Emergence of distributed social enterprises for inclusive development


Emergence of distributed social enterprises for inclusive development

When the market and state both fail to clear the demand for certain services and products, the intervention of civil society organizations and social enterprises becomes inevitable. Whether such enterprises will indeed emerge depends upon the ability of local disadvantaged communities to articulate their unmet needs into some form of demand (often not backed up by enough purchasing power). They can also arise if the existing enterprises or new start-ups recognise these unmet needs and decide to meet them affordably and inclusively with or without third-party funding. The very fact that several niches remain unfilled still in some of the most deprived regions whether in tribal regions of north-east, central or eastern India or some other pockets shows that the existing social marketplace is not effective enough in clearing the need for unmet needs. These gaps could be for education, nutrition, employment, skill upgradation, material upgradation for tiny fabricators, grassroots innovators, or distributed community-level herbal pharmacies/processed agri-food and fibre units. Shodhyatras by HBN in all the states of the country have made such gaps as well as creative solutions for some quite apparent.

Some illustrative areas/sectors where social enterprises are still missing or face serious challenges in many less economically developed regions are: a) The extremely low level of in situ value addition  in agriculture. This is perhaps one reason for the persistent dissatisfaction among many rural regions. B) Almost in all such areas and sectors, where there are abundant or abandoned biological resources, there is a huge opportunity for supporting local communities in setting up Bio-enterprises by women’s Self-help groups and other enterprising individuals and innovators. GIAN, a Honey Bee Network institution is trying to do so with the help of DBT in Baramulla, J&K, west Sikkim and Kiphire, Nagaland. C) Another major gap that has remained unfilled is the provision of risk capital for grassroots innovations and outstanding traditional knowledge having the potential for diffusion as DIY or protected solutions. D) lack of genuine impact investment: Not one community-level innovator has received so-called impact investment, or even angel funding, something the community of early-stage investors should reflect on. E) lack of public procurement: Many start-ups meeting important diagnostic or other community needs at extremely affordable costs need the support of public procurement. There should be an annual report card about how many innovative start-ups approved by regulators got public procurement support. This will create pressure on public servants to pay greater attention to these frugal solution providers from or for the grassroots and thus improve social well-being.

During Covid, it was realised that parents of as many as 60 per cent of children in many states studying in government schools either did not have a smartphone at all or had just one while many children needed to study online at the same time. They were deprived of online education. They still have to catch up with the rest. There are not many toll-free helplines answering questions from such students about science, math or other such subjects except sahajpathonline.org  in West Bengal. Should not such sites providing a Teacher on Call be available in all Indian languages? We have two kinds of citizens being produced in the country today, one who studies in local language in government schools and another who is in private schools often able to afford tuition and thus be able to access a better future. Social enterprises bridging the gaps, reducing inequity, and making the world more fair and just with low overheads,  deserve much greater attention than what they get today.

Social enterprises in a broad category including social movements with or without commercial activities to initiatives which meet the unmet social needs through market and non-market-based instruments. Not all enterprises recover the full costs of the products or services they provide from the users/recipients. Some recover part of the costs and some don’t recover any cost, for instance, MVSS providing Jaipur foot, and artificial limbs to physically challenged poor people. Some recover in kind such as Goonj which provides material cost and clothes for building community infrastructure such as roads, ponds or bridges and people contribute their labour. There is a school in Assam which recovers fees in the form of empty bottles and waste plastic which children collect and provide (https://www.aksharfoundation.org/schools)/. It is implementing NEP creatively. The exchange of different goods/services makes the social enterprise more inclusive. 

Honey Bee Network  organises a traditional food festival led by SRISTI and supported by GIAN which not only promotes nutritional dishes and millets for around two decades but also provides space for social enterprises including the groups working with HIV patients running a food stall to remove stigma. Organic farmers all over the country need such festivals to be organised in every city to help make a transition to sustainable biodiverse agriculture more viable.

The future of social enterprises is very promising in India. While the promotion of low-cost insurance, distribution of generic medicines at very affordable prices and strengthening of health infrastructure have improved the situation, there remains a huge gap when it comes to the facilities at a primary health centre. Junagadh district administration recently installed health ATsS in PHCs in about ten centres for low-cost screening and blood testing. One needs such facilities in all the PHCs covering 650,000 villages. One adverse health episode and savings of five years are lost in a poor household apart from incurring debts. Even today with all the microfinance and other financial institutions, the share of institutional finance remains low in the total borrowing basket of the poor and needs more barter-based lending and recovery systems. One needs to go beyond micro-credit and move towards micro-venture credit to trigger a widespread entrepreneurial upsurge in rural and urban areas.

The prospect of social venturing is very bright provided regulators relax ploughing of investment in this sector by even middle-class well well-meaning individuals, not just high net-worth individuals. Tax rebates for investment in formally registered enterprises, start-ups by individuals, trusts and public and private organizations might help. Similarly, at least 25 per cent of CSR resources ought to be ploughed into innovation-based enterprises to improve future employment generation and provision of necessary social services.


Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place