Scaling Innovation: A Rural Perspective

The routes to scaling an idea and its impact are many. However, an unmistakeable pattern among those ideas that have scaled is that they have, from the start, diffused ownership over the idea. Looking at social movements like the Gene Campaign, or the work of organizations like Pratham books, it is clearly seen that their spread was engineered by not one, but a number people who championed the cause. 

So, how are social entrepreneurs enabling the percolation of ownership to different people within and outside the organization? What are the key design principles that catalyze more agents of change?  

There is a conscious effort by social entrepreneurs to design an inclusive framework that incentivizes others (monetarily or otherwise) to assume different roles. They have very often combined their social messaging with the entrepreneurial drive of people - the need to feel a sense of ownership and be trusted with discretion - to create large scale impact. To illustrate, in the rural space, social entrepreneurs are increasingly scaling their ideas by creating a trusted network of local entrepreneurs who act as their extensions in villages. Such local entrepreneurs invest in and are encouraged to become equal stakeholders in the mission of the organization. 

The work of AISECT, a robust IT Training and Educational services network for rural citizens, is a great example of this. Founded in 1985 by Santosh Choubey, its spread across 27 states and 3 Union Territories was driven by trained rural entrepreneurs who invest in the centres, enrol students, follow the curriculum provided by AISECT, and share the revenues generated. To build ownership over the mission, local entrepreneurs are trusted with a fair amount of discretion and choice. This was done by building flexibility into the DNA of the organization.  Mindful of this, AISECT gives local entrepreneurs the flexibility to choose from a bouquet of additional services to offer in their geographies. This allows them to factor in local needs and also generate additional revenues. AISECT has also implemented a unique decentralized management system to enhance ownership over the organisation.

It is interesting to hear Santosh emphasize, “To create a widespread entrepreneurial network, it is essential that compassion be built into the design of the institution”. He believes the identification of local entrepreneurs, the decentralized governance model and the choice of products and services offered at the centre play a key role in aligning the entrepreneurs with the goals of AISECT.

This approach deserves attention for three main reasons. Firstly, the decentralized network creates local opportunities. Secondly, the framework allows local entrepreneurs to adapt and cater to local needs. Lastly, and most importantly, it creates change agents within villages that gradually take ownership over the objective. 

The same principles are also reflected in the design of a more recent initiative in Orissa founded by KC Mishra and Srinivas Garudachar. eKutir is building a demand-driven system that ascertains the needs of an individual farmer and caters to it, by connecting them to appropriate products and services. This is achieved by catalyzing local entrepreneurs who continuously capture the unique needs of each farmer and become a focal point in the village to deliver different products and services.

 

eKutir makes them partners in the enterprise by placing the onus on them to invest in setting up a knowledge ‘hub’. The demand for different products in a village is fed into a central IT platform, and eKutir builds appropriate partnerships with agro-stakeholders to cater to the needs of the farmer.

According to KC Mishra, building trust within the community is paramount for the success of such a model. He states “it is essential that farmers see the local entrepreneurs as partners and not as vendors”. He believes that patience, people skills, and the open mindedness of a local entrepreneur is a prerequisite to their continued engagement with eKutir. In addition, KC Mishra cautions that IT, farmer interest groups, and other feedback loops have to be strong to ensure that local entrepreneurs do not start pushing products or services to farmers. 

Another strong network of local entrepreneurs is being created by Anup Nair in Kerala. Anup is creating clusters of local entrepreneurs, who play specialized roles and functions to strengthen and bring efficiencies to micro-enterprises (or SMEs). Anup is creating two new layers in the micro-enterprise eco-system - a ‘management team’ at the District level and ‘distributors’ at the village level - to bring efficiencies into the production and supply mechanisms. What makes this idea unique is that while it draws on the collective strength of stakeholders, each of them functions as an individual entrepreneur.  Anup believes that for an organization to grow, it must allow and incentivize people to create and innovate. This not only brings the best out of people, but also fosters a culture of healthy competition among the local entrepreneurs.

The aforementioned examples illustrate that frameworks that encourage innovation and spur entrepreneurship can motivate performance. They also provide the flexibility to adapt to local conditions and respond to any change. However, such models are not without concern. Incentives have to be carefully aligned to steer performance to reflect the social agenda of the organization. Moreover, delayed feedback loops can be a significant threat to the model, as a lapse by one or more entrepreneurs can have a ripple effect on all the others and the organization as a whole.  

That said, the unique value proposition that this approach brings is in the fact that it creates monetary, social, and psychological incentives for the ‘agents of change’. By bringing in collective ownership over mutually decided goals, this approach places the development agenda firmly in the hands of people. It also makes one look at ‘sustainability’ as not only financial sustainability, but also sustainability of the idea or the vision. The local entrepreneurs become the eyes and ears of the organization in the village, and slowly begin to play the role of a leader within the village. It will definitely be interesting to see how this model evolves and is replicated across the country in the coming few years.

(By Supriya Sankaran. Supriya is the Manager of Ashoka’s Venture program and is currently spearheading Ashoka’s initiatives in Rural Innovations and Farming)