Friday 24 September 2010

Adventures in Singapore

From India I headed to Singapore to attend my brother’s wedding and catch up with my family in a much needed break. Of course the break never panned out because weddings are so hectic, but it was beautiful nonetheless.

For many visitors, Singapore is a boring, clinical city, but I love it. There’s lots of culture, cool bars and awesome food. The only drawback is how expensive beer is. Ranged from 16SGD to 25SGD for a pint, which is just ridiculous. I felt like I was drinking money. The food however is the opposite. Cheap and good. And I mean REALLY good. The government set up proper hawker centres for all the street sellers, so they now have ‘street’ food in clean environments, making it probably the only place in the world you can eat all sorts of tasty stuff without worrying about falling ill.

P1090010 P1090013

Singapore has stunning temples, and eye catching skylines that are both well worth experiencing

Multi-faith Temple, Singapore Clarke Quay

On the food front, pretty much nothing beats Chilli Crab. It’s so good that I actually dream of it when I’m away from Singapore. I’ve tried it in other places, but it just doesn’t compare. And of course when Singaporeans eat, they eat properly!

Going all out on with seafood at the East Coast Parkway Seafood Centre All over!

Fruits are abundant in Singapore, especially Durian, which is referred to as the King of Fruit. It actually tastes acceptable but the smell kills you long before it goes near your mouth. That, and the fact that the taste is so strong that it stays with you for hours. You really have to like the stuff to tolerate it. Between the overpowering smell and the mushy texture, I have to admit, it’s not really the fruit for me.

Durian Asian fruit

Singapore is mostly Chinese, and Chinese food is everywhere. My favourite new food that I hadn’t eaten before is probably Bak Kut Teh, which is simple but tasty. Basically meaty chunks of pork rib in soup. And then of course there’s a huge South Indian population, so awesome Indian food too. Check out the Masala Dosa with all the trappings!

I stayed in a HDB with in old friend of mine’s spare room. HDBs are Singapore’s answer to public housing. Efficient, spacious and decent. I also caught up with a bunch of friends in Singapore.

Singapore was really meant to be a break. I’m usually pretty burnt out after about three months on the road, because my interaction with projects is pretty intense. But as usual, although I did mostly stick to taking it easy and enjoying life with friends and family, there was still a bit of thinking involved.
I randomly helped out with some commercial and brand strategy for the hotel industry, which was actually quite fascinating…


…before catching up with the Lien Centre for Social Innovation, where we discussed impact measurement, and mechanisms for developing social innovation. The trouble with most organisations facilitating these things, is that they are primarily staffed with people who have little real life experience of addressing human issues, or of running organisations that deal with these problems. The result is a combination of copying what everyone else is doing and applying generalisms from the commercial sector. Even when you are able to suggest more effective options, the next limitation is usually inertia. They are already committed to their way of doing things.

I also did some work with a Social Enterprise called Chatters, which has been set up to address issues related to Singapore’s growing ageing population. We looked at the use of brand to scale their operations, and also to impact social consciousness. Unfortunately this is one time I didn’t take any snapshots, but I was informally offered a job for 2012 to develop some of these things by a board member of the the MCYS. Another option to add to the list :)

Finally I’d promised another project I worked with that I would visit the North Light school, and it randomly worked out that the same people involved with Chatters were also involved with North Light. So I got a full tour. It’s a fantastic example of what can be done when the problem is small and the funding is large. Singapore has about 900 students who have dropped out of school or failed their PSLE twice, and the government has set up a special school for these students to ensure that the city does not end up with a poverty issue that requires welfare in the long run. Very pro-active as usual.

They’ve gone all out to address both social and educational development, and the school costs twice as much as a normal one to run. The facilities are superb and the results equally good.

North Light School

North Light School Principal North Light School Recreation Room

Aside from covering educational, creative, emotional and nutritional needs they have superb vocational training centres for both hotel and tourism, and store retailing.

North Light School Hotel Training Suite North Light School Retail Training Centre

Finally they’ve developed a great game to teach their students how to manage their money. This game is available to all and will hopefully go towards raising greater funding for the work that North Light is doing. Check the game out if you see it in stores.

Mind Your Money

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Adventures in Maharashtra: Rural Enterprise

While Delhi was interesting, it was pretty good to get out of the searing heat and get back to Bombay. I’d also been missing some of the Bombay specialties. Paav Bhaji and Sev Puri. Snacks to die for!!

Paav Bhaji Sev Puri

I paid a last visit to the streets where I grew up and the old house that I spent my childhood in.

Breach Candy Peddar Road

Sandringham Villa, B. Desai Rd.

I also finally managed to catch up with my father’s old team at the Breach Candy Hospital, and was immediately reminded of the issues that India faces in it’s transition from old culture to better practices...

Friday 3 September 2010

Adventures in Delhi: Old Friends and New Realities

After a week in Hyderabad working with Gray Matters Capital, I headed to Delhi to meet up with the Ashoka team and an old friend I haven’t seen in nearly two decades. Nitin and his awesome wife put me up for the entire time I was in Delhi, which made a nice change from the hotel I’d been staying in previously. But the best part was catching up and finding that we still got on the same. Very cool.

We drank tea in tiny cups, Indian style, and I learnt all sorts of fascinating stuff about the construction industry.

Delhi is an absolutely Massive city. I was working in South Delhi and staying in East Delhi. The journey averaged out at over an hour, and trying to get rickshaws to cover that distance was pretty much impossible, and frankly in 47 degrees wasn’t really desirable either! Fortunately India has fantastic radio taxi services, that are fully SMS responsive. You have to see it to believe the efficiency.

As a city it’s a little like Rome in that it is littered with ancient buildings, forts, and monuments. Visiting these are dead cheap for locals but hugely expensive for foreigners. There are also plenty of markets in Delhi, from traditional ones like Sarojini market, and the new shopping squares like the Defence Colony market.

Sarojini Nagar Market Defense Colony Market

Thursday 13 May 2010

Adventures in Hyderabad: Handi Biryani & Extreme Sports

Arriving in Hyderabad was a breathe of fresh, errr slightly less polluted, air. An organisation called Gray Matters Capital flew me in but there was some issue with accommodation over the weekend, so Shabnam and her mates very kindly put me up for a couple nights.

I stayed in Banjara Hills, which seems to be the heart of the ‘new’ city with every glass fronted and shimmering American brand you can imagine, and drove through Jubilee Hills where all the ‘Tollywood’ stars live. Turns out there’s a massive Telegu film industry. Who knew?? There’s also a lovely lake in the city and Hyderabad is overall reasonably pretty. Nicer than I expected. Sadly I never made it to the Char Minar, which is in the old city, but I did get to one of the low cost private schools out there, and also to a traditional biryani joint.

Handi Biryani

Chicken 65 is THE snack for Hyderabadis, but Handi Biryani is the main course to eat. The specialty is chicken rather than meat, probably because chicken is generally cheaper to get hold of. You usually get one large piece of chicken and a humongous portion of rice, some kind of curry, raita, onions and lemon. You can get family packs for 4 or 6 which would feed a small army rather than just a family.

Saturday 1 May 2010

Adventures in Bangalore: Banana Leaves & Lost Friends

I arrived in Bangalore a couple of weeks ago on Sunday 18th April and headed straight into a heavy meeting with the Ashoka team. We were trying to work out the practicalities of creating and mobilising large scale confluences of people who care about the same issue. This is the new premise behind Ashoka’s development in India. I think we got pretty far with it, but it was heavy going out as I’d picked up some viral bug in Bombay and was in pretty bad shape at the time. Took me a whole week to recover. Since then I’ve been rushing to catch up on projects and work. 

Also got to hang out with Vinit, one my oldest school friends, who now manages a large garment business. Come a very long way from causing trouble at the back of the class together to special treatment in his office as General Manager! I got a tour of the superb factory he set up from scratch. I bet like me, you don’t realise quite how much human labour actually goes into producing the clothes we wear. Pretty much everything is done by people using small machines, rather than any form of automated production technology. From the design, to cutting, to stitching, finishing and even the final ironing. It is hugely labour intensive and I will never take clothes for granted again.

Vinit Mehta Vinit Mehta

P1030441 P1030443

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Adventures in Mumbai: 33 And Counting…

Another birthday has rolled around, and it’s pretty clear from people’s reactions that I’m definitely not in the place I’m supposed to be for my age! Opinions range from ‘very cool’ to ‘wasting your life’. Of course it doesn’t help that it’s virtually impossible to explain what I’m doing or why, so people read whatever makes sense to them.

The one constant of these few months however is that people recognise how lucky I am. But they think I’m lucky to be travelling and seeing new places, when in fact what I’m really lucky for is to be journeying through a life of stunning people. People with drive and dedication and smiles and positivity. New friends that treat me like they’ve known me for ages. I even got a home-made cake and a hand drawn birthday poster today.Will treasure always :)

Birthday Celebrations at Ashoka


It’s also not just people but their ideas and ability to turn those ideas into reality that continues to inspire me. I’ve been in India for only a month, and I’ve already been involved with about 10 organisations and projects, all working hard to make their local realities a better place for other people.
  • Ashoka’s Youth Venture – working on extending and developing their program that inspires and supports young people to turn their ideas into action. The ambition is to create a regional culture that makes and supports change
  • Aseema – looking at Public Private Partnerships to improve the 1200 BMC schools in Bombay, and modelling the mechanisms of scale needed to achieve this
  • Arpan – planning how to design full-cycle programs that eradicate severe child abuse in communities
  • Dreamcatchers – planning future development and organisational restructure to design holistic programmes that work with both emotional needs and economic development in post-disaster zones.
  • Sankalp Rehabilitation Trust – working on how to leverage the web for raising awareness and funds for rehabilitating street drug users and supporting HIV patients
  • LEARN – designing sustainable social enterprises to enable lasting economic improvement for women in Dharavi
  • SSP – looking at mission congruence, collaborative services and operational efficiencies across it’s MFI, Retail, Health and Training services to improve quality of life for low income women in Maharashtra and Gujarat

Friday 9 April 2010

If A Million NGOs With A Million Solutions Aren’t Solving The Problem, Does The Answer Really Just Lie In More?

Apparently there are over a million NGOs working in India. You’d think that everything could be solved by a million organisations with a million different ideas. There’s definitely not a million different issues. If even half a billion people here need support, that would be one organisation for every 500 people. Should be enough right?

But no. For every issue I’ve seen it seems there’s not enough support or services. Most funders are busy encouraging more start-ups and newer ideas on their own self-absorbed mission to build recognition by ‘finding’ the next big thing. They remain oblivious to the obvious fact that more organisations and more solutions have clearly proven themselves not to be the answer.

If you ask me, I’d say that the real issue is that the sector is massively fragmented. Organisations and solutions isolated by the need to compete with each other for funding, and by a funding culture that is more interested in organisational success than the eradication of human vulnerabilities.

Instead of pumping money into existing infrastructures and supporting to them to innovate using experience, and instead of financing and supporting the coagulation and creation of meta networks of organisations locking together different aspects of solutions to the same few problems, we’re continuing to get excited about one-dimensional product and service innovations that improve quality of life rather than enable long term transformative development and change.

Of course it’s easy to be critical, but the real question is, is there a solution? The answer is an easy yes. All it requires is a recognition of realistic timeframes and an agile development approach that can adapt to emergent behaviour. Here’s a concept example that we’re designing for developing the ‘people’ infrastructure needed for scaling social outcomes in India, using Ashoka’s Youth Venture programme that works with young adults as a key building block.

The concept starts with

  1. Shifting down and engaging school-age children in the need for and possibilities of making a difference,
  2. Then encouraging and developing in young adults the core skills needed to take initiative and turn ideas into action,
  3. Then incentivising (financially), training, and facilitating the coalescing of these people and ideas into issue focused meta networks and consortia,
  4. And finally driving these networks towards the strategic solving of large scale regional problems.

Scaling Changemaking

The aim here is not about pushing millions more people into addressing social problems, but to ensure that those who do choose this path do so together and more effectively, and within a regional culture that is more supportive and understanding of social development.

Tuesday 30 March 2010

Things Badly Made Don’t Last

Two weeks in and I’ve already settled into a rhythm of sorts. I’ve got a place to stay with my friends Urvaksh and Khursheed, and a base to work out of at the Ashoka office in Bandra. I take the fantastic new sea link every morning which gets me there in a short half hour; an amazing transformation for a journey that used to take us almost an hour longer when I was a child.

Bandra still has its leafy lanes and quiet charm in some places, but in others its a completely different animal. Fancy shops and bars and a new demographic of active young people. Much of the new development that has missed South Bombay seems to have focused here.

Still, for all the new flashiness and technology, the ‘chalta hai’ attitude to quality still persists. Things are regularly badly made and poorly put together. The old roads were always badly made and so were the electrics, but even the new malls are only half built and already in full use. Wires hang freely, just built car parks look 10 years old, and cheap new steps are already chipped. At my friend’s house, builders who don’t have a clue what they’re doing are busy smashing through walls they shouldn’t be damaging. Unqualified electricians are ripping sockets out of walls, and plumbers take wild guesses at where pipes might before taking the tiling apart.




Some obvious causes

  1. Things are built on inadequate budgets or done as cheaply as possible, so the materials used are poor quality and the labour employed isn’t skilled enough
  2. Things are built by people who will never use it, and therefore don’t personally relate to the pain of failure
  3. There is pressure to get value as quickly as possible, so things go into use before they are properly finished

The upshot of all of this is that although basically functional, much of it doesn’t work properly, and costly maintenance and fire-fighting cycles start right from day one. Over time people have just come to accept it as given, because the problem has become too huge and too endemic to manage, and the underlying causes cannot be easily addressed.

There is probably a lesson in this for people funding and delivering social programmes. Building programmes on inadequate budgets, or designing them without having spent enough time on the ground and in collaboration with the people impacted, or rushing into new initiatives simply because of perceived need, is likely to result in programmes that don’t deliver quality and never really create lasting or sustainable change.

Saturday 13 March 2010

Adventures in India: Home Sweet Home!

The heat and sunshine in Mumbai are almost overpowered by the noise of construction as I sit on my friend Nikhil’s couch, watching cricket and settling in to the next leg of my globosocial adventures, one eye on the clearly untrained workers haphazardly drilling the building wall just outside.

My flight was smooth and impressive for an Indian Airlines, with good food and a reasonably big touch screen entertainment system that was miles better than anything I flew to or around Latin America. Cheap too. Go Jet Airways!
Outside the flat at Kemps Corner, little has changed since I was a child. The flyover is as it always was; the summer haze is smoggy as ever; red buses haven’t changed; car horns continue unabated; and taxis are still the same tiny Fiat Padminis we used to squeeze into as children.


Tomorrow I’ll pick up the phone and start calling friends I haven’t seen in ages, and on Monday the social adventures will start as I get in touch with the people and projects who’ve contacted me over the past few months. If you’re reading this and have any suggestions or connections, let me know.

In the meantime, the IPL juggernaut is swinging into full flow with the Mumbai Indians playing Rajasthan, and Harbajan Singh and some random woman say hello from a massive billboard outside our window!


Monday 1 March 2010

Video Presentation: Globosocial Adventures (SBS Oxford, 2010)

I recently gave a talk on scaling social enterprises to MBA students at Oxford University's Saïd Business School, which is partnered with the Skoll Centre for Social Enterprise. It seemed to go down well, so some of the students asked me to come back to talk to them about my journey around the world and share some of my learnings on social enterprise so far.

Globosocial Adventures - Oxford MBA Talk, Feb 2010 from Rizwan Tayabali on Vimeo.

Here's the contents of the talk in case you want to skip through it...
  • Introductions (3:33)
  • Talk Structure + Group Questions (8:40)
  • About Me (1:50)
  • Social Triggers (3:10)
  • My Path to SE Consulting (5:20)
  • Globosocial Adventures - What & Why (4:46)
  • How It’s Going So Far (1:04)
  • SE Consulting Challenges (13:43)
  • Useful Things I’ve Learnt (17:25)
  • Why SE’s Fail (7.00)

Tuesday 23 February 2010

The Base of the Pyramid is a Lie

The “Base of the Pyramid”. I want you to take a moment and picture it. What did you imagine? Be honest with yourself. A billion vulnerable souls in different environments, many of them inexorably losing their struggle against brutal realities… OR… a triangular pyramid; a textbook line drawing?

Of all the jargon in the social sector this is the one I hate the most. It reduces people to statistics, vast complexity into a homogenous group, raw reality into emotionless concept, and human beings into a neat simplification: The fabled ‘fortune’, the market, at the base of the pyramid.

The thing is that the base of the pyramid is a nonsense on two counts.

1. It is not a pyramid.

Here’s how it really looks: 1bn high income. 2.5bn middle income.1.5bn low income. 1bn extreme poor. (see Jeffrey Sachs, End of Poverty)

The last group are people who, for example, cannot even afford the $1 a day needed for the life saving AIDS treatments that Cipla provides.

Global Wealth Distribution 

2. It is not a market.

The so called market that many social enterprises and social investors are chasing is not at the base, but somewhere in the middle. The market that allows social enterprises to be viably self-financing and which is being targeted by social investors, is not the bottom billion, but the middle four. This is where, for example, the microfinance entities make their profits, and where you can sell technological or service innovations that address social need at costs that fit available income. At the bottom, no social ‘enterprise’ is going to work. The bigger challenge is to keep people alive in the face of conflict, and famine, and AIDS.

Market for Social Enterprise 

Maybe this area of focus for social entrepreneurs should be called the 'Middle of the Michelin Man’ or the ‘Middle of a Weirdly Shaped Top Heavy Ball’ but of course that would be stupid and dehumanising. But not any more than the base of a hypothetical pyramid that isn’t.

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