Paul Basil, founder and CEO of social enterprise incubator Villgro, fields for social entrepreneurship to help the rural poor

Ever since social entrepreneurship crusader Paul Basil sowed the seeds of change with social enterprise incubator Villgro (formerly Rural Innovators Network – RIN) more than a decade ago, millions of India’s rural poor – and many social entrepreneurs too – have been reaping the benefits. From an areca nut de-husking machine and India’s first rural BPO to smokeless commercial cooking stoves and a cost effective, portable and prick-free anaemia testing device that helps reduce maternal mortality, the Chennai-based organisation has now helped more than 60 entrepreneurs realise their dream to make a sustainable difference to the rural poor and improve the quality of life in rural India, and reap profit at the same time.

In a bid to spread awareness about social entrepreneurship among youngsters and also build a network of social entrepreneurs, Villgro is now taking its conference ‘Unconvention/L’ to 15 cities across the country. The Thiruvananthapuram edition of the conference begins today (August 23) at C-DAC, Technopark Campus. In an interview with MetroPlus over the phone from Chennai, Paul who early on in his career worked with the Kerala Horticulture Development Programme, helping to spearhead, among others, a highly successful concept for a farmers’ market for fruits and vegetables and ‘Udyanam’, a fresh fruit and vegetable retail chain, takes a few questions about his success story and India’s need for enterprising solutions to help the rural poor. Excerpts...

The spark for bringing about change

There was no one defining moment, really. The desire to make a difference in the lives of others less fortunate than myself was always there, even while growing up in Muvattupuzha in Ernakulam district. It was perhaps further nurtured during my school days at Corpus Christi [Pallikoodam school]. I studied mechanical engineering even though my heart was not in it. Then I reasoned with myself: I don’t need to create any more wealth for myself or my family thanks to the foresight of my forefathers. So why can’t I as a professional use my talent and those of others like me to create wealth for and make a difference in the lives of the rural poor? The subsequent two years at the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, cemented my interest in rural development and management of rural resources. I founded Villgro (in 2001) when I realised that social entrepreneurship was the best way to solve problems of the rural poor and that there was a need to provide a platform for, identify and nurture them into sustainable and profitable enterprises.

On sustainability of an enterprise

There is no golden rule for sustainability other than it should be a good product/service and it should be able to reach out to customers. Villgro is not involved in the day to day operations of incubated enterprises. We give them a shot at success by helping them build on the right idea to get to the right product, guiding them towards the right capital, the right mentors, and the like.

Social entrepreneurship in Kerala

Social entrepreneurship is slowly gaining momentum across India. My understanding of it in Kerala is limited. But, I do know that there are only a handful of social entrepreneurs from Kerala such as Sudesh Menon, co-founder and chief executive officer of Waterlife, which provides customised and specific drinking water solutions, who are working on a national scale.

And that’s despite the large pool of qualified talent in Kerala. Perhaps it’s because poverty as such is relatively low here when compared to many other parts of the country or perhaps it’s because many of us got exposed to things beyond Kerala. The state may rely on businesses but not necessarily on entrepreneurship. Kerala has many social issues, such as waste management, which have the potential for a solution through social enterprises. It also has many unique sectors such as tourism where there is a wealth of potential for social enterprises. Even in IT/mobile field where we are seeing many promising entrepreneurs out of Kerala, there is potential for social development.

On choosing Thiruvananthapuram as a destination for Unconvention/L

Opportunities are plenty in smaller towns and cities such as Thiruvananthapuram, Guwahati and Bhopal. But social entrepreneurship as a profitable option would not be as evident to entrepreneurs here as it is in the metros. Besides, entrepreneurs in smaller towns are closer to the problems in the villages of India and would tend to look at these issues with a realistic perspective than an idealistic one. We want to inspire young entrepreneurs into social development. We want to install and immerse them in the field by giving them access to a strong support system. We hope to make Unconvention/L an annual event in the city.

(For details, visit http://unconvention.co.in)

Sound innovations

‘Possible’ is Villgro’s motto and it has now helped more than 60 entrepreneurs realise their dream to make a sustainable difference to the rural poor and reap profit at the same time. Here are some of its success stories:

Desicrew – India’s first rural BPO

IWAC– an automatic areca nut de-husking machine

Sustaintech – smokeless commercial cooking stoves

TouchHB – a cost effective, portable and non-invasive anaemia testing device that helps reduce maternal mortality

Promethean – a rapid milk chilling machine that can be operated with a thermal battery

For more information log on to www.villgro.org

For a cause

Paul, 46, has worked with the Kerala Horticulture Development Programme, a project of the European Union and the Government of Kerala to commercialise horticulture. He was part of the original marketing team that spearheaded, among others, the concept for a farmers’ market for fruits and vegetables and ‘Udyanam’, a fresh fruit and vegetable retail chain.