Un voyage de 8 mois à la rencontre des entrepreneurs sociaux et des journalistes qui partagent une même vision d'un monde en changement…

June 13, 2013
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Giving a voice to rural India

Why is it a big deal?

It is commonly said that one cannot understand India without knowing rural India. Indeed 72% of the Indian population lives in villages. But sadly or strangely there have been no professional ruled newspaper for rural India. A research by the journalist Vipul Mudgal on the news items in the six top-circulation dailies reveals that, on average, papers devote 2% editorial space for their flagship editions to the issues and concerns of rural India. As for the biggest portion (36%) of this meagre news coverage, it only deals with issues such as crime, general or political violence, accidents and disasters. As the Indian media blog Churumuri summarizes: “Everybody only just loves a good farmer suicide.”

In a very insightful article, Chandrahas Choudhur explains why it is such a big deal to address this population. He says that even though “economic growth trickles down to the villages, [and] consumption is now growing at a faster rate in rural India than in urban India […], the terrible thing, though, is that urban Indians don’t know enough about the advances made, or obstacles suffered, or technological and economic revolutions experienced in rural areas.” From his opinion, two main reasons are to blame. First, “because rural India is so fragmented by languages, so vast, and much of it so remote. But it is mostly because India’s newspapers are run mainly by members of its upper and middle classes, and cater overwhelmingly to urban readers”.

Tackling directly with those issues, two amazing initiatives that we were lucky enough to meet are trying to give a voice to those 830 millions lives in rural areas.

Khabar Lahariya: rural women empowering themselves and the whole community through information

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Founded in 2002, Khabar Lahariya is an eight pages weekly newspaper published in seven districts of Uttar Pradesh, the most densely populated state in India. Nirantar, a centre for gender and education in New Delhi, started the newspaper, as a way to empower rural women and make them actresses of their information. Starting with ten women, Khabar Lahariya is now autonomously written, edited, produced, distributed and marketed by forty marginalized women. Although these women weren’t journalists or did not even come from strong literary background, they were fully trained by Nirantar and do ensure a highly qualitative content.

Those women also acquired a critical role in the community, encouraging public interactions and gathering inputs to cater to the specific needs of the women. Meanwhile, frequent workshops have also been conducted by these women in order to encourage more people to have an in-hand practical experience of how to run a newspaper.

Khabar Lahariya carries news that is primarily of interest to its rural readership, supplemented with some national and international news. In addition to the common content for every edition, each district has its own page in its own local dialect. To make it affordable to everyone, the newspaper only costs two rupees, and is reaching more than 80 000 people. They are planning to reach a lot more: as they are still raising some funds, they expect to expand in five more districts in the next few years.

Gaon Connection, reinventing journalism from and about rural India

Neelesh Misra is India’s most famous oral storyteller. He is also an award-winning journalist, author of five books, a Bollywood scriptwriter, noted lyricist, a poet and a photographer. But the story that inspired him the most was his father’s: raised in a village, he had to walk hours every morning to go to school. His dream was to build a school for his village and years later this is exactly what he did. In forty years, it has helped change close to forty thousands lives.

Convinced that rural India is the key to India’s development and future, Neelesh Misrah is now reinventing journalism from and about rural India. A few months ago, on the 2nd of December, he launched Gaon Connection, the first professionally-run rural newspaper in India. As it is stated on their (beautiful!) website, Gaon Connection “aims at bringing their [rural India people] world, the things that matter, the subjects that count closer to them”. While doing that, they strive to connect villages (gaon means village in hindi) and cities, by providing a view on the changing landscape of villages to urban India.

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The ambition is very high, just as the benchmark for content. Although they had to start from scratch because nobody knew how a rural newspaper should look like, they created an incredibly qualitative newspaper for their customers. Indeed, out of respect for them, they have the best paper quality possible, the whole newspaper is in colours and with a very visual design. Although close to 90% of the staff weren’t journalists at first, great professionals trained them with the same techniques as for “normal” journalists and the team is now a creative mix of rural and urban journalists who are learning from each others daily. In addition to the regular staff, two of India’s most famous television journalists are regular columnists. A famous senior journalist from Chicago is also writing regular pieces and Neelesh Misrah himself actively participates to the content.

Using those networks along with his reputation – he tells stories on the radio to 32 million people every day in 35 cities – Neelesh Misrah is fully using social media to raise funds and awareness with online campaigns about the project. The results are impressive: the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and every possible media correspondents attended the launch of the newspaper. They have already been approached by several spending agencies and investing companies, and a mainline newspaper offered to partner with them. But for Neelesh Misrah, the heart of Gaon Connection’s philosophy and innovation is first about having people participating, feeling that they have an ownership in the newspaper and that it is not owned by an industrial organization like others.

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And the innovation goes even beyond a newspaper for rural India. As a storyteller, Neelesh Misrah is more than aware of the literacy gap that exists in India: if one out of two people is not able to read or write in rural India, this is one out of two people that might not access the content. Gaon Connection’s breaking innovation is to create an audio newspaper on which all the contents are read by the reporters with their accent, their grammatical errors… just the way they would talk to their friends about it.

Two of India’s major service providers have already agreed to carry their content, meaning they will be able to reach hundreds of millions of customers on their cellphones. The users just have to call one number to hear the newspaper and the audio experience is just really like flipping to the pages of the newspaper: at any point one can press a button to go to another section, or to repeat the sentence, etc.

After only a few months of existence, Gaon Connection is a twelve-pages weekly newspaper, produced in 10 thousand copies and distributed in 35 districts in Uttar Pradesh. And the ambition is no less than reaching the 32,000 villages of India. India’s newspaper industry is growing: the rising levels of literacy and income and rising aspirations make newspapers seen as a commodity of empowerment. But what will really enable them to reach their goal is the incredible innovative spirit of Gaon Connection and of his founder Neelesh Misrah. And at the end, the best story he will read in the future might be the one he is creating right now.

All images courtesy NIRANTAR and Gaon Connection.

May 21, 2013
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Trash-to-Cash uses art and traditional techniques to restore dignity to Indian people with disabilities

Culture(s) with Vivendi, who partnered with us to discover the best social enterprises around the world using art and culture to fight poverty, just released a new article from the SparkTour.

430866_571710159512020_923454240_nTrash-to-Cash recycles waste using traditional Indian artisanal techniques with contemporary designs by people with disabilities.

At the beginning, there was an NGO, Society For Child Development. The mission of SFCD is to provide disabled children with education. But Madhumita Puri, founder of the NGO, had to face more and more parents wondering why they should put their child to school, since it was obvious that their disability would prevent them from getting any job later on.

To read more, follow this link…

May 16, 2013
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How recycled paper bags can solve the lack of visibility of local businesses in India

This article is available in French on our partner’s website, Ecoloinfo.

We met Rohit Nayak, co-founder of Ecoad, in a very nice restaurant in Pune, where he helped us choose the best and most delicious local dishes. Then followed him to a local café where he knew the menu by heart, advising us “wisely” to go for the best and most dangerous dessert we’d had in weeks.

But local food is not the only specialty that Rohit is interested in! His main concern these last past months is much more serious: to help small, local businesses in their struggle against big brands by giving them more visibility right in the hands of their customers.

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Rohit invented an innovative business model that both helps boost the local economy and tackles ecological and social issues: Ecoad enables local businesses like bakeries, saloons, hairdressers… to place ads on paper bags made of recycled newspapers, that are distributed in small retail shops like drugstores – there are many, many of these shops on every street of every Indian city.

The first impact is ecological: everyone knows that plastic bags harm the environment, and it only takes a short trip to the outskirts of any Indian city to see the damages of plastic waste on the land. But paper bags are actually equally bad, as producing them implies cutting trees, using chemicals to change the color and huge amounts of water. The only sustainable solution is to produce bags made of recycled paper out of old newspaper for example.

Most often, retail shops in India buy and hand out plastic bags to their customers because they are much cheaper than the ones made of paper… not to mention recycled paper. To make it affordable and environmentally friendly, Ecoad has partnered with an organization that works with 60 underprivileged women in slums and villages who produce different types of recycled paper bags. Ecoad thus buys directly to them the strong, high-quality, manufactured bags made of recycled newspaper that they ordered, and provides them with jobs and a good salary – each woman earns an average of 3000 roupies per month thanks to this organization. Here is the second impact of Ecoad: social development.

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But the true innovation – and the third impact – lies in the small space that Rohit and his co-founder decided to dedicate to advertisements on each of their recycled paper bag. They give the opportunity to small businesses to buy this space and place ads or special offers in order to gain visibility among local consumers and reach more people directly in their shopping routine. Local businesses can chose which shop they want their ad in, which enables them to highly target their customers.

Putting ads in the form of discounts or coupons is an efficient way of pushing the client to pay more attention to it, but most importantly to assess the impact of the whole operation, because the client has to bring the bag back to the local business to benefit from the promotion. This also enables Ecoad to use some of the bags again and give a third life to the paper.

Ecoad, which is part of UnLtd India since 2012, is still at a pilot stage in a specific, quite wealthy area of Pune, where customers are educated people with a good buying capacity.

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But Rohit is a very ambitious young man: passionate about his work and eager to fight for the environment, his plan is to create a community of environmentally conscious people and companies in India, where members could provide and be provided with products and services offering eco-friendly solutions. Let’s all wish him luck!

May 13, 2013
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A particular enterprise

One morning, back to a few weeks ago during our stay in Mumbai, we went to a special meeting: we had to be at 11.30am sharp in front of Victoria Station – also known under its new marathi name, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Who where we supposed to meet? Some of the 5,000 dabbawallahs of Mumbai, these lunch bow delivery men with a flawless organization, who carry up to 175,000 meals a day to the office workers in the city.

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Let us explain a bit more. Every day, hundreds of thousands of Indian workers leave their home in the suburbs of Mumbai at dawn and hop on trains to reach their office somewhere in the centre of the city, sometimes after more than one hour of transportation. Every day, their spouse cook them a homemade meal for lunch, as Indians are still very reluctant to eating in fast food restaurants or even eating something that was not prepared at home – mostly because diets vary depending on their casts. Every day, after their husband’s departure for work, these wives leave the meals they had time to prepare with a delivery man, a dabbawallah (literally meaning box person) who collect dozens of boxes in his neighbourhood and takes a train to the city. Every day just before noon, thousands of dabbawallahs arrive in the 3 main train stations of Mumbai and dispatch the 175,000 meals that will be delivered safe and sound to the right person. Every day, each office worker gets exactly his lunch on time and as expected, before sending back the empty box to his house through the same organization.

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And the system is almost unerring. Research estimate that the error rate of this big enterprise is less than one every 6 million deliveries, thanks to its beehive-like functioning, the use of precise writings and – obviously – a little bit of magic. And their logistics is so surprising and stunning that the dabbawallahs are even the subject of a case study by Havard Business School.

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 At 11.30am this morning, we stood on the front of the station and gazed at the procession of the tiffins, the other word for these iron boxes that contain the meals of the Mumbaikars. A dabbawallah shows up, carrying a tray of tiffins on his head. He drops it off on the pavement, divides the tiffins up in several groups according to some logic we would never get, then loads an empty cart with them and leaves to deliver the right meal to the right person, right on time. And this goes on for an hour, in front of the few cameras of the small group of impressed tourists that we were part of that day.

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April 29, 2013
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m.Paani, an innovative way of using the value of the Indian BOP customers to improve their lives

The bottom of the pyramid (BOP), these millions of people living with less than $2 per day, is a market on its own that is increasingly attracting big corporate companies. The social enterprise m.Paani enables those underprivileged customers to earn loyalty points for their spends on their mobile phones. In exchange for those points, they will earn products or services improving their daily lives : safe-water filtration systems, literacy courses, solar lamps…

Video with english subtitles available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abS_CZ42FJM

April 20, 2013
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SliceBiz, the Ghanean hybrid platform between venture capital and crowdfunding

A new project was just launched in Ghana : SliceBiz, an innovative investment platform that will revolutionize financing for African start-ups! A few weeks ago, we were lucky to meet and interview William Senyo, CEO of this great social enterprise…

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Will first started by explaining the “4 facts you need to know” to understand the story behind SliceBiz :

-       Africa has a growing middle class, with very good disposable income;

-       There are still many problems with the internet on the continent but mobile is well developed;

-       More and more young, innovative Africans are doing amazing things;

-       But most of these things are made in backyards, staying small and stagnant, even if they have great potential.

According to him, what is really missing in Africa is simple: funding. And this is where SliceBiz, who won the Accr Startup Weekend, wants to take action: by finding a way to apprehend those 4 previous things altogether in order to answer this lack of funding.

That’s for the – solid – theory.

Concretely? They will link the great mobile infrastructure and smart ideas, and create a strong framework of start-ups, making it appealing for the growing middle-class of Africa to invest small amounts of money to fund these businesses. Or to say it differently, they are adapting crowdfunding to the specificities of the African continent.other-founders-2

But it goes further than that: SliceBiz is actually a smart mix of crowdfunding and venture capital.

Because Africa is not culturally ready yet to give even small amounts of money online, it was not possible for William and his team to create a crowdfunding platform “the European way” (see KissKissBankBank, Ulule,…). “Here, he says, you have to know the person to give them a dollar”.

“That’s the only way we can nurture African growth. African projects funded by African people.”

So they came up with an innovative business model: the start-up entering the platform will give up part of its equity to investors, who will get share capital in return for their investment. By becoming part of the capital, these middle-class investors will be encouraged to truly take part into the growth and success of the company. They will become mentors and be able to donate time and competences in order to provide good advice on key specific subjects (marketing, law…). And after 2 years, they will be allowed to take out. It actually works like any venture capitals, the only difference being that existing venture capitals in Africa do not fund start-ups or small businesses. Targeting the investment force of the growing middle-class and attracting them with a model where they can both invest money and be part of the project, is a solution to this lack of interest or trust from classical financing organisations into start-ups.

SliceBiz will also be charging matching fees for every investment, and 10% of the start-up’s equity will go to the platform in order to finance the network. Indeed, an entire ecosystem will be created around these start-ups, providing them with offline activities, knowledge and connexions, equipments, legal advice… all of this being funded by the matching fees, ensuring that star-ups will not have to pay for these services in exchange for giving up part of their equity.

The platform will start with 10 start-ups, who will all have a strong technological component. SliceBiz decided not to focus on one particular area to begin with, but they might chose to specialize into one sector or another later.

Let’s see how it evolves… chances are, we will soon see many new start-ups booming in Ghana !

April 16, 2013
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(Français) Femmes, karité et commerce équitable: la recette gagnante de StarShea Network

StarShea : le karité, et commerce équitable

L’une des grandes forces des entrepreneurs sociaux c’est de savoir utiliser des compétences et des marchés existants, pour les remodeler et en faire des business à la fois plus durables et éthiques.
Et c’est exactement ce à quoi travaille StarShea au Ghana depuis 4 ans. A l’origine, le constat fait par PlaNet Finance : dans le nord du pays, beaucoup de femmes travaillaient le karité, mais en tiraient très peu de profit. Cette région est la plus pauvre du pays, et ces femmes, obligées pour des besoins de liquidité de vendre leurs productions lorsque les prix du marché étaient au plus bas, étaient entièrement dépendantes du bon vouloir des traders se déplaçant dans les villages.
Un premier projet prend alors forme en partenariat avec SAP, et les IMF locales : optimiser les prêts pour ces femmes afin qu’elles puissent attendre la meilleure période pour vendre leurs stocks et bénéficier ainsi d’un effet de levier.
Voulant aller plus loin, PlaNet Finance et SAP décident de créer un véritable social business autour du karité. S’appuyant sur des ONG locales d’épargne solidaire qui ont aidé à organiser les populations en communautés de travailleuses, StarShea, filiale de PlaNet Finance, propose aux femmes de vendre les noix et le beurre de karité à ses clients en échange d’une petite commission sur chaque transaction, et développent même le principe d’un prépaiement sur les prévisions de récoltes des femmes. La marge de StarShea étant faible, ils estiment qu’il faut 10 000 femmes en plus des 5 000 actuelles, pour atteindre une production en assez grande quantité et atteindre le point mort.
Pour toutes ces femmes, c’est donc un débouché non seulement régulier mais surtout sécurisé. Le projet est actuellement financé par le capital fourni par PlanetFinance ainsi qu’un prêt sans intérêt de SAP. L’objectif à 5 ans : atteindre le point mort et transférer le capital aux femmes. Profits et bénéfices seront réinvestis dans la structure, et les femmes sont formées pour qu’elles puissent ensuite s’emparer de la gouvernance de la structure.
Au-delà des formations, SAP a développé un logiciel innovant accessible sur tout téléphone portable pour donner accès aux informations du marché. Rural Market Connect permet aux femmes de recevoir les commandes des clients en temps réel, mais aussi de connaître le cours des produits qu’elles vendent sur le marché.
Les atouts de StarShea pour les clients sont nombreux : une très grande réactivité de la production (3 semaines pour un container face à une moyenne de un à plusieurs mois) ; fiabilité de la production avec un principe de responsabilité communautaire (si une femme ne peux fournir son sac, le groupe s’engage à le faire à sa place) ; certifications bio et commerce équitable pour certaines des communautés, etc.
Les défis sont encore nombreux aujourd’hui : diminuer le coût de revient des femmes pour augmenter leur marge, développer de nouveaux usages du karité, développer la filiale dans le pays… Mais le projet est déjà une grande réussite, et prouve une fois encore la force du modèle du commerce équitable.