Monday, 10 December 2012

Barefoot Entrepreneurs

This term “barefoot entrepreneurs” was coined for my presentation in Beijing and Ahmedabad. I was due to go to both places over a one week period to talk about this concept. Like a song that gets stuck in your head the idea of barefoot doctors from the 1930s has not left me since my dad told me about them in the early 1960s. These doctors were people from rural communities – travelling barefoot – who were given basic training in primary health care. They were paid for by collections in their villages and the idea was that they would be able to administer basic treatments and act as conduits for other forms of medical know how and knowledge. The term barefoot doctor – has become a metaphor for me to address another big set of problems: Ever growing numbers of underemployed and unemployed graduates of regional universities and institutions of further education. The young people who graduate form here are better equipped than those who drop out of secondary education, but are not sufficiently equipped to make it in the big city jobs – where – most probably – they need a good command of English. So we have an inventory of capable young people with nowhere to go. And by the way – we may well be stoking up “the angry young man” by developing a sub-optimal educated class of person – in their millions. We also have another problem – how to address the socio-economic needs of the people at the so-called “bottom of the economic pyramid”? Where are the solutions and and products and services that the very poor can buy/use to generate incomes and get some relief from drudgery of labour? How do we get better health, opportunities and improvements to their lifestyle to them? The last big experiment in this sector was micro-credit and while that has had enormous success – it has also lead to some critical questions about creating a very large pool of indebtedness. In summary – show me a solution and eventually we will find a problem! Actualy in some parts of India – micro-credit has been a hugely negative experience due to people borrowing for “non-productive’ uses. Sub-prime lending at its worst. Within this complex context then – what do we do? Anil Gupta in Ahmedabad and Liyang Zhang in Beijing have both started to champion rural innovations – grass roots innovations. My part in the discussion is about – “so Who will take the innovations to market?” Rural innovations that are embedded in a deep understanding of context are very powerful sources of new opportunities. They might be incremental improvements to day-to-day life or they may be radical changes (such as a mud based cooler). But once they have been invented the scaling up of the product so that it can provide economic benefits is where the challenge lies. Is this the role then for the barefoot entrepreneur? The young people with higher levels of education than can be the ligament between formal institutions and the informal communities from which they come. They know the markets – more importantly they know the customers – why they will buy, how much they can pay, what the issues might be for implementation and use of new solutions. They also have enough education to understand funding, marketing, business building and meeting regulatory requirements (they can fill in the endless forms!). There is only one way to find out if there is a future for barefoot entrepreneurs. Get a cohort of recent graduates from regional universities, mix them with rural grass roots innovations and get them to do a commercialization project. Wrap this up with funding, entrepreneurship training, business education and mentoring. Follow up in some detail and review after about two years. My instinct – having been in entrepreneurship education for 25 years+ is that there is likely to be a good deal of success with such a model and the outcomes will be at least threefold: 1. A new class of entrepreneurs who can connect rural with city 2. Innovations that not only see the light of day but can become transformational 3. Social and economic benefits from the day to day use of the innovations My sincere apologies to Liyang and Anil for not going to the conferences – my back gave up with a big bang and I could not travel. I hope you accept this blog and slide deck as my intent to work with you both! Shai