How to get a social enterprise off the ground: The importance of surveying the field
So you’ve got the next Great Idea to solve a social or environmental problem; or the beginnings of the next Great Idea — where do you go from here? How do you manifest your idea into something tangible — an organization, enterprise or product?
In this series we follow a young social entrepreneur traveling through India and exploring these questions, hoping to set the groundwork for her own organization. We’ll track her progress in weekly updates as she takes part in a national immunization day on polio and consults experts and health workers on how best to incorporate mobile phones into the operation. She saw a need: those who already had polio were seeking – and not finding – help. Her solution: develop a program that allows health workers to transmit basic information via mobile phone to doctors in nearby cities who would be able to offer free-of-cost corrective surgery. Read the first installment here.
The initial setbacks that come with starting a social enterprise can be endless without proper preparation. So, before, leaping into this endeavor, I’ve decided to spend some time understanding other social enterprises, asking questions like: how did they attain funding, who did they approach, what is the level of sustainability and quality of the organization or product?
While I’m here to see how we can best use mobile phones in this polio campaign, I’ve also been open to visiting other social enterprises- be it schools, farms, or literacy programs.
In Punjab, away from the chatter of polio in UP and Bihar, I got a taste of two large social enterprises: Bharti Foundation’s vast network of schools for the underprivileged and TruMilk’s innovative approach to dairy farming.
Bharti Foundation, set up by telecom entrepreneur Sunil Mittal, is transforming education in rural India with its schools. By creating a solid framework, which all the schools operate off, the foundation is able to offer some consistency in its level of education – one that stands far above those of government schools.
The teachers here arrive on time. One of the head teachers even told me that he had left his family in a distant city, Dharamsala, to come work here in Punjab; he was so inspired by Bharti’s mission and its approach. Teaching for him became a refuge and a source of hope for the problems that plague modern India.
In Hindi, he said to me, “Ma’am, there are other ways to make money, and make much more money, but teaching these children makes me feel so good and hopeful – that’s why I do it.” I could relate, as an aspiring social entrepreneur.
The most notable aspect of Bharti’s schools is that they do more than just offer an education; they provide children with a meal, give them uniforms, teach them about being environmentally-friendly, and even have them garden their own patch of vegetables.
Yet, in areas like Punjab, they still struggle to fill classrooms – children disappear if there’s a marriage in the village, during harvesting season they’re taken back to neighboring states of Haryana and UP, and they struggle with disease. Plus, Bharti has stiff competition from government schools and other private schools, even though Bharti doesn’t charge a penny.
As a foundation, they’re only a few years old. Institutionally, they are trying to determine what the best blueprint for all the schools — which span Punjab, Haryana, UP, West Bengal, and Tamil Nadu — will be.
While the Bharti Foundation is a nonprofit social enterprise, relying on the support of partnerships, donors, and the success of its mother company, Airtel, TruMilk is a for-profit enterprise with a strong social footprint.
Initiated by a Non-Resident Indian (NRI), Jassi Khanghura, TruMilk and Macro Dairies employs female entrepreneurs who each own five cows, working daily at the farm to ensure their health, good production of milk, and sanitation.
One of the most familiar sites in India, especially Punjab, is the milkman, carrying a large tin container of milk on his cycle, weaving through alleys to home-deliver each morning. Now, some families have forgone this ritual for milk packets sold by large companies like Amul and Verka. Bought at a local vendor, the pouches are brought home, boiled, and then used.
TruMilk brought a European style to dairy farming, by setting up a plant, keeping cows nearby and under their control, keeping the milk in a strict cold-chain at all times, eliminating any exposure of the milk to contaminants, and pasteurizing it. In contrast, other companies collect milk from a wide array of farmers, check it for fat content, and transport it long distances without a strong cold chain.
Yet, the most fascinating aspect of TruMilk was its decision to help local village women who earned little or nothing before. The women bear responsibility for five cows; not only do they oversee those cows, they actually own them. That gives them some financial stability and a regular job on the farm provides them an income of approximately 1,200 Rs (about $26 USD) every two weeks.
The women’s success extends to the well-being of their families: many women use the money to send their children to schools, buy more sanitary products, pay for doctor’s visits, and improve the quality of their household.
Khanghura, though a Punjabi himself, was raised abroad in the UK. It was a local election that brought him back to Punjab. During his visits to constituencies in rural areas, he discovered the dire need for better dairy farming practices and employment opportunities for the poor. So, he devised this project. Today, with about 1,000 female entrepreneurs and a fleet of cattle and TruMilk has entered the domestic market with success. While it is currently only available in Punjab, people in nearby Delhi are asking when it will launch there.
I found that seeing the work of other social enterprises before tackling something myself was a smart move. Not only is it a motivating force but it illustrates what one should strive for. Both these organizations are offering a service and product that is top-quality, surpassing that of its competitors. Both inquired in the field and did rigorous research before foraying into their respective fields. Both have invested in testing ideas, developing them, and seeing if in fact they are successful.
For me, the following week will be spent in collecting ideas: how do the health workers themselves think we can utilize mobile phones? What is their capacity? What language should it be in?
I have a feeling the best ideas will come from them. And this is the most important stage – it can inflate or deflate this project completely.