International development?

It has now been almost 9 months since I spent a brief period in Mumbai, India, working with 3 exceptional social enterprises. I work with several social ventures that look to grow and scale; my role is to help them to do so, be that through articulating their value proposition, helping forecast their financial position or measuring the impact they are creating, or in any other way.

One thing that has stuck with me is the cultural differences and the meaning of ‘international development’ and ‘developing economies’ particularly in relation to Indian ventures. On my first evening in Mumbai, I remember vividly a conversation I had with an employee at Grassroutes in which we discussed a developing economy, and the western world’s role in this. He immediately drew attention to my use of the phrase developing economy and asked me what I meant by this. I was referring to the economic growth and GDP. He agreed with me in terms of financial and economic development, but he highlighted the fact that GDP didn’t account for happiness and wellbeing. Indeed the difference between the UK and India seemed vast. Having never been to India before, I saw the levels of poverty and deprivation in the media and wasn’t sure how I would react when confronted directly with this. I spent time with a venture based in slums, and what struck me was that on the whole people seemed content, even happy. What defines happiness? In the west, too often it seems that this is based on material possessions, with people feeling a sense of entitlement, something which isn’t present in the mentality in India from what I could see. Instead people were happy as they were together and had a sense of community. I mentioned this to one International Development Student who claimed that this was just because these people ‘didn’t know any better’ and that they didn’t have access to the same resources. Personally I felt that this was incredibly short sighted. Who are we to say what is ‘better’? And I remember visiting one slum, and although there was 1 toilet to hundreds of people, everyone had a smartphone – a very good indication as to why technology companies see such potential in India.

This ‘not knowing any better’ view was firmly disproved to me during this conversation with the Grassroutes employee. He recounted a story of a small village in India in which the women had to walk for 10 miles a day to find fresh water. Based on our conditions and standard of life in the west, we saw this as a terrible situation to be in (of course there are several problems with this from a hygiene perspective). Funds were raised and a fresh water well was built in this village. Women no longer had to walk 10 miles to fetch fresh water, instead they had it, literally, on tap. However, what wasn’t accounted for was the cultural effect this would have. The level of suicides among women increased in this village. Given the cultural situation in this particular village, women weren’t able to actively travel without purpose. This meant that they lost the 10 mile walk during which they would meet friends and speak. Instead they were now socially isolated within their homes for several hours a day, which was seen to be the reason for the increased suicides.

One venture I work with is run by someone of Indian decent. The concept was to get people to eat more healthy food as a family. Although after research and piloting, they found that there wasn’t a market due to pretty significant cultural differences – the UK has very different social eating habits. As a result they had to completely re-evaluate their proposition and pivot.

The purpose of this post isn’t to criticise behaviour or attitudes, but more to highlight differences and the need for an open mind. Simply because we live in the western world and see ourselves as more developed, doesn’t mean that we need to enforce that upon others.

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The Indian Adventure: Purushwadi and Grassroutes

2014-03-04 07.29.03I had now been in India for 8 days, and all of the consultancy work in Mumbai was complete. As part of the trip, I had been fortunate enough to be invited to spend a few nights in Purushwadi, which is a village in central India. It was a 5 hour coach ride, during which time I witnessed some ‘interesting’ motorway driving and some breath-taking scenery. What made Purushwadi so special was that it was a self-sustaining village which had no electricity of running water. This was facilitated by an organisation called Grassroutes, who do a lot of work abroad to help educate people on the way in which other cultures live.

Because of Grassroutes direct link with Purushwadi, portable toilets with occasional running water had been installed for visitors; as had concrete block tents. As you can imagine sleeping on a concrete block mattress wasn’t the most comfortable, but after a long day, where I slept was irrelevant.

The village itself was incredible; stray animals were common – we seemed to adopt a dog – and the villagers were very resourceful. I quickly discovered that dung was used to insulate houses, which, if applied correctly, created a smooth floor, kept houses cool and in fact had no fragrance at all. The amount of work which everyone undertook on a daily basis, sowing and picking crops was astounding. Something which will live long in my memory is playing cricket with the local kids, who, of course, were far better than any of us.

The views were amazing; given that there was no electricity and that we were on the equator, you wake up when the sun comes up – around 6am – and you go to bed when the sun goes down; by 8pm it was pitch black. Without artificial lights which curse our skies, the sky was lit up by hundreds of stars, something I had never witnessed.

From a business point of view, it was a huge personal learning experience. In the west we are focused on material possessions and working for money, because that’s the culture in which we live. In Purushwadi, they have no need for money; everyone eats from the land and works hard to ensure that food is available for themselves and their community. People seemed incredibly content and probably happier given that they didn’t have the constant worry of how they were going to afford to pay bills. Of course there are obvious drawbacks, most importantly the lack of healthcare, however, this had been countered by their link with Grassroutes, who made a Doctor available to them regularly.

I left Purushwadi after 3 days having had an unforgettable experience which opened my eyes and changed my opinions on so many things. Upon returning to Mumbai, I had 9 hours until making my way to Mumbai International Airport to begin my epic 14 hour return journey. Without a shadow of a doubt, my view on ‘international development’ had been hugely altered (no doubt a topic I will discuss in the future), and I had learnt a great deal about business abroad and been proud to have had a part in 3 such ambitious and successful growing social ventures.

This blog is also available on the Kindle Store and you can follow me on Twitter (@benpfsmith) to find out more or get in touch.

The Indian Adventure : Avanti Fellows

By this point I’d been in India for 4 days and therefore had adjusted to the time difference and my new surroundings (the heat and humidity on the other hand was something I would never become accustomed to).

Having already worked with one organisation, I knew what to expect, albeit not fully given that all 3 enterprises operated in different sectors.

Company number 2 were called Avanti Fellows. They are an exciting and innovative company, attracting International investment and mentorship, most notably from Harvard University. Indeed the organisation has had such an impact that one of their Co-Founders has been named in the Forbes 30 under 30 to watch.

In India there is a chasm between the super-rich and the very poor. The school system in India isn’t spectacular in terms of quality, yet exams to get into the best further education institutions are immensely difficult. For the wealthy, this doesn’t pose a huge problem as they can afford extra tuition and even to go to a University abroad. However, this isn’t an option for the poor – to put this into context around 21% (close to 250 million) of the Indian population fall below the defined poverty line. Avanti Fellows have created an innovative solution by providing video peer learning facilities at low prices. Students are expected to read the teaching material before the session, then large groups of children (as many as 40) gather in a hot class room in slums and other deprived areas to watch a video of a teaching setting them a task. There is then a break during which all of the students work together to solve the problem, the idea being the students who grasp the concept best teach the others, thus enhancing both the knowledge of the learner and the teacher. They already have some proven results of how this method improves the chances of these individuals passing the higher education entrance exams. Branding and marketing, enhancing brand awareness and attracting more potential students to match their plans to scale was the support they required.

This organisation were genuinely inspiring and a fantastic example of a social enterprise who have a solid business model underpinning the social good which they are trying to achieve.

Seeing the passion of the Founders made it special enough, but having the opportunity to visit a session in action which took place in a slum, not only really put their venture into perspective, but also the standards of living which some people in India are subjected to.

I don’t throw these types of compliments around often (if ever), but I genuinely believe that Avanti Fellows and the work that they do could change the landscape of education around the world. It was an honour to work with them and it is certainly an organisation which should be looked out for.

This blog is also available on the Kindle Store and you can follow me on Twitter (@benpfsmith) to find out more or get in touch

30 day challenge – Caffeine you fiend

KitchenCraft-Italian-Six-Cup-Espresso-Coffee-Maker--with-Clear-LidTowards the end of 2013, ‘30 day challenges’ were getting a lot of publicity and it became the thing to do to push yourself regularly. For those of you who aren’t aware, a 30 day challenge is setting yourself a new challenge each month, be that doing something new or giving up something you rely upon. The idea being that you constantly develop new skills and push yourself, whilst keeping the challenges fresh and exciting given the relatively short time period.

So, January came along, and I was racking my brains to think of something to do. My friends were very helpful and gave me some great ideas for coming months. In the end, January became caffeine free month.

I should probably put this into a little bit of perspective. Since living in Italy last year, I picked up the coffee culture and became a little obsessed with coffee, particularly espresso. It wouldn’t be uncommon for me to drink 5 or 6 a day. Although in small quantities coffee is good for your heart, this was maybe a little extreme. To quantify what I mean when I say that I gave up caffeine, I’m referring to high caffeine products, such as coffee, tea and energy drinks. Interestingly, when I researched into caffeine, several other products contain a surprising amount of caffeine, such as ice cream, painkillers, sunflower seeds and soft vitamin water drinks. I also discovered that in America, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have set no requirement for manufacturers to disclose the amount of caffeine contained in a product on the nutritional guidelines!

Unsurprisingly, the first 5 or 6 days of the challenge, I was shattered most of the time. This lasted for the first 10 days. I also occasionally found myself with a banging headache, which I deduced must be related somehow.

Culturally I also found not having caffeine a little odd. When you turn up to a meeting, the first question you tend to be asked is whether you’d like a tea or coffee. When I said no, I often got a look as though to say that there must be something wrong with me. It did prove a conversation starter however. Upon telling people about the reason why I wasn’t having tea or coffee, people would always have a reaction, mostly along the lines of “ooh, I couldn’t do that”.

I think much of the effects of not drinking caffeine had on me were psychological. I tried drinking decaffeinated coffee, but although that made me feel more awake mentally, I very quickly realised that I didn’t like the taste, so I gave up on that idea.

However, by the time that the month was half old, all the headaches and tiredness had disappeared. In fact, I realised that I didn’t miss it at all. When it came to February, I sat down in a coffee shop to read the paper, and upon taking my first sip of my first coffee for a month, was immediately hit with the strength, and I struggled to finish it.

So, was the challenge a success? It certainly challenged me and although I have now started drinking tea and coffee again, it is definitely not to the same extent as it was before. I can happily go a few days without coffee and feel fine.

This blog is also available on the Kindle Store and you can follow me on Twitter (@benpfsmith) to find out more or get in touch.