While most poverty alleviation programmes focus traditionally on welfare and health, microcredit, training and education, a new form of social entrepreneurship using technology is emerging.
Leading the way is Technology Informatics Design Endeavour or TIDE. Based in Bangalore, this not-for profit organisation acts as a conduit between technology-generating institutions and end-users of technology, who are most often rural communities living in difficult, deprived, and deficient circumstances.
Chief executive Svati Bhogle says TIDE was conceived in 1993, in the belief that technology can become an instrument of social transformation, though the original goal was not driven by the most altruistic of intentions.
“There were several socially-engaged scientists who believed they could use their intelligence, their knowledge, their equipment facilities in their laboratories to develop products for very poor people,” she says. “But their mandate was not to take and disseminate this; their mandate was just to prove that there is a technology that the institute can develop, which can deliver a public good.”
“We found a gap in the knowledge that was created in a research institution and the need of the rural communities – the very poor people, and we identified this as a missing link in the innovation chain, and we said that the end point of research is not just proof of concept, but commercial exploitation of that product.”
Today, TIDE continues to devote itself to promoting sustainable development through technological interventions, with its competence residing largely in biomass energy. “We’re looking at biomass energy combustion products. We’re not looking at changing the fuel systems, but we’re just looking at changing the efficiencies of changing equipment. We do this largely because the skill level in the local artisanal industry is very high, and by changing equipment, they do not have to change the process. So we’d rather adapt to their circumstances through energy-efficient interventions,” says Bhogle.
Industries they work with include those that are farm-based and labour-intensive. In Tamil Nadu for example, TIDE works with the textile industry, where bleaching and dyeing is a major activity that requires a lot of thermal energy. In Kerala, its focus is on Ayurvedic medicine which is a cottage industry there. Because crops like coconut, pepper and cardamom need to be cultivated to fuel the industry, TIDE works with farmers there on using less energy-intensive methods.
“We want to make these industries more productive, more profitable, and we also want the working environment in these industries to improve, so that the health of the workers improves.”
To date, TIDE has completed more than 100 projects and has about 10 ongoing projects at any given point of time. Equipment installed by TIDE annually conserves 29,000 tonnes of biomass and reduces CO2 emissions by 52,200 tons a year. It has also generated the creation of rural wealth.
“We create rural enterprises whom we have equipped with production centres with skills to produce and market their products, and the rural enterprises – basically an entrepreneur plus his team of maybe a mason and a transport system built around it – because these are remote locations, they would go and market them themselves to the rural industry and then this is sold to the industry at a profit margin of at least a (marked up) rate of 15 per cent of the cost of the product and the cost of marketing the product as well.”
Though TIDE has been funded by the Indian government at the district, state and central government levels, as well as by international and bilateral funding agencies, Bhogle says there are plans to make the organisation fully self-sufficient.
“One of the challenges is that we’re dependent on grant funds, and the second challenge we see is that the kind of skills we need are very high value skills, but we’re not able to compensate them at the level that they should be compensated. So we realise that we need to create our own funds, and that is why we say that when we scale up, we scale up as a for-profit company, alongside the non-profit organisation.”
“The non-profit would concentrate on innovation; the commercial unit would concentrate on commercialisation and achieving scale, and the profits from the commercial (unit) would be directed back to the non-profit. There is no precedent for a non-profit company starting a for-profit venture – and that is also the challenge for us.”
Svati Bhogle took part in the INSEAD Social Entrepreneurship Programme held at the school’s Asia campus in Singapore earlier this year.