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!
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