The Social Enterprise Frontier

October 14, 2009

By Grant Tudor

Social entrepreneurship in the neo-natal clinics of India.  Photo: Grant Tudor

Social entrepreneurship in the neo-natal clinics of India. Photo: Grant Tudor

I’ve been in India two weeks now, talking social enterprise with some remarkably rare changemakers (social enterprise is an explosive field being explored here on campus by emerging groups like the GW Social Enterprise Forum). Last Monday I sat in a cramped concrete office deep in Chennai’s industrial park, drinking tea with Mr. Mukundan – a wrinkled but wildly energetic old man – as he discussed his low-cost alternative energy stove that runs off 100% plant oil… something that will not only positively impact the pocketbooks of the world’s rural poor, but help tackle one of the largest, albeit strangest, causes of global greenhouse gas emissions: kerosene stoves.

Earlier, I paid a visit to Mr. Vivekanandan in rural Coimbatore: 67 years old, 10th grade level of education, and a passion for his work that is rare for most. He’s invented a mechanical food grinder for rural communities that traditionally grind their wheat and spices by hand (or with expensive, inefficient machines). With a brilliant business model under his belt – to sell the machines on credit to rural distributors, who in turn sell it for cash to a village entrepreneur who runs and maintains it for the entire community – he’s poised to transform a critical but strenuous facet of life for low-income households.

I hopped in a cab today and drove a couple hours into the rural outskirts of Chennai. At 2pm, it was the peak of India’s stifling and wet midday sun. I sat in a small, sterile room of a neonatal clinic, sweating and scribbling notes as Dr. Sathya Jeganathan – a soft-spoken, elderly woman draped in a maroon sari – explained her efforts to save thousands of newborns with her low-cost infant warmer. With the medical innovation up and running (one that can be manufactured and maintained by local carpenters and electricians rather than expensive and unattainable biomedical engineers), she’s on a brilliant start. I walked through the facility, watching nurses attend to frail, premature newborns alive only by the ingenuity of this woman.

Of course, changemaking means facing down the ancien régime. Dr. Jeganathan explained how the World Bank is pouring millions into the central government’s health coffers, permitting it to purchase expensive, un-maintainable medical equipment from well-connected domestic and international corporations. If the government can freely cash in by the millions from the World Bank, where’s the incentive to be cost-effective, prudent and accountable to Indian taxpayers? Where’s the incentive to search for the grassroots innovations within its own country? Where’s the incentive to pay attention to Dr. Jeganathan’s invention and purchase it instead for the hundreds of millions of Indians living in rural villages, and bring it to scale? Here, it’s the entrenched interests of the World Bank against a dilapidated but brilliant neonatal clinic.

My ride back to Chennai was definitely marked by a deep, burning enmity for certain development institutions. In spite of the Bank, though, and in spite of the still rivers of open sewage and roadside shantytowns, I’m still hit by a tremendous sense of what’s possible. Coincidently, I stared out the window while listening to a podcast lecture by Geoff Mulgan who had this to say: “If the great exploratory challenges of the past generation were ones like putting a man on the moon, perhaps those of this generation are ones like eliminating child malnutrition, or stopping human trafficking.” No disrespect to astronauts, but I’m absolutely convinced that these social innovators are the new frontier.

Grant is a senior majoring in International Affairs concentrating in International Development and International Economics and minoring in Political Science. He’s studied in both Argentina and Kenya and works passionately in the field of social entrepreneurship.

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