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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 believe 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 rural. 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 is 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 says. Out of the 64 that Villgro has helped, 25 have gone on to raise venture funds.
“As an entrepreneur, it’s been fun every time something worked, and it has always given me hope.”
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