Thursday 10 December 2009

Burning Thoughts at Fahrenheit 451

Busy days in Buenos Aires follow busy days in Sao Paolo and my life is a blur of new information that I commit to processing and adding to without really knowing how. In between I worry about what do with all this information. Today I met with Mei Ling who has written a book and is writing another, through Vanessa who pointed out that in books lie the legitimacy and permanence of big thinkers. More immediate than books lie articles; 2000 word ones that Neal will pay me to write for and I haven’t even got there yet.

Maybe its because sometimes I feel like my mind has a mind of its own and I'm merely an observer taking photographs of my imagination. If that sounds like a poor attempt at wordplay, rest assured that its utterly literal...

Course Ecosystem Acumen Brand Recommendations v0.2

Bang Restructure 2009 Development Plan the wiki organisation

Brand and Web Goals and Topic Categories DSCF6013

PositiveTV-FocusPoints Revenue Streams For Ashoka Mexico v0.2

Corporate and ASN Breakdown IMG_0232

I don’t really know where it comes from, or why I’m able to do it. I don’t really see myself as a writer or a big thinker. The world is overloaded with words, and big thinkers rarely create anything the person on the ground can use. But then today I read Fahrenheit 451, which is just stunning. A book about the power of books, and the dangers of simplification and the simplification of simplification, until the point where richness and complexity of thought become anathema. A pain to be avoided and destroyed. And then I started thinking about thinking and wondering what do with the stuff I create.

Hopefully at some point my mind will make up its mind and I’ll figure out what to write, and how I’m going to do it!

Friday 4 December 2009

Microfinance in Pictures

While in Mexico I had the fantastic opportunity of spending time with Frida Ruiz Fernandez who worked in regulation for microfinance and banking for Peruvian Government for 4yrs, and Juan Ahedo who works with Fin Comun, a microfinance organisation based in Mexico. From Frida I learnt a bit more about Microfinance, much of which is summarised below, and through Juan I was able to accompany a couple of branch managers on their site visits around the city.

Fascinatingly for me, I learnt that microfinance is not just about lending to rural populations, but also a support system for tiny shops, restaurants and stalls all over low-income areas in cities too. The most fascinating thing was being transported back to a world of notebooks and hand-written accounts.

Microfinance in the City – Typical Clients

P1000590 P1000591 P1000593 P1000596 P1000597 P1000601 

Introducing Microfinance

Traditional Banking

The mechanisms of traditional banking essentially function around monetising (investing/re-lending for financial return) deposits that people store with the bank; and on providing interest based credit that is offset either by collateral, or risk managed through the use of standardised credit rating systems for medium to high income populations.

Why Low Income Populations Can’t Use Traditional Banks

Low income populations typically have neither the collateral nor ratings needed to access credit, because their wealth base is too small for collateral and standardised credit rating systems are not designed to assess their circumstances. Traditional banks therefore have to invest in completely new mechanisms for managing these demographics, which isn’t worth their effort so they ignore the space altogether.

Finally, where low income populations do have savings, they generally don’t deposit their money in normal banks because
  1. There is a lack of accessible infrastructure. i.e. no branches in their areas since it is not profitable for traditional banks to provide these.
  2. Low income populations are not used to going into big banks. They feel out of place and intimidated by the experience.
The Critical Problem

Since low income populations often have greater immediate needs around borrowing money, the lending space has traditionally been covered by loan sharks, where exorbitant interest rates mean that people can end up paying many multiples of the money they borrowed, under threat of personal violence. This simply exacerbates their poverty.

The second problem is that without access to mechanisms of depositing, managing and growing money, these populations are typically excluded from opportunities to create the longer term wealth that can help them to escape the poverty cycle.


So microfinance is really just a fancy name for the mechanism of providing safe small (typically high interest) loans to people, groups or enterprises who’s incomes are too small to provide collateral or credit ratings, and are therefore risky and highly cost intensive to manage.

Microfinance organisations make it cheaper and profitable to provide these services by basing themselves and working in the same areas as these populations, and they have adapted their credit methodologies to lend to low income sectors in 3 ways
  1. Their assessment model is very human intensive in terms of finding entrepreneurs, getting to know them personally, helping them with paperwork etc, typically by having branch managers which personally go out to meet clients rather than have them come into a branch, which means a much higher cost base than traditional banking.
  2. They provide loans without collateral, and manage the risk by replacing collateral with information about the people they are lending to. Hence they are significantly more diligent than traditional banks about each individual being lent to. Branch managers establish close relationships with borrowers and work to understand their networks and personal circumstances.
  3. They charge higher interest rates than traditional banks – anywhere between 25% and 40% annually, which although high is still less than loan sharks. Commercial microfinance entities lend at even higher rates of 40%-140%.
The Goal

Enable people to exit poverty through profits from assets or activities enabled by small loans.

The Gap and Issues

Microfinance organisations however are typically not banks, which means that they still do not address the issue of saving and wealth accumulation. One reason for this is that lending entities (like store finance) operate without much scrutiny, but taking deposits makes you a bank, which requires compliance with a whole new range of costly financial regulations that can otherwise be avoided.

Since these organisations fall outside traditional banking mechanisms, in many countries they often exist without any regulation. This means they often grow too quickly and operate at very high risks of bankruptcy.

Another issue that is also now being recognised is that the mechanism of micro-finance still struggles to bring people out of poverty. The reason is to do with the focus on funding entrepreneurs rather than stable business models or even helping create enteprise for people who don't have any income streams, and because of the lack of education and understanding of money management in low income populations.

Finally, microfinance is a profit model, and many of the players are not in it for the social goal. They don’t always operate ethically, and are not necessarily interested in mobilising communities out of poverty. Education and health components added to the financing model, can cynically be seen as mechanisms to reduce the risk of default, but the really good ones invest significantly in the development and mobilisation of the communities they work with.

The exorbitant interest rates can often be equivalent to loan sharks, and more importantly, as the sector matures and costs of managing clients and risk reduces, these rates don't drop (see lack of regulation and monitoring). This means that after a while commercial microfinance entities typically just mint money and will continue to do so. This is one of the reasons for the huge financing boom for these organisations, but goes entirely against the ethics that the public associates with social enterprise.

The real trouble in the end is that any development model whose sustainability/profitability is based on offering debt, and which has financers as the primary stakeholder, is likely to result in exploitation unless it is ethically run or strongly regulated. At some point any commercial lending entity will end up having to convince (manipulate) people to take loans regardless of whether they need it, just to keep its business model and profit margins going. As the market booms, more entrants seeing easy money are rushing in under the radar of public goodwill.

Solution 1: Regulation

Peru recently won an award for the creation of regulated environments for successful growth and scaling of microfinance. They minimise the risk of failure of microfinance orgs by enforcing a step by step system of growth by modules. Every step in scaling operations requires governmental approval, using a risk based approach covering 4 areas:
  1. Credit
  2. Market
  3. Liquidity and Operations
  4. Capital adequacy (i.e. having enough capital to support operations).
This approach prevents microfinance organisations from growing too fast or taking risky decisions, and unregulated Microfinance organisations are not allowed to take deposits.

Benefits of regulation
  1. Access to ratings and ranking makes these organisations open to investment
  2. They get feedback that helps them grow and get better
  3. Regulation means they are better run, so they have access to better human resources
  4. Access to guarantee funds up to a certain amount of deposit to help offset risk.
  5. Protect against and reduce risk of exploitation of vulnerable low income populations.
Solution 2: Education & Community Investment

Microfinance organisations are now beginning to provide financial and health education, in order to offset risk (well educated and healthy populations are better placed to repay loans), but the really good ones also invest in education and community programs to transform civil society in low-income areas. Education must focus on savings and wealth management and not be used to encourage take up of more debt.

Solution 3: Microfranchising

Entrepreneurs are great at finding opportunities to set up ventures, but not necessarily so good at scaling or creating stable and repeatable business models. Since microfinance typically lends to small entrepreneurs in low income populations, the quality of enterprise is typically not suited to scale or growth. Your average tiny corner shop isn’t very likely to become 10 large corner shops. Results are starting to show that while microfinance has benefits, it isn’t necessarily mobilising communities out of poverty in the long term.

The solution may involve offering finance for proven micro-scale business models that can be scaled by franchising. Local product reseller models for example. The value here lies in the creation of new jobs as it does not involve funding existing enterprises. It would also open up economic possibilities for people who don't already have stable incomes.

Solution 4: Debt and Wealth Management

For any microfinance entity seriously interested in driving economic development for low income populations, there absolutely must be a focus on debt management and reduction, followed by support for creating and growing wealth. Cash in hand is not wealth. Assets are. A savings account with interest for example. It not only grows money, but also safeguards it. Another example is ownership of housing. A lot of poor people have historical debt that keeps them locked in poverty. Debt reduction systems are not necessarily profitable, but could be justified in the longer term of creating a base of clients whose wealth can be monetised without fear of exploitation. The key here is replacing short-term profit maximisation with long term profitability and social impact.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Adventures in Sao Paolo Part 4: Searching for Marcelo Lima

It’s another month gone and I’m at the airport in Sao Paolo, waiting for my flight to Buenos Aires. The taxi ride was expensive (80 Reais) but very fast and I’ve now got an extra hour to kill and time to reflect on another whirlwind few weeks of vibrant people, new problems, passionate conversations, beers, and days so full that I haven’t even had time for blogging.

In truth I’ve been meaning to post more often, but I’m finding that I just don’t think in actively reflective ways, so I don’t have much to say on a daily basis. My notes would be all be repetitive… “I met some great people, had interesting conversations about social development, offered some new perspectives, ate well and had a few beers!” Can’t imagine how any of you would find that interesting after about the 5th time :) Churning out emotive descriptors of daily experiences is therefore not proving to be an option with the time I have. But I find if I carry on absorbing things in my usual go with the flow type way, then things aggregate and crystallise and the writing occasionally just happens. Like today.

I’m sad to be leaving Brazil. I’ve met as many lovely people as I did in Mexico City, which is pretty amazing. I’ve been looked after and entertained and included, to the point that I’ve never had a single day with time to occupy by myself. In my short time in Rio, I caught up with Iris, Theresa included me in the amazing things she’s doing and Gilberto showed me around. In Sao Paolo, the Ashoka crew took me for beers, Elenice showed me around the city, the Wikimedia guys made me feel part of the movement, and others from my hostel hung out with me in the few moments there was time to spare.

Friday 20 November 2009

Adventures in Sao Paolo Part 3: Gravatars and Charity Champs

It’s another beautiful balmy night in Sao Paolo, and I’m sitting out on the patio in my hostel, winding down after a long day of discussing concepts and issues and potential futures, followed by more birthday beers.  Two nights in a row. Fun, but tiring, because the 7 very conservative university kids in my room all keep waking up at about 6.30 – it makes no sense; they’re on holiday!!


Turns out Brazilians are proud about the openness of their culture in that anyone can be Brazilian, regardless of colour or background; but they lament the fact that there is an envy and revenge side aspect that isn’t so pleasant. Apparently everyone’s out for themselves and want to show each other up. I can’t confirm this because everyone I’ve met has been fantastic, but then I’m mostly meeting people involved in social change, so it’s a bit skewed.

Been learning all about Hybrid Value Chains and Ashoka’s Full Economic Citizenship, which is about trying to design and prove replicable models of symbiotic partnerships between private and social organisations in the areas of Housing, Health and Agriculture. Fascinating but complicated.

Also had a interesting conversation with Kevin Wong from Charity Champs, who is developing a platform to support micro-philanthropy using gravatars as part of a strategy to return social kudos back to people who get involved. If you don’t know what gravatars are go click the link :) As usual the conversation threw up a whole host of ideas in my head and I started to picture awesome opportunities to use virtual worlds like Wii World, which is probably going to be massive in the next 5 years. Very fun conversation, and hopefully I’ll be able to help with their long-term strategy in some way.

Finally, had some great advice from Neal from, around blogging in the moment. He had a great observation that trips like mine are part of a new culture that is emerging where contribution to the common good is the priority, and that appreciating diversity is essential to our ability to change as a people. What I’d add is that in understanding diversity we also understand how similar we all are underneath it all, and how connected we all are in the things that are important to us. And in that lies the recognition that we do not exist alone and that we are fundamentally responsible for each other, far beyond the reach of our own families and immediate societies.

On which inclusive note, here’s something very cool I came across – The Homeless World Cup. Check it out and be amazed!

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Adventures in Sao Paolo Part 2: Equilibriism

A new day in Sao Paolo and I still haven't found the key that gives you the little sign above the 'a' in Sao! I'm in the Ashoka office in Vila Madalena area, which is really nice and chilled out. I've only been here a couple of days and I already feel way more at home than I did in Rio. Sacrilege, considering that you're generally supposed to rave about Rio and use Sao Paolo as a transition point, but hey. We're all different.

I met someone called Daan Schraven last night who was talking about an interesting concept he's come up with called Equilibriism, which is all about finding balance, so I'm going to find out more about it over lunch. Meantime I've very kindly been given my own desk in the Ashoka office, and finally have a decent place to work. I arrived expecting to start from scratch, but Mônica de Roure who runs the team had already sent an email round to everyone telling them to expect me so amazingly it's all set up. I'm always a little surprised (happily so) that people actually make time for me.

The hostel I'm staying at is fantastic. It's called Vila Madalena. The guy who owns it is called Tulio and he's really passionate about the place, and it shows. He spent an hour filling me in about Sao Paolo and things to do! So unless someone offers me a place to stay with them, I'm sorted for the next couple of weeks.

Vila Madalena Hostel

For the moment though, today is going to be about trying to find some equilibrium between writing stuff up, learning about new things, sharing old practices with new people, and then 'happy hour' with the Ashoka team after work!

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Adventures in Sao Paolo Part 1: Pattern Recognition

Well more like pattern discovery... I'm still trying to figure out how to run this blog!! Trying to work out what's the right balance between sharing travelogues, knowledge and impressions. I thought I'd try and keep it as a mix between travelogue and knowledge sharing, but both types of post require a lot more time and effort than I actually have. In some ways it's also limiting because I'm not finding it easy to share impressions on the fly. So here's a third type of post... the random diary!

I'm now in São Paulo, after a week in Rio de Janeiro. A friend of a friend said Rio was like the San Francisco of Brazil in terms of the attitude and mindstate of residents, while São Paulo would have more of a New York feel. To a certain degree he was right. Just one day in São Paulo and it already feels more like city than bay area, and not just because Rio has a beach :)

Ipanema beach, Rio de Janeiro

I'm in a hotel just of Av Paulista, which apparently is a major area, but I haven't gotten out much. Decided to keep my head down and spend the day writing things up. I'm so behind on all the things I need to write up. Every day is a barrage of new and interesting information about social projects and issues and solutions, not to mention new and exciting sights and sounds and tastes.

I still haven't finished writing up my observations on Mexico, and then I've got Rio to share with you. On the social enterprise front I need to write about Hybrid Value Chains and Microfinance and Fair Trade vs Direct Selling and Renewable Energy and Rural Community Development and Agro Ecology... that's before I even get to editing the video interviews I've done and the million photos I've already taken. I probably need a week just to get it all up!

Anyway before I sign off, I just thought I'd share that it's good to be eating food that involves salad - really never thought I'd say that, although after Mexico I'm really missing hot salsas with everything; it's been raining regularly in Brazil as we approach the summer; I've seen my first big cockroach since I was a kid in India (go São Paulo!); and returning to hostel life and big dorms really hasn't been as much of a trauma as I'd imagined. If anything, it's gotten easier because at 32 I sleep more heavily than I used to at 25, when I last travelled around the world!

And talking of hostels, tomorrow it's back to dorms in one near the Ashoka office, which the Ashoka team is kindly letting me use as a base. I'm looking forward to seeing how similar or different things are at this end. Assuming all goes smoothly I should be knuckling down to churning out more useful stuff this week. Til then adios amigos...

Sunday 15 November 2009

Adventures in Mexico Part 5: Eats Drinks and Leaves

Back to a last look at life in Mexico… I left off my previous Mexican adventures post talking about food and drink; both of which I’m missing after a few weeks in Brazil. The food because of the spicy salsas (sauces) with everything, and the drink because of clamato, which really grew on me!

I went to a whole host of nice restaurants in Condesa, Polanco, Lomas, Palmas, Downtown and many more small roadside places with the people I met. Mostly I ate tacos, enchiladas, and huaraches. Must admit that having cheese in everything started to get me down after a while. Even the sushi contains cheese! Chilli salsas with everything on the other hand was a great bonus, which sort of made up for things. 

Salsas and Lemon!


Breakfast was always too heavy for me. Chilaquiles, beans, scrambled eggs with meat and various other dishes that really looked they should be saved till dinner time. Almost everything is eaten with tortillas and wrapped up to make tacos. For some reason I always thought Tacos were crispy, but apparently that’s Tex Mex and NOT Mexican food. Tortillas are soft like Indians chapattis, and called tacos when you roll them up with stuff inside. Everyone has their own favourite taco place, especially for Tacos al Pastor, which is the Mexican equivalent of a chicken donner kebab but so much nicer.

Tacos al Pastor


Saturday 14 November 2009

Adventures in Mexico Part 4 – The City & Sights

You’d think I’d have run out of things to write about Mexico City after two posts, but no! The city was built on a lake bed, and today the only legacy of it can be found at Xochimilco which is supposed to be an amazing place to visit. Apparently you can get close via metro but then at the other end you have to use cabs, and I didn’t really feel comfortable with street cabs. Authorised taxis are called Sitio, but the street cabs are known to be shifty. Reasonable likelihood that the driver will rob you at gunpoint somewhere along the way! Wasn’t feeling like risking it, but if I’d found someone to go with, I would’ve loved to have gone there.

I did make it to the Piramides though, which are just outside the city at Teotihuacan. There’s two – Sun and Moon. The sides are shockingly steep, and utterly deceptive. You only realise when you start climbing, and it's worse when coming down. I was almost surprised no one had a terrible accident in the hours we were there! Definitely thought there was a need for better warnings or safety measures, but as my friends explained - Mexicans don’t treat each other like they’re idiots! If it looks unsafe and feels unsafe, people can make their own choices to proceed. Still, I was glad it didn’t start raining while we were on the pyramid. It looked like it would’ve been a nightmare trying to get down without fatally slipping!





The city is also prone to earthquakes, and all establishments have signs telling you what to do in case of earthquakes and fires. This makes it all the more interesting that buildings have intricate facades and balconies that look perfectly designed to decapitate or crush people in the event of even a slight tremor. Then again after the last one most of the buildings have been redesigned to cope with earthquakes, so no one looks in any hurry to relocate.


I’ve mentioned a few times how big the city is, but you really have to see the A to Z (streets map) to believe it. It has the tiniest text of any map I’ve ever seen, just so that it can fit in a normal sized book. You need a magnifying glass to see anything!

The houses are an eclectic mix of low rise buildings, and the city is very colourful. There are yellow, blue, red, pink and green houses that crowd the cityscape. The city is divided into districts and colonies (Colonias), many of which have long straight, tree lined avenues. There’s a lot to see with the parks, museums and old colonial areas. It doesn’t feel overcrowded, mostly because the streets aren’t rammed with people milling about. I also didn’t really see many non local tourists either, and the few foreigners I met all spoke excellent Spanish, leaving me feeling pretty shabby with my “no hablo español”!



Politically there is a lot of apathy. People are fed up with politicians, partly because of the corruption and partly because they don’t do anything about the Unions, which are hyper powerful. Unions can apparently go on strike even before businesses officially open. They simply block the area in front of businesses using flags, stopping all custom until they cough up. There’s no choice either as some of these Unions are actually run by councillors, so there's really nothing the business can do. Felipe Calderon (the President)however, is starting to break the power of the unions by recently closing down the country’s second largest electrical power distributor, Luz y Fuerza, a massive union driven electricity firm with about 40,000 employees. He consequently has had to step up security all around his residence!

Police apparently can't be trusted either. Corruption is rife. Police cars weirdly never switch their lights off even when they aren't chasing anything. Traffic police wave and blow whistles even though they're standing right underneath traffic lights, which work perfectly; and apparently only a traffic cop can give you a ticket. It needs a different cop to chase street hawkers. Hyper specialisation keeps bigger labour forces in play I guess!


Outside DF, much of the sprawl is made up with land appropriated by poor people who build on the hillsides, and once these accumulate to a certain organised size, they get recognised and receive formal services. I noticed that all these houses have black plastic water tanks on top of them, every single one of which seems to made by Rotoplast, who must be making a killing.

Inside most houses the most worrying thing was the plug points, pretty much all of which seemed to be falling apart! Curiously you can’t get electric kettles in Mexico. Coffee etc. is made in the microwave. TV guides are a little unconventional too, in that programme titles can be completely in Spanish even when the programme is shown in English, or in English when the programme is dubbed in Spanish. So it was always a bit of pot luck for me!

The city isn’t especially noisy, but the sound of cars is regularly punctuated by mobile street vendors sounding out their wares. It appears to be legal to use loudspeakers outside your store to advertise promotions. Noise pollution regardless. The guy who sells sweet potatoes has an insanely loud whistle, and the guys selling tamales on bicycles ingeniously have speakers to do their shouting for them. Everywhere you go you can hear the sounds of speakers blaring out “Sevenden ricos tacos oaxaquenos!”

On which happy note, I’ve got to run, but I’ll share a bit more about Mexican food and drink the next time I get to a computer...

Friday 13 November 2009

Adventures in Mexico Part 3 – Impressions, People and Culture

Picking up where I left off in my last post, I felt really at home in Mexico City. In different parts it felt like being in Bombay, Singapore and Spain. In wealthy parts the upmarket restaurants and shops could’ve been in any hot country in the world, except of course it’s not really that warm in the winter!

The similarities with India however, abound; from the wealth disparities to the myriad small street shops and establishments. The one major difference being that there were very few individuals begging on the streets. Just people selling small things like lollipops and chewing gum. There’s also not many people milling around. The city is too big and everyone uses some form of transport, since there are lots of different types of cheap buses and of course the metro, which costs just 2 pesos (10p), making it accessible to even the poorest people.

The Metro


Another similarity with India is “Mexican time”, which is very much like “Indian Standard Time”, where if you want people to arrive somewhere for a certain time, you have to arrange it for about an hour earlier – that’s assuming they even make it! Foreigners I met found it very frustrating that people don’t commit to things if they can avoid it, and change plans at the last minute so it’s almost impossible to plan ahead. I experienced some of this too, but coming from Bombay I’m pretty used to it. The only successful alternative is to force people to commit to things days in advance, regardless of how uncomfortable it makes them!

But the similarities end with the style of housing; there are trees everywhere (it is the most tree-lined place I have ever seen); and the massive sprawl of the city... so big that most of its inhabitants have only seen small parts of it. The feeling of awe this inspired in me is difficult to explain. You drive for hours on big straight roads, and you’re still in the city, which is made up of the central Distrito Federal with about 9m people, which is then surrounded by Municipales that spread out around it, accommodating another 20m people, all living in low rise unpainted concrete housing. The west appears to be the wealthier, nicer part of the city, and when people talk of north or south, they mean north or south of the west part. The east has Iztapalapa and Ecatepec and other areas that are economically depressed and not considered too safe to travel around as an outsider, even if you are from the city.




I approached the city with caution triggered by warnings of security risk – of taxi drivers that will rob you, to the risks of being downtown, to the dangers of being a rare foreigner on the metro. There were hairy moments of being driven down routes I didn’t recognise, of journeys taking longer than expected, and of being overcharged… but all unfounded. Without exception I was treated unfailingly well.

Talking of people and culture, I was touched by the friendliness and warmth of everyone I met. I was offered 5 places to stay within 3 days of arriving. I was also impressed by the dedication to sport. Friends I met were training for Iron Man competitions and triathlons and marathons. Everyone was into Football, American Football and Baseball.

And of course there’s the Luchas. There seems to be a love hate relationship with them. Mostly love from the looks of it :) You can buy the masks anywhere. They are made from a sort of synthetic material that holds it shape and the mask covers the whole head and can be stood up with no support. The Luchadores events seem to be held on Tuesday or Friday nights and bookings don’t open until the previous one has finished. I really wanted to go, but we never made it in the end, which means I’m really going to have to back at some point!

Las Luchas


I was also moved by the way Mexicans remember and celebrate those how have passed away on the Dia de los Muertos (day of the dead). It is a day all peoples should have. A collective day to talk about and remember those who have passed away, in positive and re-affirming ways. Too often once people have died in other cultures, they are only remembered in the memories of those who were close to them. No one asks about them anymore, but on the day of the dead people sit around graves richly decorated with flowers and food and drink and photos, and there is an open space and time to talk about and remember those who are no longer with us. We talked to an old lady who told us about her parents and the past, sitting beside the altar in her daughter’s restaurant in Santa Maria near the office. The decorative skulls (all smiling) and happy skeletons were amazing and the chocolate and sugar ones really fascinating. In downtown there’s even an exhibition of decorated skulls on display for free.

Skull Designs from Dia de los Muertos



Other cultural things I noticed… it is not desirable to be Indigenous Indian; the “real” Mexican hairstyle is gelled and slicked back; ‘Thanks’ is an inside out hand wave; ‘Yes’ is indicated by crooking your index finger a couple of times; the traditional greeting between guys is a handshake with a couple of pats on the back, and the hip version is a hand slap and fist bump, while a hello with girls is one kiss on the cheek.

Even more randomly, the use of dollar signs for pesos is really confusing at first. Everything looks really expensive - $70 for a cheap but decent meal! Also 15 is a big birthday for girls. It is called a Quinceanera. They go all out in events like mini weddings with tiered cakes and floating dresses. Everything is pink, and the birthday girl has 6 dates. One for each dance. The girl usually asks the guys they fancy and the guys can't really say no. Each date has to perform one dance, which is choreographed and has to be practised. Having had to learn a dance for a friend’s wedding, I have to say I really don’t envy the poor guys who get roped into the mission!!

Rich Mexicans look strongly descendent from European ancestry, but they are passionately Mexican and there is a definite anti-Spain vibe after the colonisation. First there was the revolution where Mexicans broke away from the Spanish. and then the Reforma where the state broke away from the church. Roads still bear the legacies of history. Many of the streets around Condesa bear the names of heroes of the past including Juan Escutia who was a young kid who stood up to the Spanish with a band of six boy soldiers who died defending Mexico from invading US forces in 1847. Then there are the big roads with the names I loved… Insurghentes and Reforma, and places like Barranca del Muerto that serve as reminders of the past.

But the city is a focus for my next post. So for now, adios amigos!

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Adventures in Mexico Part 2: Ashoka and Fun Times

Time has flown by and my Mexican adventures have already finished in a blaze of interesting times. I chose Mexico to start my journey because I’d been working with Gina Badenoch who runs a Mexican Social enterprise called Ojos Que Sienten and she introduced me to Armando Laborde who runs Ashoka in Mexico. After an hour’s chat, we realised we saw many things the same way, and amazingly he let me loose on all the different teams within the unit, who even more amazingly listened and engaged with me. Of course being dressed in hot weather travelling gear really didn’t help my cause on the credibility front. Everyone I met thought I was much younger than I actually am!

My original plan had been to stay for 3 weeks, working with different social enterprises, starting with Ashoka and then hopefully moving on to some of the entrepreneurs that they work with. Instead, I found that there were so many exciting projects within the Ashoka team itself and that the team were all such fantastic people that I ended up staying an extra week, focusing mostly on developing their platforms for sustainability.

Mapping The Ashoka Service Landscape


While I was there I managed to attend a really interesting Fellow’s event on social business held at the Tec de Monterrey University, although it was all in Spanish and I only picked up bits and pieces of what was going on. On the other hand I also made it to the UBS Visionaries award ceremony for Social Entrepreneurs, which was so fancy that they had real time translations for people who didn’t speak Spanish. I was very impressed! The projects they showcased were very impressive too. Large scale and long term community building and empowerment projects that really demonstrate the power of long term thinking and sustainable effect.

On a more networking front, I went along to an Inter-nations event for ex-pats, and the 15th anniversary event of Como, which is a University organisation that arranges closed and unrecorded forums with important and influential people to allow students insights into the realities of politics and business. Personally felt it was full of the sort of suit wearing ambitious student types I used to avoid at University, and I didn’t really feel much at home, so I ducked out pretty quickly! On more fun fronts, I caught a lot of birthdays which was great, and even went along to a very fancy night out in Palmas in a restaurant that felt like it was full of English looking people speaking Spanish, followed by Pastor al Tacos which is basically the Mexican equivalent of kebabs.

I lucked out and stayed for free with friends in Polanco, which is one of the more fancy areas, and when at loose ends, walked down Masaryk which is full of top luxury labels and looks like Rodeo Drive. My daytimes were mostly spent in the Ashoka office, which is nice and airy, and on a tiny street called Tula which no taxi driver had ever heard of. I’ve therefore now learnt how to give directions in Spanish! I also wandered around Downtown which feels like being in Europe, and made it to Tlalpan and Coyoacán, which are old colonial parts of the city. I missed the mariachis though, which I was sad about, but I saw the old guys in the cantinas at night with the guitars. They’re basically like live jukeboxes. You pay them. They play!

Fun Times at Franco’s Birthday


I also got out into the field with a microfinance organisation called FinComun. Spent the day with two guys who didn’t speak English, keeping them company as they worked their way through negotiations with the myriad small clients on their run. Seeing how micro-loans work in city environments was doubly fascinating as I got to check out areas that wealthy people don’t normally ever visit.

All in all I absolutely loved Mexico City. I met lovely people, enjoyed good food (even if the overdose of cheese occasionally got me down!), did interesting things, and generally felt at home in a city that in many ways reminded me of Bombay where I grew up. But that’s another story for my next post…

Sunday 1 November 2009

Financing Challenges for Social Enterprises

It's been three weeks since I arrived in Mexico City, and my journey towards understanding social enterprise in Latin America has been slightly side-tracked by the work I've been doing with Ashoka. Instead of focusing on what are called 'first storey' social organisations (i.e. ones that are working directly with social programmes), I've devoted most of my time towards helping design new structures for reducing Ashoka's dependency on fund-raising. It has proved a fascinating insight into a global organisation that is more innovative and forward thinking in its local branches than it is at the centre.

    Discussing sustainability at Ashoka

The biggest challenge that both Ashoka and social entrepreneurs face right now in Mexico is that funding has dried up with the recession, which has hit Mexico really badly. Since there appears to be no obvious Government funding for social or non-profit enterprises, as far as I can see there appear to basically be three financing mechanisms
  1. Microfinance
  2. Hybrid Value Chains (Inclusive Business Models)
  3. Sponsorship from large corporates
Microfinance is a specialised business model, and although there are a number of well established players like Fin Comun and Pro Mujer, this not something that most social enterprises can employ as a self-financing mechanism. Since the financing is also aimed at micro-enterprises, it is also not a viable for raising funds for 'first storey' social enterprises.

The hybrid value chain model is also only relevant to the limited spaces where social enterprises are working with local or indigenous producers, or base of the pyramid demographics, and can connect these with commercial organisations looking to reduce production costs or to scale their markets; thus creating partnerships that result in financial and social benefit for both parties.

This leaves Sponsorship. Unfortunately, there's only a certain number of corporates large enough and interested enough to have run sponsorship programmes over the past few years. Probably only about 20 obvious ones... HSBC, AXA, Zurich Bank, Scotia Bank, Axtel, Kleenex, Kotex, Marti, Danone, Wal-Mart, Gamesa, Colgate, Novartis, Pfizer, Cemex, Bimbo, P&G, Cadbury, Kraft, Pepsi Co and Femsa - and only about 2 of these are actually Mexican companies. Alongside this there are a few Foundations that provide funding too, but again I suspect the number is small. The only one I keep hearing about is the Kellogg Foundation.

What I'm therefore finding is that social organisations, large and small, are all competing for funding from the same players. The small ones can't really compete with the bigger organisations, and the bigger organisations need more funding than is now available after the recession, so nobody wins.

Potential Solutions

I'm not sure what the solution is, but I'd imagine that if all these companies and foundations co-operated to create a single fund, and then split this to cater for larger umbrella organisations and small grassroots organisations separately, there'd be a better distribution of funding. Specifying focus areas would still allow companies to be associated with the projects that fit the image they want to project, and they'd all benefit from the economies of scale and removal of duplication of effort and cost. However this still wouldn't solve the major problem which is that there just isn't enough to go around.

Self-financing business models are the obvious answer here, but it isn't really that simple for many social organisations. For starters, many of the founders don't have business skills or experience, and more importantly they don't have the spare time or resource available to identify and set these models up. The standard solutions all focus on upskilling the people that run these organisations, but over the past few years I've begun to realise that while this is needed, it is not going to address the problem. The reason is that business model innovation in a social context is harder than simply starting with a business idea, and redesigning organisations to cope with these is more complicated than anything you could expect someone without experience to achieve.

As far as I can see, the only solution is for umbrella organisations that support social enterprise, to set-up Shared Service (Resource) Centres that add the skill and resource capacity that small organisations need in order to be able to innovate and grow. I've helped set these up for Local Government when I was working as a Consultant in the UK, and don't believe this would be difficult to set up for the social sector. I wrote a bit about them in my article on partnerships for the social sector ( and put up some scribbles from a workshop with UnLtd on designing Shared Resource Centres in a presentation here:

A couple of organisations in Mexico are also starting to provide this capacity as consultancies. One is New Ventures and the other is Sustentavia. Sustentavia are newer, but have a much better operating model that recognises that you can't really expect cash strapped social organisations to pay for services up front when they don't have the money, and hence aim for long term partnerships and investment in success instead.

There is also a small presence of social investment in the form of IGNIA Fund, an investment firm based in Monterrey, Mexico, dedicated to investing in commercial enterprises serving low-income populations, but I'm not sure what the scale of their investments is.

As mentioned earlier, right now I'm working with Ashoka Mexico to see if we can make them financially sustainable as a 'second storey' entity, which would at least remove them from the competitive mix and thus help stabilise the organisations they're currently supporting. I'll try and share what works once we get a bit further. Watch this space!

Thursday 29 October 2009

Shift Maker Interviews: Juan Lopez on Child Labour, Poverty and Inequality in Mexico

This is the first of my interviews with people involved in Social Change around the world. The original plan was to post half hour interviews, but it turns out YouTube now only allows people to upload 10 minute videos. So here's the edited version of my first interview with Juan Lopez, who is part of the Ashoka team in Mexico.

I've also set up a YouTube channel for the interviews I do. Check it out here...

Meantime here's Juan Lopez sharing his thoughts on social issues in Mexico.

Monday 19 October 2009

Adventures in Mexico Part 1: The Journey Begins

It's Sunday and I've finally got an evening to sit down and get to the computer. It's been a week of meeting great people and running lots of workshops. The Ashoka Mexico team (Armando, Lorena, Doris, J.J., Veronica, Linda...) are all very forward thinking and there's lots of great initiatives taking shape. The recession has really caused difficulties with raising funds for Fellow stipends, so the pressure is on to create self-financing revenue streams.

The Ashoka Team

Everyone I've met has been fantastic. I've been taken out and shown around, and had at least 5 offers of places to stay within the first two days! I'm now in the Polanco neighbourhood, which is very Rodeo Drive, crashing in a spare room in a great flat with old friends of my brother's fiancee.

I've also met some great non-Ashoka Mexican Social Entrepreneurs - Hugo and Camille from Sustentavia ( and Pepe Villatoro who's set up (revolution with letters), and had my first experience of listening to a creative pitch in Spanish. I couldn't understand many of the words, but it was pretty much the same as the pitches we used to do at Conchango. Not sure the creative guys really grasp the social need behind the campaign they were asked to pitch for, but then they're economically very far removed from the type of people we're trying to help.

Hugo and Camille

Mexico City DF is a city within a city. The whole thing is the biggest place I've ever seen. As mind bogglingly large as you would expect for a place that houses 28m people in low rise housing. I've done some pretty long journeys and still only seen a bit of the western part of the city. Reminds me of Bombay in some ways, but cleaner. I'm assured this is because I've really only seen the good bits, but it's still pretty good!

Mexico City from the air

The food has been great, although I'm still getting used to sauces and lemon with everything! Can't say I'm feeling the various bean pastes, but the tacos rock. Same goes for the Tequila and Mezcal, especially Mezcal which doesn't seem to leave a hangover :D

Awesome Tacos

It's all been so busy that I've hardly had time to sit down and start writing things up about social enterprise in Mexico, but I've learnt some great things. Update on this in my next post!

Tuesday 6 October 2009

Travelling Technologies - Reviews and Winners

After almost a month of thinking about what technologies a person is likely to need on a learning and sharing journey, I finally boiled it down to the following
  1. Small Lightweight Laptop - for writing stuff up, using the web, and editing multimedia
  2. Back-up Hard-Drive - in case the laptop gets stolen/lost
  3. Long Range Camera - for landscape, nature and non-intrusive observational shots 
  4. Pocket Camera - for social interaction
  5. Tough All-Weather Camera - for beaches and outdoor stuff 
  6. Pocket Video Recorder - to capture clips and interviews
After much researching and messing around with the million options available for every one of the above, I've finally made my choices

1. Small Lightweight Laptop

This was difficult because the standard lightweight portable laptops have 10inch screens, and after playing with them I realised that 10 inches across is way too small. I don't want to spend all my time peering at the tiny screen.

Then you have the problem of battery life. 3 or 4 hours is not enough. I want one I can use all day without having to plug it in. This means you need a 6-cell battery, rather than the standard 3 cell one most come with.

Finally the keyboard and mouse pad have to be a decent size unless you've got tiny fingers, which I don't.

The best option in the 10" netbook category is the Asus Eee PC 1000HE but this is really too small, so I looked at the next size up, which is the 11" category. These are still pretty much the same overall size and weight, but have much more usable screen and keyboard. At 12" there's a jump in size and weight and you're basically into laptop category. In this category there's not many options. The Acer Aspire One 751 seemed to be the only real choice available, and I actually really liked it when I played with it even though it's supposed to be very sluggish. I thought I had a winner, but then I found out that apparently the screens just crack for no good reason and Acer don't cover it in their warranty. That's no good for travelling!

Luckily it seems that Samsung have just released a 11.6" laptop which seems to do everything. Great battery. Fast. Good screen. Full size keyboard. Bit more expensive but looks well worth it. So we have a winner...

Winner: Samsung N510 (£380+ Laptops Direct)

2. Back Up Hard Drive 

Personally I like the small pocket Western Digital drives. They're small and neat. You can get 250GB ones for about £50 on ebuyer.

Winner: Western Digital 250GB (£50+ ebuyer)

3. Long Range Camera

I start off heroically searching out the low end Digital SLRs (£450+) until I realised that the lens they come with basically has about the same zoom you get with little pocket cameras i.e. 3 or 5 times optical zooms. No good if you want to zoom in across landscape or even across the street. If you want wide angle or long range lenses you have to fork out a lot more, and then you have to lug a foot long item around. So DSLR's were out.

I then went back to the point and shoots. I used to have a Fujifilm camera with 18x zoom which did the job except the pictures were just not sharp enough. Hence the need to upgrade. So I need a camera which takes sharp shots on auto, copes well in low light and can get me right close up from a distance. There's a decent selection with a zoom range of 18 all the way up to 26 times optical zoom. The Fujis are cheap and poor quality, Canons were too bulky and heavy, Nikon have skimped so much on their viewing screen that you have no idea whether the picture is any good, the Olympus didn't have a good enough lens, and the Sony took very average pictures - they don't have the Carl Zeiss lenses in this range. After much testing I finally found one that does everything. The Panasonic. It has the lowest zoom at only 18x, but the Leica lens is great and the camera is lightweight and fast with a good menu system.

Winner:Panasonic Lumix DMC FZ38 (£250+ ebay)

4. Pocket Camera

There's really too much choice to even begin to break this down. So I'll just give you the criteria. Decent zoom, good lens, good low light and night time photographs, video capability and small enough to carry around in your pocket. The winner is not very slimline but you get so much versatility that its worth it, including HD video, a superb Leica 12x optical zoom, and a superwide-angle lens.

Winner: Panasonic Lumix TZ7 (£240+ ebay)

5. Tough All-Weather Camera

You can get some pretty serious ones here, but frankly why waste the money unless you're planning some major underwater activity. There's a couple of very tough and pretty expensive Olympus and Panasonics, but I'll just be happy with something waterproof, light and easy to carry around. The winner for me in this category is cheap, looks nice and is waterproof to 3m. The picture quality apparently isn't great, but then the other cameras cover that eventuality, and you can get it for just over £100.

For Basic Waterproof - Fujifilm Z33WP
For Full Hard-Wearing Use - Olympus Mju Tough 8000

6. Pocket Video Recorder

Again there's a number of handhelds on the market, and now three or four that are the size of a mobile phone and fit in your pocket. Reviews tend to focus on picture quality, features etc. but in the end the defining factor is how easily you can transfer and edit the stuff you shoot. The easy winner here comes from Flip. You can spend more for a HD version, but for straight to web content you probably don't need to.

Winner: Flip Mino (£120+)

I'm not actually going to get all these for the first leg. Seems a waste of money to double up on so many things. So I'm just going to go with the laptop plus backup, long range and pocket cameras. The waterproof and video stuff saved for another richer time!

Tuesday 29 September 2009

Recommendations for Travelling Twitterers

Twitter Logo

I've just been doing some research into how best to manage tweets while traveling, partly for making and managing connections and partly because I probably won't have regular access to the net so I may need to start scheduling tweets. There's a massive number of Twitter applications available so I thought I'd share my recommendations.

Here's the full list of Twitter Apps available

I went through quite a few, but they either had too many limitations (like Twuffer) or were too much hassle to operate (like SocialOomph). Anyway here's my choices:

For accessing Twitter
Tweetdeck -

For scheduled tweeting
Future Tweets -

For managing followers
Tweepular -

For finding people to follow
Tweepz -

For automatically tweeting your blog posts
TwitterFeed -

For great profile backgrounds
Pattern8 -

For reducing link lengths -
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