is going to replace a lot of the donor money that is going away from India, you have to be as strategic as the donors were earlier. So you really have to think differently and you know, there’s a whole consulting industry actually that is developing on advising corporates on how to spend their 2 percent. But corporates have to change their perspectives and internal systems to deal with this strategically to benefit you know NGOs and Social Enterprises.

Teresa Khanna: Vanita that is a lot of food for thought, and I am sure that people will be chewing over all that you have said in the next few weeks, because all of this is relevant, it is contemporary, we have been dealing with these issues and trying to fight these battles as we go along. So many thanks once again for sharing your time and your years of experience.

Vanita Viswanath: Thank you so much, appreciate you having me.


Teresa Khanna: Right, Audrey also it would be interesting to know where the significance of the name Artha Comes from? Is it the Indian equivalent of meaning or is it something else, and also why is the Artha initiative focussed on investing in India?

Views expressed here are solely that of the person interviewed and may not represent the views of The Nand & Jeet Khemka Foundation.