Scaling Villgro to Kenya (Part 1)

January 31st 2014

I land at JKIA Nairobi. As we drive through the traffic jam in the city, I can’t help but ponder how much I had missed this place. After 6 months of being away, it strikes me that all I needed in life was right here in Africa; the beauty of its people, the diversity and vibrancy, the drums and dances… and the future it holds as the next economic frontier.

The primary goal of my visit was to meet potential partners to replicate our model in Africa and secondly to do a comparative study of similarities between in India and Africa. My assignment started with a visit to women enterprise groups in my rural home in the company of Paul Basil, Villgro’s founding CEO. Our tour guide for the day was my mum together with her work colleagues. We were deeply moved by the resilience of these women. One particular group was composed of widows in their 60s. As each of them narrated their story, a pattern began forming. Most of them had taken their sons and daughters through school but were still struggling to fend for their grandchildren. The reason being their own children couldn’t get meaningful jobs coupled with the death of their husbands that left them in a perpetual vicious cycle. What was encouraging was to see them try to make ends meet with the remaining drop of life left in them. They had enterprising projects from ground nuts processing, homemade detergents to livestock keeping. And when asked about their aspirations, most of them wished for a good house, educate their grandchildren, buy a cow or a dairy goat and live a better life. The undying hope kept them going and I thought to myself how easier it would have been if a Villgro like model existed in Kenya. Having succeeded in supporting such grassroot enterprises in India, it was time for Villgro to share its learnings with India’s sister continent.

Interacting with women in the communities

Interacting with women in the communities

During my stay in Kenya, I also got a chance to attend Sankalp Conference in Nairobi. Sankalp in India has been dubbed the largest gathering of social entrepreneurs in the world and it was quite a surreal moment to witness it happening in my home country. This was a good indication that time was ripe for Africa to rise to the occasion though there wasn’t a good representation of native Kenyan entrepreneurs in the conference. Expat entrepreneurs seemed to dominate the social enterprise space as compared to their Kenyan counterparts. This is quite the opposite in India where Indians have taken a lead in innovations that address social problems. Expat entrepreneurs bring a good mix to the Kenyan ecosystem but locals should not be left behind. Some of the innovative ideas awarded at the ceremony Sankalp included a company that manufactured fencing post and construction materials from recyclable waste. Another interesting enterprise to be awarded was Prasoya Kenya Ltd. Prasoya makes fortified foods with high nutrition values, an intervention that seeks to address hunger and malnutrition in the continent.


At Sankalp with replication partners

At Sankalp with replication partners

As I pen off, I would like to mention that am preparing myself for a re-entry to Kenya in June. There is so much Africa can learn from India and am humbled to be playing a role in it. India-Africa is a connection I want to maintain and will forever treasure the friends I made especially with my fellow fellows at Villgro.

Wilfred has worked in the tech startup scene for almost two years now, both in Jordan and Kenya. He has joined Villgro as a Fellow (2013- 14) and is working with Villgro’s Scale initiative. 


Spirit of Ancestral Entrepreneurship :Of Chai, Karate and Girl-Power

Disclaimer: This article has nothing to do with Social Entrepreneurship as we know it, but everything to do with the spirit of entrepreneurship and empowerment that many of do not know.

Date/ Time: Jan 20th, 2014. Monday: 2PM

Venue: IITM Research Park, Chennai.

Outside Temperature: Hot, Really Hot.

Occasion: Leadership Development Week for Fellows.

Need of the hour: Inspiration, Inspiration and Inspiration, with some Chai!

Participants: Villgro Fellows and other interested Villgro co-workers

Guest Speakers:

Session1: Zach Marks and Resham Gellatly (From ‘Chai Wallahs of India’)

Session2: Karate Rajendran and Sumitra Rajendran (Favorite ChaiWallahs of Villgro Fellows/ Employee outside of the Chennai IITM Research Park office)

The Script:

It was after 4 months that all of us fellows gathered back here at Villgro’s office. Quite noticeably, the mood was very different from when we all first met in September 2013. Months had passed, interesting journeys had begun, many challenges faced, and a lot of wisdom gained. In the midst of the fellowship journey, collective motivation I thought could be everybody’s cup of tea, literally. I sensed this was the opportunity to bring relevant players on stage.

Street food is my passion, and I am sure a lot of us do not even realize this as we grub to satiate ourselves. Many of us do not even associate the word ‘entrepreneurship’ when it comes to street vendors. They indeed are contributing to the GDP: Every drop counts and street vendors constitute 1% of every urban area’s population in India.   (Link for more numbers-   The government has finally realized the existence of the street economy, and we now have  a bill for the protection of their livelihoods.

Session 1:

More specifically, India is a country where you see scores of tea vendors by the roads. It is a common meeting point for travelers, people working at nearby businesses or even people living near by when they want to socialize. The neighborhood tea stall may not be a Social Enterprise as per business jargon, but it definitely is an enterprise where people gather to be social and re-energize themselves. It is this uniqueness that Zack and Resham (our guests) noticed during their respective Fulbright Fellowships, and decided to dedicate a year traveling the entire country meeting famous chaiwallahs (Hindi word for tea vendors).

I took this opportunity to invite them over and share some of their stories with us. We heard stories of legacy chaiwallahs from Bollywood to those of coffee hut owners in rustic backwaters of Kerala. They shared their photo blog with us during their presentation, and we were thankful to Zack and Resham for their time. They eventually want to write a book on their explorations. You can read more about this initiative here (

In fact, if you have a story about a favorite Chaiwallah of yours, you can contribute to their blog on:


This brings us to Session 2, our own favorite chaiwallah near Villgro’s Chennai office.

Session 2:

There is only one hospitable tea stall near this huge IITM Research Park building of ours. Its quite a walk from the 3rd floor, but one fine day a bunch of us decided to ‘socialize’ at this ‘tea kadai’ (kadai means shop in tamil). As a habit, I started talking to the couple that owned the shop, and was startled to get responses in good spoken english. Similarly, my fellow-fellow Wilfred was surprised to have a fluent conversation with the owner in Arabic!

We knew Rajendran and Sumitra, the couple who run the ‘kadai’ had a story. Hence, we invited them over for this session. What followed was a true story of a hardworking serial entrepreneur couple, with some bollywood-style climax filled with romance and karate. Rajendran narrated that he is a trained karate black belt, a passion that led him to not enroll in any higher education after 12th grade. His father, being a Chaiwallah himself, supported Rajendran in this cause. Rajendran went on to win accolades as a certified karate trainer in Chennai. He then moved to Saudi Arabia and taught karate at a school in Riyadh (where he picked up Arabic). He decided to move back to Chennai in late 90s and continued as a karate tutor in the city.

He wanted a woman in his life who would respect his passion in karate. Enter ‘Sumitra’, whom he met outside a temple in Good Ole Madras. The way the couple narrated sagas of their courtship, it was truly like a movie! They now have 3 daughters, all of whom have won karate competitions at international stages. They learnt karate in Rajendran’s classes and results are showing up after years of hard work. Keep in mind that such a story of girls excelling in martial arts is a rarity in India, a country still struggling to cope with issues of gender inequality. We definitely need more Rajendrans and Sumitras to change some ingrained beliefs in a few parts of the Indian society.

All the medals that Sumitra and Karate Rajendran's daughters won so far

In the Glory of proud parents of two powerful little daughters ~ presenting all the medals the girls won in karate competitions so far


We concluded the session by walking over to their shop.In spite of being a Karate entrepreneur / tutor, the tea shop will never shut down, said Rajendran. It is a family legacy that he does not want to stop. The girls do their homeworks there as Sumitra and Rajendran serve hot chai. As long us fellows are around, we will frequent their shop. The couple pets a dog family too, you guessed it, with 3 female puppies.

Zack of Chaiwallahs of India chatting and I, chatting with  Rajendran about his chai business

Zach and I, chatting with Rajendran about his chai business and his dreams for the future of his daughters


"Dont mess with me, I got the power" ~ Karate Rajendrans daughter teaching Wilfred some of her moves

“Dont mess with me, I got the power” ~ Karate Rajendrans daughter teaching Wilfred (Villgro Fellow) some of her moves


Of Fellows, Chaiwallah hunters and the inspirational Sumitra and Rajendran with their power packed daughter

Of Fellows, Chaiwallah hunters ,the inspirational Sumitra and Rajendran, their daughter and the legacy of their ancestral chai stall

As I finish this write-up, I realize that today is International Women’s Day. Rajendran and Sumitra are looking for sponsors to take their girls to international competitions, may be the next Olympics or Commonwealth games or Asian Games. I also found out recently that Rajendran met with a minor accident and had to shut his shop, and classes for last 2 weeks. I met him today- The only thing in his mind is “Lost Revenues” in the last 2 weeks. Sumitra will run the show, both at home and the shop while Rajendran takes care of his health. She is a tireless entrepreneur herself.

For driving the cause of woman empowerment, and the spirit of serial entrepreneurship in them, I wish them all the happiness and good luck in scaling their businesses! I also hope to see 3 karate medal winners at Asian Games from India soon; 3 people I know! I will continue visiting them not only for their chai, but also for seeking inspiration by listening to their stories of running 2 small enterprises.


 Nachiket has previously worked at Intel Corporation in California as a Business Operations Analyst. He was also involved with volunteering initiatives at Association for India’s Development (AID) and International Rescue Committee (IRC), which made him decide to transition into the world of Economic Development and Public Policy. Nachiket will be working as a social impact fellow with Villgro’s Knowledge Management programme.

My take aways from UniDAT – conference on universal design and assistive technology

As part of the Villgro Fellowship, I was given the opportunity to attend a conference of my interest. I decided to attend the UniDAT conference organized by the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre in New Delhi which was a three day long conference on Universal Design and Assistive Technology. It was a platform for professionals from across disciplines to dialogue about the current state of assistive technology in India, the gaps that exist and where it is headed in the decade to come. I found myself amidst and mingling with architects, social workers, policy makers, occupational therapists, technologists, disability service providers, social enterprises and aspiring design innovators. Once I got there I realized that the common thread that tied all of us was a sense of purpose towards using technology innovatively to promote independent living and lesser dependency on ‘people and society’ by persons with disabilities and senior citizens.

I have summed up my take-aways and what I learnt from the most at UniDAT  in the following points:

Inclusion in the true sense:

Having worked in Villgro, it is not new to be focusing on ‘customer insights’ and including them in the process of product development. There was a session at the UniDAT that solely focused on ‘Consumer perspective on Universal Design and Assistive Technology in India’. This session shed insights about real challenges that wheel chair users face and what manufacturers must keep in mind while designing products.

Wheel chair accessible podium for presenters showcased how there can be equality by just devising a simple solution such a shorter version of the traditional podium that could be be used by wheel-chair users when they present on stage.

Wheel-chair accessible podium at UniDAT

Wheel-chair accessible podium at UniDAT


Dialogue in the conference moved towards need for ‘social enterprises’

Having worked in the disability sector but mainly with NGOs, I was quite happy to notice that there was a consensus amongst the panelists and the speakers that there is a need to transition into a social enterprise model for provision of assistive technology services to persons with disabilities. Speakers such as Shilpi Kapoor of BarrierBreak Technology – a social enterprise working towards creating awareness, work towards advocacy and providing accessibility solutions and assistive technology in India shared her experience of how the social enterprise model has worked for them.

Multi-disciplinary with focus on finding holistic ‘solutions’:

UniDAT was a vibrant atmosphere because of the nature of the participants. Most times we are good at discussing the issues and challenges but less often do we discuss in real time finding solutions and the way forward. UniDAT had professionals such as service providers come to the forefront and share with the audience a gist of the work they are doing which could be a take-away for other professionals in the field to make referrals. There was also a presentation by Siobhan Long of EnAble Ireland on the use of assistive technology at the work-place. Her presentation shed light on their work on dialogue with employers on the importance of inclusion of persons with disabilities at work-place and guiding them to various assistive technology and universal design solutions that could be thought about with not much cost and that yield high returns in the form of productivity of human capital.

Platform for ‘Innovation’ and ‘Innovators’

The students design competition was something that I was looking forward to and one of the factors that urged me to even attend UniDAT. The winners presented on low-cost, innovative assistive technologies for persons with disabilities in India. A student presented on a wheel-chair that could be used to climb up and down staircases. This was very relevant because India is still not completely accessible with ramps for wheel-chair users and this solution would solve that issue innovatively. Another student presented on easy to make and use games for children with visual impairment. Both these ideas are in their prototype stage currently. It was also interesting to learn about Ekada – a social enterprise in Lucknow working on custom made mobility aids for persons with disabilities using local resources.

Showcasing best practices

Brandman University was invited to provide insight on best practices in disability services in educational institutions in the US. They highlighted the role of educational institutions in reaching out to students with disabilities and enabling their course of study to be barrier free by connecting them to assistive technology in a customized manner.

A cross disability-perspective with focus on culture

The presentations of case studies of technology assisted rehabilitation and various cultural factors contributing to the same were across disabilities that covered: hearing impairment, visual impairment, cerebral palsy, etc. A piece on social inclusion , principles and practice in the Indian context also was presented highlighting the challenges that can also pose as barriers to ‘accessibility’ in India.

Creating awareness innovatively 

‘Warriors on Wheels’ was a fashion show performed by a group of wheel-chair users on one evening of UniDAT. This group did a T style ramp walk using wheel chairs on the stage.

Warriors on Wheels fashion show

Warriors on Wheels fashion show

There was also a showcase of how recreation using assistive technology is an upcoming area that is receiving interest. There was a game of wheel chair rugby that took place between two groups.

More than walking

Lastly, something that has stayed with me was meeting Jonathan Sigworth and his entire team. He runs an organization called ESCIP that works in innovative ways in empowering persons with spinal cord injuries. They run a transition home that coaches people who have had spinal cord injuries in independent living, run a wheel-chair rugby team among other community outreach and awareness activities.

At UniDAT, Jonathan presented and shared about More Than Walking – an award-winning documentary he shot.

As we had become friends, I got invited to a wheel-chair disco night. I had never seen such an event where it did not matter that someone sat on a wheel chair but they danced with the spirit and love for music. There were people doing ‘wheelies’ and stunts using their chairs. I too sat on a chair, which my friend agreed to share with me, to experience this form of dance that was new to me. It was then that I realized that expression in the form of dance did not have to be limited to those who can walk on two legs, it is something anyone can do even if they walk on ‘two wheels’. We have decided to join in our networks and work together on how we can open up such platforms for recreation across the country for all wheel chair users.

Wheel-chair disco @ ESCIP house

Wheel-chair disco @ ESCIP house

Attending UniDAT has been a unique experience for me. The experience of me working in the fellowship and a deeper exposure of the social enterprise space helped me look at things differently than I used to before. My conversations with innovators and those providing services to persons with disabilities has changed. I was trying to understand their models of working, what challenges they face, whether or not they are able to self sustain as a for-profit model and how things change when a person with disability is looked at as a ‘consumer’ and not merely a recipient / beneficiary of services. I learnt that innovations happen when persons with disabilities are looked at as consumers who are willing to pay for their services and have specific needs that constantly evolve with socio-economic and cultural factors contributing the their choices.

The greatest learning has been how the use of technology has been an enabler for persons to reduce their dependency on human beings and be able to engage in activities of daily living, be able to contribute productively in society and most of all live a dignified life. All in all, the three days at UniDAT has re-kindled my passion to work in the disability sector and has planted in me seeds to think about ways of using the social enterprise model to reaching out to assistive technology needs of populations at the Bottom of the Pyramid in India.

Rachana Iyer has completed her Masters in Social Work ( Disability Studies and Action) from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and has worked with NGOs in the field of disability, use of ICT for social development. At Villgro she works as a Fellow at the SEED program. 


Reflections (a long one) on the first month of the fellowship and the road that lead to it.

Life was going smoothly until some comet struck on the 3rd floor of PwC’s Mumbai office and I decided to move away from the cushy corporate life and do something more impactful.

Between the date of applying for the fellowship and starting the fellowship, I met with a serious catastrophe, wherein I lost my bachelorhood and my girlfriend gained her Master’s…….

By the time, I could fully absorb in the romance and beauty of my trip to Paris and Switzerland, it was time to start the 1 month long induction for the fellowship.

Questions running in my head before the fellowship and the answers I found on the way:

1. Why impact investment and why now??

Various reasons people join the fellowship:

  • Do something more impactful or feel good about the work they do
  • Get an on-ground understanding of how start-ups work, specifically in social enterprise sector, while being associated with a known company
  • Meet and work with some amazing entrepreneurs
  • Sharpen their CV for getting an MBA/MPP
  • Get an understanding of how PE/VC investments work
  • Gain experience in the sector in which one is interested…be it healthcare, education, energy, etc…

For me it was all the above…I intend to start my own impact investment fund in the long run and a 1 year stint with the amazing Incubation team at Villgro will take me miles closer to my goal. A long haul with the corporates has helped me gain the maturity (I would love to believe that) to understand and absorb the intricacies of the start-up world and social entrepreneurship and hence, decided to take the plunge into impact investments

2. What will the other fellows be like?

I was in for an amazing surprise….. to meet the completely diverse set of fellows…never in my life had I met such a diverse bunch of highly accomplished individuals… Just proud to be a part of this gang of highly talented fellows..


"Hello! My name is Wilfred, from Kenya"

“Hello! My name is Wilfred, from Kenya”


3. How much is Villgro’s work appreciated by all the stakeholders ?

Having met certain NGOs, other Social Enterprises, incubators and Social sector recruitment agencies, one thing was pretty clear…that Villgro is one of the most prominent entities in the social sector space and regarded very highly in the impact investment space…..

4.  How useful will be the Induction? Why is there a need for 1 month for training?

Having been part of the corporate world for the last 6.5 years, I was used to induction and regular trainings of 2-3 days duration…. but a month long training was something very new and unheard of for me (except for marketing related positions) ….. However, when I received the schedule and actually experienced the training, all my doubts were cleared…. from meeting successful and start-up social entrepreneurs to living in a farmer’s house….from listening to philosophical speeches to drawing the business model canvas and defending cases…the training covered everything from pin to plane….. and was a really learning experience (especially I was not caught enjoying my post lunch siesta in the conference rooms)….

Heart to heart discussion between Nachi – a fellow and the farmer, with whose family Nachi and I spent a day and night with as part of the fellowship experience

Heart to heart discussion between Nachi – a fellow and the farmer, with whose family Nachi and I spent a day and night with as part of the fellowship experience


A villager posing while selling milk at the milk collection center in the village

A villager posing while selling milk at the milk collection center in the village


Inspecting the vegetables with the farmer

Inspecting the vegetables with the farmer


Posing with the farmers and their equipment

Posing with the farmers and their equipment


5. Any training surprises?

We shared our training sessions with another group of trainees – the Entrepreneurs in Residence cohort…it was an amazing opportunity to walk shoulder to shoulder with these budding entrepreneurs…with amazing ideas at a seed stage…wish them all the best in their endeavors.


Gangs of Bangalore: EIRs and Fellows

Gangs of Bangalore: EIRs and Fellows


6. Fun and Dhamaal???

My fellows were a bunch of fun ppl… missing all the late night parties…to dinner sessions at fellows home in the IIT campus…random walk on the beach to just gossip sessions during lunch and in the Hives…. The amount of energy that my fellow displayed on the dance floors made me feel like a senior citizen @ 26… looking forward to meeting everyone in Jan.

Its been almost 2 months since the training got over and we are all back to our daily grind…so might have missed lot of things…. But it was a memorable one month….and the fellowship till date has cleared all the doubts I may have had in my mind and exceeded all expectations..

For any of the future fellows…who might have doubts deciding on the fellowship….i have just one advice…… “Jump In and You will surely enjoy the ride”….

PS: Next blog post – The perks of being part of the Incubation team

Aryan is a CA and CFA and has consulted with several MNCs. After he led the corporate social responsibility initiatives of Pricewaterhouse Coopers India Foundation, he came to the realization that his calling lies in doing something more impactful and is keen on learning more on social entrepreneurship and impact investments. Aryan works at Villgro’s Incubation team.


Life is a Race – Learnings of a fellow after running at the Chennai marathon

At the finish line

At the finish line

It is December 1st at 4:00AM, I cycle towards Tidel Park, the starting point of Chennai Wipro Marathon. A jubilant crowd has gathered and you might think it’s one of those party till dawn mornings. The Dj plays some nice music and hell yeah it feels like a party. The party is out lived by the long agonizing 22 KM run with a heavy down pour of rain. I finish in about 2 hours but not without a handful of new learnings. So below, am going recount 8 lessons from the race.

Life is like a race, there are no losers but winners if we dare to try. During the run, I benefited a lot from the help accorded to me by the volunteers. When my chest was bursting with thirst, they provided water and glucose, the much needed fuel for the race. In life you will be helped by many, don’t be ungrateful.

Find a cause in life – A week before the race, there was an email campaigner encouraging everyone not just to participate but to finish the race. They prompted me to think, why do I have to finish? I had to find a reason, a purpose. What’s yours?  If you are stuck in a rat race, hating the daily commute to work, maybe that career break will help you find your purpose. You might want to quit your job and travel to India for a Villgro fellowship or take up an AIESEC internship in Latin America. It’s never too late to look for a cause.

Don’t forget to celebrate the heroes in your life – Others stood along the streets braving the chill from the rain just to get a glimpse of the runners and cheer them up. I was touched by this little 5 year old boy who stood with his dad and kept yelling “Heeey, keep going, you can do it!” After reaching the turning point and heading back, I was stupefied to find the little lad at the same spot one hour later still cheering. And it did the magic, it kept us going. In life we need people to cheer us up and at other times we should be the ones cheering others up.

We all need a life partner – At one point, having ran for about 1 hour and half, I was in the verge of giving up. Equally fatigued, was another guy just ahead of me. I reached out my hand to give him a pat in the back and we ended up becoming running partners for the next 40 minutes or so. We kept pushing each other to soldier on; lending a hand and even slowing down the pace for the sake of the other. You don’t need to go out of your way to find that partner, all it might takes is just pat in the back, a wink or a smile. Two will always be better than one.

Resilience will get you there – It was impressive to see senior citizens and Para athletes turn out in larger numbers.  They didn’t just challenge me but some performed much better than I, reaching the finish line earlier on. They were not here to seek sympathy but to compete. I have no words to describe them but these are true epitomes of resilience.

Take care of your body, it’s the house you dwell in all your life – As I neared the finish line, I reflected that the same body that saw me start was sure to see me finish. I couldn’t have done without it. More interestingly, some bodies that looked weaker had finished way ahead of mine. It wasn’t so obvious but they had taken some good care of theirs. What did I expect?? I only exercised 2 days a week for just about a month and had not run even 10K for the last 9 years leave alone a Marathon. I took that as a personal challenge to take good care of mine.

We are one – The race wouldn’t have been a success with just one person running. All the 10,000 participants played a role and in the end, we didn’t have 10,000 races but one. The source of life supporting the 10,000 heart beats was also one.

The finish line is a form of death – After finishing the 22K in just about 2 hours, it dawned on me that it was over. All that remained were memories. In life all you got is the journey, reaching the destination is a form of death. So, you better enjoy the journey.

Wilfred has worked in the tech startup scene for almost two years now, both in Jordan and Kenya. He has joined Villgro as a Fellow (2013- 14) and will be working with Villgro’s Scale initiative. 


Bee-ing the change

“India is not to be found in its few cities but in the 700,000 villages” this statement is true to its core. But even in villages until you have met small & marginal farmers your journey to understanding their socio-economic realities is incomplete.

Marginal Farmer is a cultivator with a land holding of 1 hectare or less (2.5 acres) as per NABARD. This definition only talks about land but there are several other factors as well which contribute to them being ‘marginal’. Where the farm is located, its proximity to the nearest city and the type of land also impact the farmers livelihood from agriculture. As a part of my job in Under The Mango Tree (UTMT), I went to our field office in Dharampur – A small town surrounded from hills near Valsad – to visit the nearby villages where UTMT has conducted its training program.

The farmers I met are super marginal because:

1.)   Lands owned are less than 2 acres.

2.)   Nearest smallest market Dharampur is 1.5 hours drive away and not all the villages are covered by transport services. Even if a farmers grows only one crop in their field and plans to sell it in Dharampur then also it is not cost-effective. The nearest big market “Valsad” is 3 hours away.

3.)   Although most of the farmers don’t apply any pesticides but still they are not recognized as organic farmers

4.)   Farm lands are uneven being a hilly area and farming there is a difficult task..

5.)   No source of irrigation in the months of summer for the villages away from river.

So what do these marginal farmers do? They:

1)    They grow multiple crops in their fields

2)    They don’t sell their crops in markets. All produce is for home consumption.

3)    They have started growing Cashew and Mango (BAIF-Dhurva Wadi Project); formed Co-operatives and groups (mandali) to sell at competitive price with the help of a producer company named VAPCOL (Vasundhara Agri Horti Producer Company Ltd)


Suresh Bhai with his wife , Gujarat

Suresh Bhai with his wife , Gujarat

In Gujarat, UTMT with the help of BAIF Dhurva conducts training for beekeeping. After the training which is free of cost, tribal farmers are provided with bee-boxes. This bee-keeping not only helps these farmers to earn extra income by selling honey & wax but also increases farm yields. For instance, I met a farmer named Suresh Bhai (with UTMT from 2009-10) who shared that previously his farms were not growing enough to meet family’s need of 12 months but last year he got surplus .Many farmers told me that the farm-productivity has gone up and they are getting 4-5 Kg more Cashew and Mango.

It makes me proud that I am working with an organization, which is bringing some value in the lives of these farmers.

Nitin Lahoti has been running a family-owned business in agricultural commodities with a distribution network in over 70 villages in Rajasthan. He is currently working as a Villgro Fellow at Under the Mango Tree, Mumbai.

Musings of a Fellow

On a pleasant Thursday evening, at a nice restaurant by the Thiruvanmyur beach in Chennai, I got to meet all my other fellows or fellow-fellows as we call each other now. We were also lucky to witness the “graduation” of fellows from 2012. The next day, they shared their experiences of the year with us. Our “senior” batch of fellows, some of who are now co-workers definitely seemed happy, relieved and content with the year that had gone by. But, there was one more thing that I noticed- The fellowship had created a strong bond between them. I wondered if the same thing would happen to our 2013 cohort as well, and yes, I already have the answer.

All of us came from diverse professional and cultural backgrounds. We went through a long month of induction, with loads of travel and classroom discussions. After this month, we all split (sadly) to swim in our own oceans. In this process, we have been trying to understand the social enterprise space and our roles at Villgro or its incubatees. Someone from Villgro told us on the first day:” We want our fellows to hit the ground running from the start”. I definitely felt it in the month of October, and from what I hear from my co-fellows, it holds true for all of us.

Fellows and EIRs at a field visit in Madurai, Tamil Nadu

Fellows and EIRs at a field visit in Madurai, Tamil Nadu


This brings me to where we are today- A little over 2 months into the fellowship, there are some questions that come to my mind. Since the first 2 months have been fast and different from each other, at this important juncture, I think every fellow should ask oneself these questions-

1) Am I enjoying this journey? Am I getting what I expected out of this fellowship?

2) Where am I with respect to my KRAs (Key Result Areas) for the year?

3) Not compromising on my KRAs, is there anything more that I would like to do / learn?

4) How do I use Villgro’s network to expose myself to what I want from the Social Enterprise space?

5) How do the last 2 months and 1) to 4) fit into my long-term career goals?

The last question is probably the most difficult to find the answer for, and I already know why Villgro has assigned “mentors” for us fellows. I must admit that both mentors and senior folks at Villgro have been very helpful in finding answers for the above questions.

This TED talk could be relevant and useful (for anybody)-

These were some of the things past fellows and friends had told us, but nobody had told us that the fellow cohort would itself become so close that they would pitch in for each others’ necessities, whenever needed. Our past professional and personal networks are being shared. Our movies, music and books have already been exchanged. As part of work, I am noticing so much knowledge transfer happening. One fellow helps me with her endless wisdom in healthcare and nutrition. Another inspires with her writing and passion for differently-abled people. Another sends us photos from the hills of Uttarakhand, to either make us feel good or jealous. One calls me to talk about “impact measurement” in the tribal lands of Gujarat (for UTMT). I myself have tried to be a local guide for the fellows at Chennai. I could go on about this, but these are just some of the things that have come to my notice.

These 2 months have already created a system for information flow and experience-sharing within the fellows, that the interpersonal relationships are beginning to act as invisible mentors / counselors. I must also mention that close interactions with the EIRs (Entrepreneur-in-Residence) through out the induction program and beyond, has led to a lot of ‘enlightenment’. It will be interesting to see how all these interactions transform into a larger and stronger knowledge bank of professionals in the Social Enterprise or the development space by the end of the fellowship. May be, somebody should map how the fellowship cohorts of the past have fallen into various spaces within the Villgro ecosystem like Unconvention, SEED, Incubation etc.  I am sure there is a hidden anthropologist sitting in any of the fellow cohorts who would rise their hand for this study! Anybody? :)

Nachiket has previously worked at Intel Corporation in California as a Business Operations Analyst. He was also involved with volunteering initiatives at Association for India’s Development (AID) and International Rescue Committee (IRC), which made him decide to transition into the world of Economic Development and Public Policy. Nachiket will be working as a social impact fellow with Villgro’s Knowledge Management programme.

From Jambo to Vanakkam


A month has passed by since arriving in India from Kenya. It’s been exciting to see new faces and feeling strange at times. Here they have a saying that goes like Atithi Devo Bhava which means “guest is god”. With that you can imagine the hospitality being extended to me; I couldn’t help getting immersed in the rich and diverse culture. I have been offered lots of free food. The best part has been eating from a banana leaf instead of a plate – Something we do in Africa as well. I have come to like South Indian delicacies. I just can’t get enough of the lip smacking idli, sambar, dosai and curd rice.

I have had a few challenges with traffic. People here don’t drive. They ride! I mean like riding a horse. At first I always had to keeping looking right, left and behind. Somehow I have figured that you can find your way in the crazy traffic by just ignoring a few things. As a pedestrian, traffic lights are not something to go by. So what I usually do while crossing the road is to wait for a flock of people to gather and then go with the wave. I heard a friend make similar joke about Mumbai trains that if you want to get into a train, all you have to do is stand by the door. You don’t even have to move your feet; the stampeding crowd will do it for you. They will push you in. With lots of people in the streets, at the train stations and in buses, it is a clear way of saying ‘Hey, we are 1.3 billion of us’ (Indian population)

Flowers are a part and parcel of culture especially in the South. It’s not surprising to see ladies adorned in garlands of kasumba and marigold flowers strapped on their hair leaving a trail of fresh fragrance behind. In Hinduism, flowers are also offered in the temples to appease the gods. You are bound to find lots of flower vendors along the streets. I once brought home from the temple some Bhagawan ki phulain (flowers offered to gods). In addition to flowers, women also wear bindi on their forehead or mangalsutra on their neck (if they are married). Different colors and shapes denote age, marital status, religious background or ethnic affiliation.

Working with enterprises serving the BOP, I have to appreciate the role of women in poverty alleviation. A lady at Erode district of Tamil Nadu tells me that 90% of the self help groups there are led by women. The men have lagged behind and are shy to embracing community leadership. Despite the plight of Indian being in the media for all the wrong reasons like rape and violence, they have demonstrated resilience by overcoming it all and gone a step further to pull their men folks out of poverty. Also to note, many young ladies are taking up self -defense training and this can be seen by the number of ladies I have spotted wearing judo and karate uniforms after office hours.

Now that I have learnt a few Tamil words let me throw in some.

Yepidi Irukeenga? which means “How are you?”

Kudika thanni kadaikuma which means “Could I have some drinking water?”

Theriyom meaning “I know”

Theriyaadhu means“I don’t know”

Nandri means “Thank you”.


The induction phase is now over its time to get down to work. It looks like we have a promising year ahead. As I sign off, I would like to take this chance to wish my fellow fellows a rewarding and fulfilling time in the social enterprise space.



Wilfred has worked in the tech startup scene for almost two years now, both in Jordan and Kenya. He has joined Villgro as a Fellow (2013- 14) and will be working with Villgro’s Scale initiative. 


Microfinance Solutions for Stove Users: What’s the hold-up?

Multiple interactions with Pyro stove users during our field visits have left no doubts in our mind about the quality, benefits and overall popularity of Sustaintech’s Pyro range of stoves. You hear customers rave about the product, specifically the increased cooking efficiency, reduced smoke, and limited firewood consumption. Then why aren’t the sales figures speaking the same language?

A lot of it boils down to pricing and affordability of these products. The target customers are not in a financial position to shell out lump-sum payments for the purchase and payment of Sustaintech’s products. To tackle this problem Sustaintech has set up financial linkages to provide loans to interested customers. Even though customers have repeatedly listed lack of proper financial aid as the number one reason for postponing the purchase of a Pyro stove, the microfinance loan arrangement has not taken off the way we expected it to.

This is where local moneylenders enter the scene. The informal network of local moneylenders has existed for thousands of years in rural India and continues to be the predominant way of financial aid in rural societies. Moneylenders go door to door collecting payments at the convenience of the borrower on a weekly or even a daily basis in some cases. The borrowers find it much easier to shell out smaller denominations on a frequent basis, as they are not in the habit of saving and putting money aside for half yearly, quarterly or even monthly payments that formal institutions require. The paperwork involved is essentially non-existent since the moneylenders traditionally provide loans within their communities and networks, thus eliminating the need for background checks. However, they charge exorbitant interest rates (~40%) for these small personal loans due to the risk they assume by doing business with borrowers without a credit history.

Here’s a summary of the challenges faced in cracking the microfinance model for Sustaintech’s cookstoves:

- We need a loan package that is flexible and compatible with the consumer’s ability and willingness to pay
- Most consumers would prefer weekly or daily payments to keep the installments small as these are mostly daily wage earners whose likelihood of defaults on monthly installments is high
- Loan documentation must be simple and easy to understand, perhaps in the local language

The question is about finding the right combination of these three components: minimum documentation, low (or no) collateral and reasonable rates of interest (around 15% per annum) for microfinance to serve as a useful tool for end users.

Schooled in seven different states of India, Aina is well exposed to India. She has a BBA and and a Masters in Accounting & Financial Reporting followed by a two year stint at Ernst & Young’s public accounting. Aina has been working with Sustaintech, which manufactures and sells fuel efficient biomass cooking stoves.

Career big changes

This post was originally published at the Niiti Consulting Blog in June 25, 2013.


The field of social business is relatively new in my country, Brazil, and also worldwide, and professionals from the most diverse areas are increasingly curious to prove whether it is possible to combine a fair paycheck (or profit) with a measurable social change.

Professionals who are coming from the traditional business sector seek a deeper meaning and impact for their MBAs. Those who have been dedicating themselves to non-profit activities, on the other hand, seek more efficient solutions, with focus and financial sustainability. The diversity is also presented in order of age: many young people now have access to the concept from an early age and therefore combining personal and professional fulfillment seems very natural for them. Professionals with 5-10 years of experience, many with promising careers or already with some recognition, question the direction where they are going.

Villgro Fellows 2012-2013 at the Aravind Eye Hospital, Madurai

It may seem easy to talk about it, but in practice we are looking for good examples to inspire new entrepreneurs, investors, the media and – not least – good talent.One way to “test” the environment and experience the hands-on social business is through fellowship programs. Fellowship programs are generally aimed at young professionals – graduates or up to 10 years of professional experience – but age varies widely, since the idea is to offer an opportunity for the fellow to understand wonders and difficulties in the field of social business, hoping that they remain in the area after completion. The programs generally range from 3 to 12 months in a single organization or through several.

On the other hand, the startup hosting the fellow have opportunity to work with highly qualified professionals with experience in very diverse environments who can bring new perspectives to the organization’s strategy – even if it costs a few months of cultural adaptation.


During my induction period, I could closely see the impact of business like SELCO


About a year ago I was participating in the selection process for some of these programs. I made my decision to leave the Corporate Social Responsibility life after 8 years to dive deeper in the entrepreneurial world. I quit my job and started talking to lots of people I admire – from writers to technicians, from entrepreneurs to consultants, from just graduates to super experienced executives. I soon realized it was my time to experience a little more of the world beyond holiday travels.

That’s how I got to the Villgro Fellowship program (a social enterprises incubator based out of Chennai) in partnership with edge (a Potencia Ventures initiative to develop talent for business focused on the base of the pyramid).


edge GBAs (Growth Business Associates) working in SEs across India meet in Hyderabad for the Khemka Forum


My experience as a Villgro Fellow

I started my experience in India meeting other six fellows from different countries and backgrounds during an intense month of induction. Spending night after night in a train coach was becoming natural and doing business under banana trees while visiting rural villages too.

During my 2nd and 3rd month at the Villgro Fellowship program, I worked with my colleague-fellow Sandy on the Pune and Jaipur editions of Unconvention|L. This is a sequence of regional events focused on identifying emergent or potential social entrepreneurs, providing knowledge, inspiration and networks. The Villgro’s Unconvention platform consists of complementary strategic initiatives focused on inspiring, discovering, supporting and nurturing innovative market-based social enterprise models with high potential for rural impact in India. Another of its initiatives is the Villgro Awards, on which I’ve been working for the past 6 months.

The Villgro Awards is an unique initiative in the social entrepreneurship scenario because it focuses on the development of the ecosystem. More innovative ideas can grow and become successful social enterprises if investors, incubators, journalists, academicians and other stakeholders support them. That’s why this is not an awards program to recognize big achievements, but to give visibility and take to the next level people and organizations that are working hard to find market solutions that can overcome India’s most challenging social issues.

In December I started designing and planning the new edition of the awards.  We then launched the applications and nominations period, where we received 135 nominations and applications. 50 semifinalists were analyzed by our Experts Evaluation Panel, composed by experts in media, innovation, impact investment, academia and incubation. Once the 15 finalists were defined, due diligence was executed by our Process Partner, Niiti Consulting, to be presented to a distinguished jury. Simultaneously, 4,500 people registered their support to the candidates by taking part in the online voting.

The announcement of winners was held at the Sankalp Unconvention Summit, a partnership with Sankalp Forum for the largest conference on Social Business in Asia. Around 1,000 delegates attended more than 20 sessions focused on this year’s theme “Looking Beyond Impact” – if you’re curious to learn about the finalists and winners, check out the Unconvention website.


At Villgro, my main role was to redesign, execute and evaluate the Villgro Awards


Now, how to know if you are also ready to participate in a fellowship program:

1. Are you ready to slow down? Especially if you’re going to another country, be prepared for your cultural adaptation – this can take several months! Even if you’re taking part of a fellowship program in the same country, you’re probably doing this to experiment something new – being in a startup, being in the social impact scenario, being in a smaller organization. So don’t expect your professional performance to be exactly as it was before. Your speed may be reduced, but the quality of your work will certainly be higher, since you’ll probably be more attentive to details.

2. I hope money is not your priority at the moment…  Some programs charge a fee from the fellows to cover the process. On the other hand, some of them reimburse flight tickets and other expenses. They can also provide facilities like mobile phone and internet. Although programs generally offer a stipend sufficient to cover the fellow’s basic expenses – rent, food, transportation, etc, if you are inclined to some ‘extravagances’ like fancy restaurants, shopping or travel, you may have to use a bit of your savings.

3. How piqued is your curiosity? Curiosity and empathy are the keywords for a fruitful experience. Be careful with your pre-conceptions or behaviors that you were already used to deal with. Everyone around you – with no exceptions! – will have something to teach you.

4. Where is your utility belt? If you come from the corporate world, remember that being in a startup means playing multiple roles – strategic and operational, business and technical – and that this will be a fantastic opportunity for you to know everything about the company and feel in the entrepreneur’s shoes.


Would you face an outdoors shower in a rural village of Tamil Nadu? Oh yes, we did.


Excited? Some of the best known fellowship programs are (in addition to Villgro and edge, of course!), the AcumenIdeo.orgKivaIdex and Frontier Market Scouts (FMS). See a list of 50 programs in this link (warning that the concept of fellowship varies from one program to another … in some cases, the fellow is an entrepreneur at an early stage and supported to expand the impact of your idea).

Well I’m almost finishing my program with Villgro and I would strongly recommend it, as long as you reflect on what is the meaning of a program like this in your professional and personal life. It can be seen as an investment to gain some field experience and learn a lot about the sector, and also a moment to review your concepts and prejudices and making choices towards the life you want to have.

Good luck!



Cristina Yoshida Fernandes is a Villgro Fellow and an edge’s Growth Business Associate (GBA) working at Villgro Innovations Foundation, in Chennai. She is graduated in Advertising and Marketing with two post-graduate degrees in NGO Management and Globalization & Culture. Cristina has over 8 years of experience in the nonprofit and CSR areas in Brazil, while managing the Social Mobilization department of Itaú Bank Foundation. She co-founded the blog Mercado de Impacto to write on social business for the Brazilian audience and is a guest writer for Next Billion Brazil.