Social entrepreneur Paul Basil talks to us on how his work among India’s poor has helped touch five million lives

There is only one question that keeps popping up as the answer to Paul Basil’s many achievements. He founded Villgro, which encourages enterprises that can solve rural problems, has incubated 64 innovations, organised unconventions, offers fellowships and courses on social entrepreneurship and has helped touch five million lives. As he explains from the very beginning, Paul asks that question one more time; “Why are people poor?”

Sadness, concern, worry, hope, happiness, pain, frustration — Paul feels a gamut of emotions at a time, especially as a social entrepreneur. “I didn’t like that some people could grow and create a life while others couldn’t,” he says. And so, as he grew up in Kerala, he couldn’t make up his mind on what he wanted to become. “It was always there at the back of my mind. I studied mechanical engineering but didn’t like it. I had met some people in college who introduced me to the term ‘rural management’ and I was absolutely fascinated.”

So, he went on to study at the Indian Institute of Forest Management in Bhopal, where he interacted with rural life and learnt about agri-business and so on. “But I didn’t like that either,” he smiles, “I did work with the National Dairy Development Board and did a project with the European Union and the Kerala Government, where I got to spend time in rural Kerala.” And in a village near Kolar, Paul learnt the problems of the poor.

Vulnerable cash flow, indebtedness, problems with traders, “Rural financing wasn’t introduced effectively. So, banks and financial institutions couldn’t find a way to fund the people. I learnt how rural people invest on education because they think we are where we are because we went to school. So they aspire to send their children to convents,” Paul explains. While the experience was enriching, Paul wanted to build something of his own. “And I had only two things in mind; that it must benefit rural people and have enterprise.”

In 2001, Paul came to Chennai and began Rural Innovations Network (RIN) at a time when social entrepreneurship was scarce. It later came to be called Villgro. “Why are people poor?” he wonders, “The solutions are not fundamentally different. When I came to Chennai, there was no water. But the Government took an existing solution, rainwater harvesting, and executed it so well, we don’t buy water by the tankers anymore. There is a need for innovation, for old ideas to be executed in other ways with strength. The poor will remain poor if you don’t do things differently.”

Recognising his work in the social arena, Paul was awarded the Ashoka fellowship in 2002. He also had support from the Rockefeller Foundation. “Problems must be addressed through an enterprise and not just non-profit or non-governmental organisations,” he adds, “This called for a new breed of entrepreneurs, who care for others but believed in enterprise. When I floated the idea of doing business with the poor in 2001-2002 there were many questions I had to ask; how do you offer products in tune with their income levels? And with mechanisms that lower risk? How can you do this and change their lives?”

It was much later that the world began to see the opportunities that lay in the villages. “It’s fine to sell shampoo in villages,” Paul explains, “but do that after you create some wealth there. How do you create a drip irrigation system that is affordable and get it financed and help the farmer cultivate? How can villages be electrified so that children have better light to study? There has to be some income if you want them to move from neem leaves to shampoo sachets.”

Over the years, Villgro has helped 64 innovators through mentoring, money and networking and helped create 3,800 odd jobs. “We helped a group of people who realised that there is a lot of bio-mass in villages. If you compress them into pellets and use in a stove, you free villagers from LPG and kerosene expenses,” he says, pointing to his website, “Another group started a milk chilling unit in villages, where the milk that is taken to collection units to be transported to chilling plants can be saved from being spoilt. A young girl began BPOs in rural areas and helped create jobs for the educated rurals. One other company made fuel-efficient burners for rural homes. It garnered India’s first venture capital fund for a social entrepreneur. This company now produces 1,00,000 burners a month and are reaching 6,00,000 people.”

Unconventions, fellowships, entrepreneurship courses, mentoring programmes, Villgro awards — the company has only grown to support the ideas it believes in. And as the brain behind it all, Paul has been awarded the Samaj Seva Bhushan Award and the Star Entrepreneur Award. “There have been times when some ideas haven’t worked and it’s not because the people behind them weren’t committed but because social entrepreneurship is a difficult nut to crack,” Paul nods. Out of the 64 that Villgro has helped, 25 have gone on to raise venture fund.

“As an entrepreneur, it’s been fun every time something worked, and it has always given me hope.”