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What is the right way to help the poor?

4 Nov

Microfinance as it started in Bangladesh is a social business. i.e. The microfinance institution (MFI) is either a non-profit or is owned by its borrowers in case it is a for-profit institution (e.g. Grameen Bank). This ensured that most of these organizations in Bangladesh are single bottom-line, pro-poor organizations whose primary and only mission is helping the poor in a sustainable manner. While most MFIs are non-profits, there is an emerging trend of commercializing microfinance by establishing for-profit MFIs.

In India, a few MFIs have raised equity from socially minded investors and also commercially oriented venture capitalists and private equity firms.Some of these for-profit MFIs also had plans of going public and SKS Microfinance became the first MFI from India to go public in August 2010. This was not appreciated by Prof. Muhammad Yunus who said that this is not the right direction. For those interested in knowing more, the two debates at Clinton Global Initiative and at Asia Society offer a fascinating perspective.

The last few days have been pretty unprecedented for microfinance in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India.Here is a summary of what has happened and some of its potential implications:

In the state of Andhra Pradesh in India, which is the home of several for-profit MFIs, several borrowers were facing extreme stress from excessive debt due to excessive borrowing from multiple MFIs and also from local money-lenders. There were also some reported cases of suicides due to debt-stress.

Extreme debt-stress amongst borrowers forced the Andhra Pradesh state government to implement several measures to protect the interests of the borrowers. The Principal Secretary of rural development at Andhra Pradesh clearly stated certain aspects that are non-negotiable in the operations of MFIs:

“We are very clear that certain fundamentals are non-negotiable for example, there cannot be any coercive mechanism, second thing is that there cannot be any multiple lending and third thing is that there cannot be lending without due diligence. I think these are fundamentals, beyond that certainly we are prepared to discuss and then we are prepared to look at it with open mind as far as the modalities are concerned, we are with open mind and we can certainly look at any difficulties that are arising and then dissolve it.”

Since then, Vijay Mahajan, the CEO of Basix which is a large MFI in India, and one of the most respected microfinance leaders summarized the problem and stated that these events will serve as a course correction:

“So it was basically situation where the sector’s incentive structures had gone wrong and I think that corrective has happened. We will rebuild the sector along the right lines and I am sure we will contribute to financial inclusion in the country but all over the country not just Andhra Pradesh.”

Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, Center for Financial Inclusion also writes on similar lines:

“The blame for this unfortunate situation falls most squarely on the MFIs that failed to restrain aggressive growth even as the market became increasingly saturated. Investors must also swallow a big spoonful of blame. Because they paid dearly for shares in the MFIs, they need fast growth to make their investments pay off.”

I believe that the path of course correction has just started and if correctly done with the help of regulators it will be of great benefit to the poor. But the next few months are likely to be turbulent in Andhra Pradesh. MFIs in Andhra Pradesh are not reporting their usual level of collections from borrowers and as a result the finances of the MFIs who are operating in Andhra Pradesh are likely to be strained.

Banks have also slowed down their lending to MFIs and several loans that were to be disbursed to MFIs located all over India have been put on hold over the last few weeks. Banks are slowly resuming lending, but their approach is likely to be cautious for several months to come.

Ajiwika, our microfinance partner works in the states of Jharkhand and Bihar. Unlike Andhra Pradesh, these two states have low levels of penetration of microfinance and Ajiwika is not having any difficulty collecting repayments from borrowers. However, we are waiting on our partner bank to disburse the loan to Ajiwika for profiles for which we have already raised the guarantee (See for profiles by Raised status on

Although this situation happened in Andhra Pradesh, it is going to affect poor families all over India over the next few months. With banks becoming more cautious in lending to microfinance, it is going to slow down the availability of microcredit in regions like Jharkhand, Bihar, Kutch and others that have low levels of microcredit.

At a broader level, this raises a bigger question. Is the external investor driven profit-maximizing approach appropriate for solving complex problems such as poverty? Can it create unintended consequences especially for those who have so little, as we saw in the case of Andhra Pradesh?

A desire to help fellow humans is the primary motivation for United Prosperity and our loan guarantors. Social Businesses, that carry a single bottom-line of only helping the poor in a sustainable manner, as enunciated by Prof. Yunus, are certainly the need of the hour.

Aravind Eye Care – The world in the eyes of a Social Business

4 Aug

I have been travelling the last few weeks and I am currently in India attending to some family matters and work. I have been spending most of my time in the city of Coimbatore and I recently visited an eye hospital run by the Aravind Eye care system.

Their mission is ‘To eradicate needless blindness by providing appropriate, compassionate and high quality eye care to all’.

What amazed me was how they were living their mission. The technology they use is very modern. The treatment is amongst the best in the world and Aravind has one of the highest treatment success rates in the world. No patient, however poor is refused treatment and several thousands of patients get free treatment.

Shubha and I visited Aravind with a patient at around 3:00 PM in the evening. We did not have any appointment. We entered the reception area and then we were quickly asked to register the patient. Since several patients come from far away villages for treatment, Aravind has done away with appointments all together. The registration fee is Rs. 50 ($1 and 10 cents). For poor patients who cannot afford to pay, it is waived. Aravind subsidizes the treatment for poor patients who cannot pay by the income it earns from those who can afford to pay. As soon as the registration was complete, we were ushered to the first testing station by a nurse. The patient went through a series of examinations – Refraction,  Preliminary examination, Eye and System examination, Dilatation and a Final examination with a doctor. The doctor then recommended an additional consultation with a specialist. We were done with the treatment by 5:30 PM. We were constantly being ushered from one station to another by the nurse and all steps went through with clock-work efficiency.

In some cases the patients require surgery or additional tests for glaucoma etc. All these are often done the same day itself and each of these additional procedures costs most patients Rs. 100 ($2 and 20 cents) or Rs. 200($4 and 40 cents). (Note: Health insurance is still not common in India, so these are actual costs of the treatment and not the copay amount or deductible).

Several aspects are truly noteworthy about Aravind:

The system is designed bottom up for providing eyecare to the poor and very often illiterate patients. All stations are numbered so patients can be simply told ‘Go to station 10’ for example. Additionally a nurse also ushers the patient from one station to another so even those patients who have no escorts are well taken care of.

The treatment through various stations happens extremely fast with minimal waiting between stations. It is almost like an assembly line. This minimizes loss of income for patients.

Their scale is also pretty massive. The Coimbatore hospital treats 1100 patients a day, works 6 days a week and has 140 doctors, 700 nurses and ward staff, and 35 administrative staff.

The doctors and specialists perform only the critical tasks for which their expertise is truly needed. The rest of the tasks are performed by well trained nurses. As a result doctors at Aravind see many more patients in day than doctors in other clinics. Thereby they gain more experience in treating common ailments and also treating rare conditions of the eye that doctors in other clinics rarely come across.

Aravind reminds me of the concept of Social Business that Muhammad Yunus talks about. I recently read Muhammad Yunus’s latest book ’Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs’. The book is literally a ‘How to’ manual distilling the decades of insight Muhammad Yunus has gathered. Having been through the journey of starting an organization that I see as a social business the book was most enjoyable and I would highly recommend the book to anyone who plans to start an organization whose primary goal is making a difference to the world in a sustainable manner.

Aravind can also be considered as a social business. It does not have for-profit investors in a traditional sense. It is not a typical charity either. It is sustainable and absolutely committed to its mission. It once again proves how imagination and commitment can make a big difference to the world.

Is a for-profit model a silver bullet for the Bottom of the Pyramid?

23 Nov

The last few months have been very hectic for me getting things operational, getting the marketing going and also trying to raise funds for operations.

Fund raising for operations is one of the biggest challenges we face and one of the questions I hear very often is why is a not-for-profit and why it isn’t a for-profit social enterprise. I explain that our model is unique, we are pioneering something new to the world, it involves crowd sourcing and support from thousands of microlenders and that a sustainable not-for-profit model or a social business model works the best for us. However, the feeling I get on several occasions is that a large number of social investors, philanthropists and even many foundations nowadays have already made up their mind on the type of organization they would like to support and believe that all social enterprises need to operate in a for-profit manner giving reasonable returns and in many cases lucrative returns to their investors.

For those who can pitch their organizations in 30 seconds indicating how their social enterprise can help mitigate a social problem and also give returns to their investors I think there are a large number of investors willing to lend an ear.

On the other hand, for those who have started non-profits however innovative, I think it is quite hard to raise operational funding. My most recent experience was in a discussion with a billionaire who thought United Prosperity was a great idea. But he simply walked away in the middle of a discussion when I told him that United Prosperity was a non-profit and I had no intention of turning it into a for-profit enterprise in the near future. And in our discussion I had also not solicited any funds.

To me these incidents serve as a cautionary tale of how far mainstream thinking and perception on social enterprises has gone from the actual ground realities. I think there are social enterprises which should be for-profit enterprises, several need to be non-profits and we need many more social businesses. In my opinion, for-profit social enterprises are not a silver bullet for all problems at the Bottom of the Pyramid and an ideological worldview that only for-profit social enterprises can scale and be sustainable can be pretty short-sighted.

My view that there is a huge role for non-profit social enterprises was further re-affirmed when I heard the presentation from Operation Asha at the IDCA Seventh International Conference-Chicago where I was also one of the speakers. Operation Asha is treating Tuberculosis (TB) in the slums of India. Despite the fact that TB is a treatable disease, it has assumed epidemic proportions in India, claiming the lives of 400,000 and newly infecting 2.2 million every year. India has the highest proportion of its population, 3.3 per capita, infected with TB and accounts for one-fifth of the world’s TB burden.

There were several things about their organization which impressed me a lot:

-They serve the poorest of the poor.

-They are very customer centric in their approach. They have outbound health workers who visit patients at the patient’s home and they also have several TB treatment centers close to the slums so that their patients don’t have to spend time and energy or miss a day’s work to visit these centers. While most government centers remain open from 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM, their centers are open from 7:00 AM to 9:00 PM so that their patients can visit the center at their convenience without missing a day’s wage.

-They practice stringent cost control and the cost of the treatment over 7 months was only $15.Interestingly, the patient needs to go to the treatment center about 70 times during the therapy over 7 months. The low cost speaks highly of the operational efficiency despite the extremely high level of transactions.

-The have leveraged the support of the community, corporate and the government very well.Operation Asha has access to free supply of medicines from the government. This takes care of 3/4th of the total cost. Further, with the space and services given by providers for a modest payment, every dollar is leveraged 35 times. Thus, with an investment of $15 only, Operation Asha is able to provide medicines and services worth $350 and treat a patient for the entire period of therapy, which lasts seven months, on average.

-Each of their centers becomes sustainable from operations in two years.

-They have achieved remarkable automation of their operations and were piloting bio-metrics with Microsoft.

I don’t know how hard it has been for them to raise funding, but anyone would agree that the work they are doing is remarkable and in many areas worthy of emulation in so many areas. We are fortunate to have organizations such as Grameen Bank, Brac, Amul and Aravind which have done remarkable work at the Bottom of the Pyramid and transformed lives. Had the ‘for-profit’ filter been applied very early in their lives, we may have never heard of these remarkable organizations.

Social capital and social business

24 Nov

Note to readers: This blog post is almost twice my usual post and I was feeling a bit guilty about it. But then, I read Seth Godin’s post today and it makes me feel much better.  


As we have been trying to raise funds for running United Prosperity, we have realized how hard it is. We had applied to the Echoing Green Foundation last year. They received more than 1500 applications for 20 Fellowships each valued at around $68,000. Based on the feedback we received, my assessment as to why we did not get funded was that United Prosperity as a venture is complex and some of the Echoing Green evaluators did not want to risk their donation of $68,000 on a venture which seems extremely complicated.


Early this year, I was also talking to a Venture Capitalist who invests mostly in for-profit social ventures. He was quite willing to invest a comparable amount in United Prosperity provided we could turn it into a for-profit venture, which could give him a multifold return on his investment in due course.


This soon made me realize that we have reasonably good amount of commercial capital available for reasonably good and sometimes bad business plans, but ‘social capital’ or capital whose primary purpose is to ‘do good’ with little or no financial returns to investors seems to be in severe short supply.


But then, the need or market for ‘doing good’ is so large, how do we expect non-profits or social ventures to build infrastructure and IT systems to do good in a scalable manner when the ‘social capital’ to build such scalable infrastructure is unavailable? That seems to be the challenge most social ventures face.


I think there are a few ways one could make such ‘capital’ available:


  1. Collect the available social capital in a scalable manner over the internet: Organizations like Kiva, and ours are doing that.
  2. Reuse the social capital: Money given as a donation is used once. But as a Kiva loan or United Prosperity guarantee, the same ‘social capital’ gets reused with multiple entrepreneurs.
  3. Use some amount of ‘social capital’ which bears slightly higher risk to free up additional commercial capital: With United Prosperity, the ‘social capital’ provided by social guarantors frees up additional commercial capital with banks.

But still there is a problem. Other than the already stretched government grants, most of the ‘social capital’ available in the world comes from donations from individuals directly or through grant making Foundations set up by philanthropists or corporations.  And most of the leading philanthropists such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Michael Dell or Pierre Omidyar have made their money from business. i.e. It is commercial capital which is eventually being turned to social capital thanks to the generosity  and public spiritedness of individuals. The same holds true with United Prosperity or Kiva – Our guarantors or Kiva lenders earn their income through commercial means and then choose to help poor entrepreneurs.


There is also an another interesting observation. Commercial capital seems to have the ability to take risks and multiply itself and expand the scope of commerce. Social capital seems to be incapable of multiplying itself and rapidly expanding the scope of ‘doing good’. To take our unsuccessful fund raising example, the VC with ‘commercial capital’ was willing to take risks and invest in United Prosperity but Echoing Green with ‘social capital’ was perhaps worried that United Prosperity will never see the light of the day in a reasonable time and unwilling to support us.  


Overall, all of us are in a situation where we have to rely on ‘commercial capital’ to transform itself into ‘social capital’ and do good for society. If our businesses are not robust and successful, we will have fewer high net-worth individuals and lesser ‘commercial capital’ getting transformed to ‘social capital’. Thus the importance of the role of business and the generosity of individuals is unquestioned in society but one major question is unanswered: Why cannot we get ‘social capital’ to multiply itself just like ‘commercial capital’?


I think it can and it should if we want to ‘do good’ in a scalable way.  One way Prof. Yunus talks about in hisNobel lecture and his recent book ‘Creating a world without poverty: Social business and the future of capitalism’  is through a new type of organization called as the ‘social business’. 


As per Prof. Yunus in his Nobel Lecture, “Social business will be a new kind of business introduced in the market place with the objective of making a difference in the world. Investors in the social business could get back their investment, but will not take any dividend from the company. Profit would be ploughed back into the company to expand its outreach and improve the quality of its product or service. A social business will be a non-loss, non-dividend company. Once social business is recognized in law, many existing companies will come forward to create social businesses in addition to their foundation activities. Many activists from the non-profit sector will also find this an attractive option. Unlike the non-profit sector where one needs to collect donations to keep activities going, a social business will be self-sustaining and create surplus for expansion since it is a non-loss enterprise. Social business will go into a new type of capital market of its own, to raise capital.”


At this point, we need to raise around $2 Million of startup capital to sustain our operations over the next four years. If we are to raise capital as a social business, we will seek out non-dividend paying equity (or a 0% interest loan). We will find public-spirited investors who will put in the new non-dividend paying equity and provide stewardship to the organization.   And at some point, when United Prosperity achieves break-even from its operations, we might be able to buyback the equity from the investors. Or the investors may even be able to sell the equity to other later stage more risk-averse investors at a premium. Prof. Yunus also talks of a social stock market where such social stocks may be listed. Social business and social stock market have the ability to increase the pool of social capital available in the world and increase the scope of doing good. The Tactical Philanthropy blog had a post on a Non-Profit IPO in Canada.  I don’t know if the Non-profit raised donations or raised equity. But who knows, social business and social stock markets may become a reality faster than we think.