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Bama STEM MBAs Visit Elephant Rescue Center
I posted a short story about this on Facebook a couple of days ago but am adding a post to our blog.
Yesterday we interrupted our itinerary. Our host, Mahesh, received a call from an old friend, offering a visit for us to Elefriends 101, an elephant rescue center and sanctuary near Mahabalipuram on the coast of the Bay of Bengal. It was a terrific opportunity and we jumped at the chance.
Three subspecies of the Asian elephant remain today: Elephas maximus maximus, native to Sri Lanka; Elephas maximus sumatranas from Sumatra; and Elephas maximus indicus from India. Elephas maximus is an endangered species, having lost greater than 50% of its population over the last 60-75 years.
Like a lot of endangered species, the decline in population is largely attributed to decline in natural habitat, both in terms of area and quality of the environment, as well as capture and poaching. In the recent past, Indian elephants were captured, typically as calves, and placed in zoos and circuses, Hindu temples scattered across India, and work farms.
Elefriends 101 is a fairly new venture and hopes to grow. The center currently provides a home for three adult female elephants, all of which were rescued from Hindu temples. The temple staff would typically chain a hind leg and a front leg, using shackles, to posts that provided the elephant negligible room to move around. Additionally, the elephants were made to sleep on a concrete floor, which led to pressure sores on their hips, shoulders, and legs. It’s estimated that the oldest of the three elephants at Elefriends 101 was in captivity in these conditions for over 30 years before her rescue.
Filmmaker Sangita Iyer created a documentary addressing the capturing of Indian elephants and their use in these various ways. It was covered in the Telegraph. It seems that progress is being made, thanks to these efforts to publicize the problem and the efforts made to care for the animals.
You can learn more about these elephants by visiting Elefriends 101 on Facebook. Hope you enjoy the photos below of our group at the rescue center.
As I return to India for the second time, I’ve been able to gain a better understanding of the intricacies and contradictions of this captivating country.
Last year one of our greatest takeaways from our time in India was that everything that is true in India is also untrue. And with 1.25 billion people, hundreds of languages and dialects, multiple religions and thousands of years of history, it’s not hard to see why this is the case.
Culverhouse STEM MBAs are Back in India!
For the second summer, I’m spending about three weeks in India with roughly a dozen STEM Path to the MBA students. It’s very hot, very humid, and we are having a terrific time and a great learning experience. Our itinerary this year is roughly the same as last year – we are spending time in New Delhi, Kajuraho, Agra, Chennai and Mahabilipuram – but with all but one of the students making their first trip to India (Rachel Ramey is a veteran from last summer’s trip) and mixing in some visits to new sites and with new Indian villagers, slum dwellers, and others, it’s makes for a whole new experience.
Why Poverty in India?
You may ask why India and why study impoverished consumers? Why villagers in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, out in the middle of nowhere and slum dwellers in the middle of India’s largest urban areas? It’s a long story. Each summer, students in the STEM Path to the MBA program, from incoming freshmen right out of high school to UA graduates who are rising into their MBA year of study, participate in a common reading experience exercise. The faculty choose a book and everyone in the program reads the book over the summer and writes a short reaction paper that they turn in during the fall. Over the course of the school year, we bring in experts to talk about the topics addressed in the book. Sometimes those experts are the authors of the book that was read.
During the summer of 2013, we all read “Reverse Innovation” by Dr. Vijay Govindarajan. Vijay is an emeritus professor of strategic management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. Vijay grew up in a relatively poor urban area of India and was fortunate enough to be invited to attend college in the U.S., at Harvard. One of Vijay’s mentors was the famous University of Michigan strategy guru, C. K. Prahalad. Prahalad was born and raised in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. He attended one of the IIT engineering colleges and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering. After practicing engineering and managing in tech-oriented businesses, he went on to earn his doctorate in business at Harvard. Prahalad, like I said, was a thought leader in strategic management, but also an early contributor to thinking on development in emerging markets. He pioneered the concept “bottom of the pyramid”, which refers to the roughly 4 billion poor people on the planet who live on less than $2 per day and make up the base of an economic pyramid. Toward the end of his career, he encouraged companies to consider the fortune that could be made from doing business with this segment of consumers. The idea is that these consumers have needs for products that are inexpensive and address basic human needs, and because of the sheer number of these consumers in our world’s handful of emerging markets, a fortune could be made by addressing their needs.
Vijay Govindarajan shares Prahalad’s vision and developed an approach for putting it into action. Govindarajan encourages companies to practice “reverse innovation.” Traditionally, a common approach used by companies accustom to doing business in developed countries (typically from the western portion of the northern hemisphere) when entering developing markets (typically located in the eastern and southern hemispheres) is to create stripped-down, low cost versions of the products they are currently selling at home and introduce them to developing markets. The results of this approach have been, at best, mixed. Govindarajan argues for a different approach. Companies should instead, he argues, determine the needs of consumers in developing markets and create products that address those needs. The logic is that products developed in this way, once introduced in the developing market, will have small profit margins but, because of the very large number of potential consumers of the product, overall profits will be attractive. However, it is not intended that the story ends there. Numerous examples of products developed through reverse innovation are modified and introduced to the home, developed market where higher profit margins can be enjoyed and make the entire effort more attractive.
In the fall of 2013, Vijay visited campus in Tuscaloosa and had a number of great conversations with the STEM MBA students. The students were inspired and asked me to put together a study abroad experience in rural India to perform reverse innovation exercises. We began working with Mahesh Sriram and his company, I-India, located in Chennai. Almost two years later, we made our first trip last summer. It was a big success and we had sufficient interest this past year to repeat the trip this summer. This summer’s students come from majors in mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, and biology. All but two of them have started their MBA coursework. Nine guys and two young women, they come from Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, and, of course, Alabama.
So, I have explained the students’ general motivations for making the trip, but let me share mine. Part of my own motivation arises from being a huge fan of innovation and capitalism. I’ll explain more in later blog posts, but I believe that the great strides forward that we have made over the last 150 years, and especially the last two decades, in lifting the world’s poor out of poverty have been fueled by innovation. Innovations in healthcare have resulted in the eradication of small pox and the diminution of deaths and impairment from disease that had been common prior to industrialization. Admittedly, industrialization has brought its own negative consequences, and many innovations have been introduced to reduce or eliminate many of those. Innovations in agriculture have allowed us to make leaps forward in feeding the people of the planet. Innovations in information technology allow us to better monitor, in real time typically, the phenomena that threaten human health and wellbeing all over the world. I could go on but clearly, innovation has been key in reducing misery on the planet. An innovation in how industry and commerce are conducted, capitalism, is a constantly evolving approach that supports and rewards innovation activity. The media today report daily on misadventures in capitalism that can leave us with a bad impression of its overall impact, but my own opinion is that the conscientious practice of capitalism provides the best environment for innovation to occur and, in turn, increase worldwide wellbeing.
More motivating personally, I’m one of the most blessed people on the planet. I won the lottery and was born in America to parents who created a nurturing home and encouraged curiosity, learning, and compassion for others. I had teachers throughout my school years, both in public K-12 and later in college, who were terrific educators and I ended up leaving school with degrees in biology, pharmacy, finance, and marketing that prepared me well. For the last 25 years, I’ve been blessed to teach and do my research at the University of Alabama. Colleagues, administrators, and students have provided encouragement, opportunity, thought-provoking conversations and, of course, a monthly paycheck. For the last 30 years, my wife Julie and I have enjoyed a great time together that has included raising three bright, driven, compassionate daughters. I have learned more from these four women than any other people in my life and I am very grateful to and for them. Finally, but foremost, I have had the opportunity to enjoy a spiritual life full of growth, in part thanks to all of the aforementioned people and circumstances, but mostly by God’s grace. Given all of these blessings, I seek most every day the opportunity to be a blessing to someone else. I know of no greater source of those opportunities, given my strengths and weaknesses, than working with students to better understand the large emerging markets of the world. Thus, in the latter half of my academic career, this has become one of my work passions. I have a long way to go before I get good at it, but I’m encouraged every day by my family, my students and my colleagues.
Changing the Approach to Blogging
If you followed our blog last summer, students blogged from time to time as their schedules and interests allowed. My own blogs provided a daily chronology of our India trip and comments on what we were learning. Rather than repeat that style in my own posts this year, I’ve decided to take a different approach. Reflecting the motivations for making the trip, I’m organizing my own posts around progress and opportunities that the students and I have identified for improving the lives of India’s impoverished people.
Where do we look for opportunities for progress in the developing world? Well, think about the everyday areas of our lives that can make life seem much better or much worse. Perhaps the first thing that springs to mind is health, physical and mental wellness, and the presence or absence of disease. We would likely also think of our current age and expected life span. Though we may be bashful about admitting it, undoubtedly, we would consider our material wellbeing and wealth. Today, a number of researchers from a variety of disciplines study personal happiness as well as attitudes that we would expect someone to enjoy more of as the previously mentioned circumstances improve. The common thread for all of these things, as mentioned before, are innovations that take place in our environment.
Going forward, I plan to organize my own posts around a number of areas where my students and I see that opportunities exist for improving the living conditions of consumers in emerging markets, specifically focusing on Prahalad’s “bottom of the pyramid” consumers. Of course, the focus will often be further narrowed to the particular emerging market that we are studying together in this summer’s trip: India. Three of the students and I, after finishing in India, will make a short stop in Tanzania – another emerging market – and so that experience might inform the discussion as well.
For now, the areas we see where innovation can occur or areas of life that can influence the practice of innovation, especially in developing economies, include:
- Natural Resources
- Health and Healthcare
- Access to Financial Assistance
- Physical Infrastructure
- Clean and Abundant Water
- Water for Irrigation
- Environmental Stewardship
- Communications Infrastructure
- Religion and Spirituality
Many of these interact or might overlap in some areas, but should provide opportunity for substantial discussion. I hope that you enjoy it!
“What’s next?” we asked as we closed in on the Esthell Resort near Mahabalipuram. After a remarkable tour of the Indian subcontinent, one would expect a little time for rest and relaxation. But, as we all had learned in the previous two weeks, throw your expectations out the window in India; they won’t do you any good.
To tackle the mountain of potential hurdles to health and wealth generation we’d witnessed, the group hoarded up in one of the property’s board rooms for a few hours during our first day. We created a sort of think tank in which discussion overwhelmed and ideas flowed like the Ganges. Here are a few of our initial consensus observations: 1.) The cold supply chain is totally nonexistent in India, 2.) The amount of available cow dung produced in the country is astonishing, 3.) Confirmation bias is a problem when tackling water safety, and 4.) Far too many hours are wasted per week by laborers looking for work. All of these topics are addressed in the blog.
With all the ceremony of a recess kickball game, we divided into four teams and began organizing ourselves to best handle our respective subjects. This marked the beginning of the portion of the trip I like to call “Reverse Innovation Boot Camp.” We would wake up at around 8:00 AM each day, eat, embark on an excursion, return around 2:00 PM, eat again, nap, construct a presentation, present this presentation to the whole group, receive feedback, eat once more, then either make a trip to the city or fall asleep early. Online MBA coursework was also squeezed in for the senior members of the group (myself included).
I had the opportunity to join the group focused on renewable energy from dung. We were affectionately called the “Poop Group” by our comrades, both for convenience and more so for humor’s sake. Other members included Ryan Hazel, Evan Rogers and Caylee O’Connor. As the week progressed, we began to get a feel for the problem points of the local villagers and how our solutions could provide feasible improvements to their lifestyles. This led to a pivot of the group’s direction into another equally interesting topic, which will be discussed further later in this post.
Our first excursion into the village was quite exciting. After a lunch with the village matriarchs at Esthell, we loaded up and travelled about twenty minutes from the resort in our psychedelic, florally patterned bus, which I titled “The Mystery Machine.” Upon our arrival, we were greeted by traditional music blaring on a PA system. We had come at the right time; the locals were observing a festival. At the town common area, there were beautiful altar and a large bowl of community porridge for the poor. We were treated to a heavily rhythmic performance of percussion and reed instruments, amplified by a microphone. The music felt distinct; it lacked virtually any Western influence and was basically without melody or harmony. While we sat and listened, children giggled and played. A man strolled by us casually with a sack of flour the size of an American college student balanced on his head. The children observed us outsiders without much subtlety. As I thought to myself how my Southern upbringing had taught me “manners” and how not to stare, I was advised to remove my outstretched bare feet from one of the smaller aspects of the altar. Serves me right, I guess. As some Eastern philosophy teaches, “Observe, don’t judge.”
The Poop Group’s first visit to a farm was extremely informative. We observed a smaller plot with a mixture of cows and water buffalo. The animals were beautiful; each had a distinct color that contrasted greatly with my usual image of the Chick-fil-a variety cow. Their behavior was precisely what one would expect of their American cousins; standing still and eating straw, grass and paddy leaves. The buffalo weren’t much different. The logic behind the mix of animals is that the buffalo are used more for milk production while the cows are more for agricultural uses. One of these is the addition of cow waste into a type of fertilizer known as Pancha Gavya: a fermented concoction of milk, butter, curd, urine and cow dung. This will be discussed further later in the post.
The utility of the cows made sense when we noticed both a gargantuan pile of cow dung on the perimeter of the property and the massive amount of urine produced by each cow every hour, or so. Farmers will store dung for six months and use it for a number of purposes. To convey this, the ruggedly hospitable lady with whom we were speaking grabbed both a pile of dung and a handful of straw and combined them so that the straw formed a structural matrix for the poop. She then gracefully slapped the creation onto a tree, where it stuck. There it would sun dry into a product known as saani. These saani are the primary fuel for heating and cooking in villages. Surprisingly, they burn with no smoke, as was demonstrated to us. Thus, they can be used inside homes. Saani are collected from the trees each day, morning and night. A typical family uses about five or six patties per day. That’s not their only use, though. Saani provide the family a much-needed source of side income. When sold, saani are known as verati. Six to ten kilograms of verati are sold by the family every day to local tea shops and hotels for 20 rupees each, which adds up quickly. This episode conveyed the importance of the cow in Indian culture to me more than any other.
After touring the farm, we were shown the inside of the house, which proved equally informative. We were told that this was a middle-class family, which made more sense once we arrived inside. Though the house wouldn’t be considered luxurious by any Western standard, it provided most necessities an American would expect. The floor was dirt, but there were light bulbs in every room, a stove, fans and even a TV in the main room. An important observation the group made was the presence of a large cylinder of liquid petroleum gas in the kitchen. This is used primarily to light the stove, but can be utilized for other tasks. This Hindustan Petroleum lasts the four members of the family 45 days. It typically costs 700 rupees, but the government subsidizes 240 rupees of the cost, so in reality it only costs 460 rupees to the family. This subsidy is a highly political issue in India, so it was fascinating to see its effects in person. The family also purchases kerosene for 40 rupees per liter to cook cow food. For perspective, the family makes 600 rupees per day selling milk. We began to realize that energy may not be as pressing a need as we’d originally thought. As we mulled this over, we were treated to a delicious fresh coconut from one of the trees on the property. Only after we’d finished the coconut did someone mention that the homeowner hadn’t washed her hands between handling the dung and the coconut. Whoops.
After discussion, we elected to next investigate the benefits of this mysterious Pancha Gavya to see if perhaps we could provide low-cost agricultural solutions rather than energy-related ones. We woke up bright and early the following day to visit a local farmer with a big operation who was facing a number of business problems. In his backyard sat a large shaded structure resembling a pagoda. Underneath this structure were 24 mounds composed of manure and green leaves, which I initially (perhaps morbidly) mistook as graves. They were inhabited by huge night crawlers. These mounds produce organic soil, which the farmer sells in 50 kg bags for 250 rupees each. A non-government organization (NGO) two hours from his home trained him to create this product, which he’s been mastering for eight years. In addition to this practice, he also grows watermelons and rice. He owns a few cows, as well. His business situation is very interesting. He makes about 5,000 rupees per month selling his soil. He could definitely sell more, but local farmers simply aren’t educated on the benefits of organic soil. As a result, he must sell wholesale often, which reduces his profits. His business is very labor intensive, so he pays local workers to perform services for him fairly regularly. There are machines that do the same type of work in hours, rather than days, but they are far too capital intensive to be feasible for such a small operation. For example, sifting is vitally important to creation of quality soil and requires about two days’ worth of paid labor. A mechanical sifter can do exactly the same job in two hours; its cost? 400,000 rupees. As a result of these challenges, this farmer has run into some financial headwinds.
When we asked him about Pancha Gavya (P.G.), he informed us that he knows how to create the product, but typically buys it instead. The cost is 120 rupees per liter and he only uses it during watermelon season. His reasoning was that he’d read that P.G. is more effective for watermelons than rice and that watermelons are higher yield. Many of these farmers have access to educational materials, which was encouraging to the group. He’s currently pursuing producing P.G. on his own. This makes sense; P.G. can be stored safely for two years and requires only two hours effort to begin producing a 200 liter barrel. The stuff is in high demand and could be a boon for many farmers if they began to use it. It has been demonstrated to outperform typical fertilizers. Fertilizers also ruin soil, according to our hard-working farmer. His vermic compost in conjunction with P.G., in comparison, is much healthier for the land and produces visibly taller and greener plants. It seemed clear at this point that there was definitely a market for agricultural improvements.
The man guided us over to an area where he had separate containers of milk, curd, urine, ghee, and water. He then unceremoniously grabbed a handful of fresh dung, dropped it in the vase of water, and stirred it by hand. The rest of the ingredients were then added and combined. This tasty blend would then be mixed twice daily for 15 days. At that point, the fermented mixture would be filtered and collected. This would then be added to water in a ratio of 1/10. Voila. Pancha Gavya. Ten liters of water and one liter of P.G. sprayed directly onto plants will improve yield and repel insects for an entire acre. “With such a simple procedure,” we thought, “why isn’t there more of this stuff available?” The answer was hidden in some basic fractions. The recipe the farmer used called for 250 grams of ghee, .5 liters of curd, .5 liters of milk, 1 kilogram of dung and 2 liters of urine. That’s four times as much urine as any other liquid component, besides water. Collecting ample urine is both an inconvenient and inelegant process: holding a bucket under a cow. The farmer already hands out plastic drums to ten of his neighbors and pays them to collect from their cattle. Buffalo urine won’t do, either. According to the farmer, cows eat more greens and produce “better” waste. Higher-tech collection systems exist, but they, as expected, are capital intensive (50,000-100,000 rupees) and require several more cows to run effectively. Travelling urine vendors exist, as well, but they’re not readily available as desired. This urine shortage is clearly a bottleneck to an otherwise efficient, low-cost process for farmers. At this point the Poop Group switched its focus to pee.
The next home we visited reinforced our opinions about the viability of the expansion of P.G. production. The resident here is named Sekar. He’s a savvy farmer who’s also involved in local politics. He produces watermelon, rice and peanuts. He informed us that he’d just begun using P.G. and that he is pleased with it. Unfortunately, no one near his home makes it. Thus, availability is an issue, not cost. His family believes in P.G. so much that the eldest son was currently over 400 km away learning how to make the product at an NGO. Bigger-scale farmers like Sekar prefer to produce P.G., whereas smaller-scale farmers typically buy it. Currently, though, the family is forced to use fertilizers and pesticides, which present further issues than those communicated to us earlier. Some residents are allergic to the fertilizer. Also, cows won’t drink water from fertilized fields. More, fish cannot survive in flooded fields with pesticides present. Finally, plants from fertilized fields taste noticeably worse than organics. The case against fertilizers and pesticides was pretty strong. Sekar insisted that word of mouth works in the region and that the transition to organics is taking place gradually. The problem is the time frame of P.G. implementation: the switch from fertilizers to organics decreases yield to about 60% in the first year but gradually increases by about 20% each year afterwards. Impatience is an issue to many wary of the transition, according to Sekar. Our group’s next step was to see how a high-end, fully organic farm operates.
The following day the team loaded up in the Mystery Machine and headed to a beautiful and colorful two-story home owned by a jolly retired government employee who worked in atomic energy for the length of his career. He invested his life savings into a sprawling farm in the back of his property, which houses dozens of varieties of plants. This man does it all; he farms, sells, distributes and even educates on good practices. After a friendly introduction by our translators, we were given a tour of the facilities. The man’s grown son accompanied us and spoke to me in excellent English about the processes involved on the ranch. Families of migrant workers live in a house toward the front of the property. The owner can pay them less than locals and the migrants receive desperately needed housing. There is an upgraded version of every sort of farming technology we’d seen in our prior visits on the property, including an intricate urine collection system with a sloped concrete floor. The cows stand on the floor and urinate. The urine trickles down into grooves, which are gravity directed into two collection bins in series. It cost him about 250,000 rupees. Everything about the man’s technology is impressive. He has even won government awards for some of his intricate systems. In short, this is an organic farm done right and to scale. After our initial tour, we got down to business by questioning him about P.G. This is one of a number of agricultural products he creates, and he was glad to share with us his process.
After the new moon, which occurs about every 21 days, he begins a new batch. The usual ingredients (milk, curd, ghee, urine and cow dung) are mixed along with a few extras to create his “special recipe.” These extras include sugarcane juice, bananas, coconut water, coconut sap and honey. These ingredients are combined in a large barrel that is rigged with wooden blades designed for clockwise rotation. This contraption costs 4,000 rupees. Once the recipe is mixed, the barrel is to be rotated 100 times, three times a day, until the next new moon. As a result, he produces 200 liters each cycle. In what felt like a warped wine tasting, we were able to whiff the finished product. It possessed a surprisingly sweet odor; hints of the honey and banana were definitely present. Then came the most shocking moment of our trip: the man took a tablespoon of the brown blend in his hand and casually licked it up! We were taken aback, of course, but he assured us that a quarter-sized taste of the stuff per day protects from diabetes, tuberculosis and many other conditions. He learned all of this from his guru and he’s been making it for four years; we still weren’t quite convinced. Regardless, this man’s product is in high demand. He sells 100 liters per month during watermelon season and 50 otherwise. He sells to both big and small farmers in orders of anywhere from 1,000-20,000+ rupees. What’s particularly interesting is that he sells his P.G. more to encourage organic farming than for business purposes— he only makes about 20 rupees profit per liter sold.
People come from far and wide and spread word of his P.G. This confirmed what we’d been hearing about the power of word-of-mouth marketing in rural India. He also reaffirmed the wariness of some farmers to switch as a result of the initial drop in crop yield. The final results of the switch were convincing enough for us, though. We were able to eat some cucumber and a gourd fresh from the farm. They possessed a deliciously crunchy texture and were very juicy. As we ate he remarked that organic fruits are physically heavier than their fertilized counterparts. It was noticeable. As we closed our tour, feeling inspired about the future of an organic and green India, we noticed a huge burn pile of plastic. When we asked, he informed us that he burns all of his linings when he disposes of them. This lack of environmentally conscious consistency made us shake our heads, but as they say, “for every truth in India, there’s an untruth.”
Following this visit, we formulated an idea for a low-cost urine collection system that could be attached to a cow temporarily. After interviewing a few more local cow owners, it was evident that there is definitely a demand for urine. Some research informed us that a typical cow produces between 14 and 16 liters of urine per day. If we could collect even a fifth of that, we agreed, we’d have a winner. Interviews informed us that most cow owners would have no problem attaching something to their cows, as long as the cow was mobile and comfortable. Our main considerations as a result were durability, cow comfort and urine storage. We were also told that an owner would pay somewhere between 40-50 rupees (less than a U.S. dollar) for such a product. We believe that the benefits of the product will pay that off in a matter of weeks, if not days. If this is truly the case, and we can demonstrate this to the locals, we may have some flexibility with the price point. Still, this is the primary challenge in our design as we pursue prototypes.
We pitched our idea to a board of community leaders during our last night at Esthell Resort. The board was pleased with the idea and believes it has potential. This was crucial to the advancement of the project. Between the processes of gathering data, consolidating, translating and interpreting, it’s easy to forget that the ultimate goal of our product development is empathizing. It would have been very easy to formulate a solution that looks good on paper. This is a common approach to innovation in the Global South. Unfortunately, most of these never stick. The fact that our product could realistically solve a problem and improve the lives of others is extremely satisfying. To be effective, we’ll have to embrace local materials, businesses and distribution systems to not only keep costs down, but also to provide work to local community members to garner trust and build relationships. This is the only way to effect lasting, scalable improvements.
In a country of over a billion people with diverse sets of languages and customs, finding the right employees for a job can be a complicated task. I worked in a group with Geoff Goeters, Chris Ebright, and Nagasai Adusumilli to answer the simple question of “How can we best connect employers and employees?”, and our journey to find a solution taught us both about India and about business.
To learn how people in India currently seek employment, we first talked to a farmer that employed about 10 people. Our goal was to understand what traits he looked for in employees and what problems he faced, so our conversation was open-ended as we tried to give him the opportunity to steer the conversation towards areas that we wouldn’t have even thought to ask. He said that the main problem he faced was finding employees that would show up every day and were willing to work for the duration of the time they said they would. Interestingly, he branched outside of his village when hiring because he wasn’t satisfied with local employees. He said could hire workers from southern India and pay then 400 rupees for a few days of work. Instead, he hired workers from northern India for 600 rupees for the same amount of work. Of course, it’s not common to see employers voluntarily pay their employees 50% more than is needed so we talked with him more to understand his reasoning. He claimed that northern Indian workers were more likely to actually show up on days they are expected to and never show up drunk, unlike some southern Indian workers.
The important takeaway from this story isn’t that there is any innate difference between Northern and Southern Indian workers—no other employers we talked to mentioned northern Indian workers were more valuable, so that was probably just the experience of that individual farmer. The important takeaway was that employers are willing to pay a premium for employees that they can rely upon, or a service that could provide these reliable employees.
One of our next trips was to talk to Sudhakar, a man responsible for overseeing employment for his region. He had a network of contacts that he would use to try to find employment for people that came to him looking for help. An issue is there’s a sort of “one strike policy” in the jobs connectors we talked with. If an employer says that an employee showed up drunk or committed other such violations, then they will not be given a second chance. This makes sense from his end, as he needed to ensure he protected his reputation for providing quality employees so companies would keep coming to him with job openings. However, this policy left employees that made a mistake out of luck when it came to looking for jobs down the road. We wanted to develop a solution that could reward the most reliable employees without ejecting those whom had mistakes from the system completely. Sudhakar also pointed out that it was relatively easy for college educated people to find jobs, an idea that was confirmed when we talked to a family of electrical engineers in Chennai later about how heavily companies are recruiting on college campuses in India.
The next step in our group’s journey was to visit a group of fishermen. These strong men had to go out early in the mornings to cast their nets and gather the fish, then sort them and prepare the fish to be taken out to the market (the selling of which was usually done by their wives). The issue the fishermen then faced was that they were done with their work for the day by the middle of the day, and didn’t have jobs they could work during the afternoon even though they would have liked to earn additional income. When asked how far they had gone to work, they replied that they only has searched in their village even though they’d be willing to travel to adjacent villages for work. We realized that there was an information blindspot amongst some job seekers when it came to jobs outside of their immediate area, and an opportunity for technology to bridge that gap.
Later that day after meeting with the fishermen, our group talked with a man operating a motorcycle and bicycle repair shop. Like a lot of service jobs, his work schedule could be very inconsistent. If several customers came by in the morning with motorcycles that needed to be fixed, then his work schedule could be completely filled up for the next few days. If no one came by his shop, then he could go a day without working or being paid. The fishermen and the motorcycle repairman demonstrated the two different ways there could be a gap in an employee’s work schedule—predictable unemployment like the fishermen faced, and intermittent breaks like the motorcycle repairman dealt with.
Before we could develop a solution, we first had to assess the resources that would be available for us to use. Seeing as a crucial part of our idea was going to be connecting people, we had to understand the communication technology available. Surprisingly, almost everyone had access to cell phones, no matter how remote the village. Even if every person did not possess a cellphone, they would often share phones with family members or friends to ensure everyone had access. In addition, there are widespread internet cafes that provided internet access and guidance for a cheap price. Knowing that almost everyone had access to cell phones or internet cafes would become a crucial piece of information for our group later. We needed to develop a solution that could take advantage of the level of technology available to us while working within its limits.
So to sum up, the biggest concerns facing employees were finding more jobs and working with employers they could trust, and the biggest concerns facing employers were finding reliable employees. Our product idea took a few days of discussion to coalesce into anything concrete, but after a lot of group discussion we came up with a service that could fit both employer and employee needs.
The core of our idea is simple. When a company needs workers, they could go onto our website and enter the job and any relevant details. Our network would then send a text notification to job seekers near the area of the job, with the chance to send a simple text back to reply whether or not they plan to show up for the job. Then, after the job had been progressing for a period of time, we would ask both the employees and the employer to provide feedback by answering some simple questions about each other.
The two way feedback system protects both employee and employer, and is the unique element that other job services don’t provide over a large scale. We talked to some construction workers at one of our hotels that said they were wary of working in dangerous conditions, but did not know much about the job before showing up. In addition, several of the construction workers we talked to had been cheated by previous employers that promised to pay them at the end of the job, but just disappeared after the work is done. The workers had no financial recourse in that situation, but by leaving a review of this company then can warn future workers about the company’s shady habits. And, as previously demonstrated by the farmer paying 50% more for north Indian workers, employers place high value on finding employees that have been certified as reliable.
There is a common (and unfortunate) stereotype that unemployed people are lazy, but when we went the ground to meet with people looking for employment we found that couldn’t be further from the truth. It was heartbreaking to hear one of the fathers we talked to say he would love to save up some more money for his son’s education, but didn’t know of any jobs that were hiring. These are the kind of people we wanted to develop a business solution to help. After talking to so many wonderful people over our few weeks in India, our group came up with a solution we were proud of to the question of temporary unemployment and came away with a much greater understanding of India and its people.
Last Thursday, many of us traveled to Birmingham for a meet and greet with AIBP, a group interested in strengthening the relationship between Alabama and India. While we were there, the president of the organization mentioned that he had been following our blog and was wondering when we were going to finish it. With classes going on, we never got around to blogging about our last week in India, where we set out in groups to conduct field research and work on product development. We would like to follow through on our promise to Sanjay (shoutout to you if you’re reading this!) and talk about what each group did.
My group consisted of two people – me (Sheela) and Meagan. Initially, we wanted to tackle the problem that the farmers were having with their grain storage. Many of their storage containers and bags were torn and/or were difficult to transport. As we talked to more villagers, however, our focus changed and evolved. We were noticing a greater problem involving their storage of produce. When we went to a fishing village in Cheyur, the fishermen were tossing around their freshly caught fish in the sand. This was their way of preventing flies from surrounding the fish and spreading diseases.
After doing so, they placed the fish in large metal vessels without ice. When asking them about this, a fisherman told us that there was a false perception in India that the use of ice to preserve fish is an indication that the fish is low quality. Therefore, they would not be able to sell frozen fish at a high price. The wives of the fishermen would typically sell the fish in the afternoon (around 7 hours after going out by boat).
It was then that we wanted to create a product that could keep the fish cool and fresh without freezing them. This product could also be used by vegetable venders who kept their produce out in the hot air all day. Therefore, we hope to make our product a fabric of sorts that could be converted into a bag or lining by the villagers themselves. We think it is important for the Indians to be involved in the manufacturing of the product for two reasons. First, if they are involved in making it, they would be more inclined to actually use and promote the product. Secondly, it would create local jobs. We were able to talk to a women’s support group that currently sews together jute bags for a variety of purposes. We feel that they would be an excellent channel for the manufacturing of our product.
After presenting our idea to a panel of Indians and the Board of Visitors here, we are working with Phifer Wire and DuPont to continue this product development. The seniors even chose our idea to use for one of their senior design projects, focused on the cold supply chain in India. We can’t wait to see what happens!