Tag Archives: Grameen

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 UnitedProsperity.org 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.

United Prosperity – The birth of an idea

6 Nov

Let me introduce myself and share with you the story of the birth of United Prosperity. My name is Bhalchander Vishwanath, ‘Bala’ to folks who know me. I came to the US from India 8 years back almost to this day. I worked with MphasiS and subsequently Infosys, building large software systems for financial institutions.


On the side, I kept coming up with startup ideas and would spend several months researching them – an innovation and idea management system, a website for comparison shopping of elective medical procedures and many more. I would typically spend 3 to 4 months researching each idea and then evaluate whether I should seriously pursue it further.


In 2006, I was working as a consultant with PMI, a Mortgage Insurance Company.  Borrowers who have poor credit scores and cannot put the 20% down payment towards a home  cannot get a mortgage. However, if the borrower or the bank buys mortgage insurance from PMI, the bank will make a loan to the borrower and the borrower can enjoy home ownership. Over the years, Mortgage Insurance or Guarantee as it is called has significantly expanded home ownership in the US.


My idea was simple, if guarantees could help people buy homes, why cannot guarantees help poor people get small loans from banks? I had heard a little bit about microfinance and I felt these guarantees could also expand the reach of microfinance. I started reading literature on microfinance and would spend endless hours reading articles and papers I could find on the internet.


Sometime in 2006, it was also announced that Prof. Mohammad Yunus, the pioneer of microfinance, had won the Nobel prize and that increased excitement in the field. But I soon realized that I had hit upon a massive roadblock – An organization which plans to offer guarantees needs to have adequate capital. How do I raise the several million dollars to set up a guarantee fund? I was a little disappointed that I had hit this seemingly un-surmountable road block and decided to move on to finding the next idea.


The next few months I spent time conceptualizing a website which would measure one’s carbon footprint.  It would be integrated with a recommendation engine which will then suggest upgrades to household appliances, changes in lifestyle etc. By then http://green.yahoo.com was launched. It had similar features though a little more basic than what I had envisaged. There was also another well-funded project on similar lines being done by UC Berkeley. Given these, I was not sure if my idea could compete against these well funded ventures.


I came back to the earlier microfinance guarantee idea – it simply would not go away. I continued to read more on guarantees and microfinance and figure out how I could raise funds for the guarantee fund. Sometime in April of 2007, I came across Prosper.com and a few days later Zopa and Kiva. Peer to peer lending fascinated me. Instinctively I realized that this held a clue to solving my problem, but I did not know how. By then I also became familiar with the guarantees offered by Grameen foundation and Accion. I also learned that the smaller Microfinance institutions (MFIs) were not having adequate access to capital and no organization was offering guarantees to smaller MFIs. This was a problem waiting to be solved.


But after all this research by June 2007, I was beginning to get a bit impatient. I had no business idea. I responded by setting myself a deadline – I would come up with an idea by July 3, 2007. There was an IIT alumni conference in the valley the following week, and in one of the tracks, VCs would hear and fund idea pitches. I hoped to have an idea by then. The next few weeks I kept thinking on how the peer to peer model could come together with the guarantee model. And finally on July 2nd or 3rd, the whole thing came together: The general public will guarantee loans to entrepreneurs on a website. The guarantee will allow the MFI to borrow from local banks and make loans to the entrepreneurs.


The idea made sense to me, but another reality dawned on me. Just taking an idea to a VC will not secure funding. I decided to first get the idea validated. More on that tomorrow.


Thanks for reading.