by Taylor Ray

“Imagine an equilateral triangle,” began Vijay Mahajan, one of the fathers of India’s social enterprise movement, “in which each vertex represents government, civil society, and private social enterprises.” He continued, “We now have an opportunity in India to truly make each point of this triangle support the others, and create an ecosystem that allows service delivery to thrive for the bottom of the pyramid.”

Mahajan was one of several high-profile speakers who kicked off the recent event, Seminar on Social Enterprise Innovations: Enhancing Service Delivery to the Underserved, sponsored by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce (FICCI) and the World Bank. Throughout the two-day seminar, several speakers painted a bright future of the ecosystem for social enterprises in India, grounded by this image from Mr. Mahajan, in which private solutions, government, and civil society synergistically and collaboratively work together to tackle issues. IMAGO worked closely with the World Bank in preparing the material for the conference, particularly the second day’s workshop, which focused on presenting policymakers and social entrepreneurs with a toolkit for creating an ecosystem in India that allows social enterprises to thrive.

It is clear that India has a strong foundation as a global leader in social innovation. The country is now driving to turn innovations into scaled solutions for the millions of people in the country still living in poverty, particularly those in hard-to-reach rural areas, struggling with access to basic goods and services like healthcare, clean water, and electricity. The government is increasingly being called upon to actively create an enabling ecosystem for social enterprises: revenue-generating businesses which purposefully create social impact at the base of the pyramid. Many path-breaking ideas were discussed that would further this mission, including creating a separate government office for social enterprise (much like the UK’s Office for the Third Sector), relaxing regulation on non-profit entities that generate profits and surpluses, and creating more incentives for public-private partnerships between the government and social enterprises which are making progress on entrenched issues with their innovative business models.

The first day of the conference played host to several panels, and we heard from many esteemed guests, including: Nirankar Saxena (FICCI), Bindu Dey (Technology Development Board), Bhavna Bhatia (World Bank), Ashwin Naik (Vaatsalya Healthcare), Mukesh Jain (Ministry of Social Justice), Yogesh Andlay (School of Inspired Leadership), Shelly Batra (Operation Asha), Maharshi Vaishnav (Educate Girls), Sudesh Menon (Waterlife), Soumitro Ghosh (Wish Foundation), Tristan Ace (British Council), Jyotsna Sitling (Ministry of Skills and Entrepreneurship), Amit Bhatia (Impact Investors Council), Vineet Rai (Aavishaar & Intellecap), Meenakshi Nath (DFID), and Vishal Mehta (Lok Advisory Services).

The second day of the conference was an interactive workshop in which participants worked in teams, centered around health, education, and energy, and collaborated on recommendations for evolving the social enterprise ecosystem in hopes of enhancing service delivery to the poor within each of these sectors.

Among many insights from a very rich two days, some of the key takeaways were:

  • The social enterprise sector in India could greatly benefit from having clearer definition and boundaries, and the government could utilize this defined space to enact policies that allow social enterprises to thrive and serve more people
  • At the same time, social enterprises continue to face critical underlying challenges including: attracting top talent, strengthening last-mile distribution, finding truly patient partners/investors, and sustaining their businesses on low margins.
  • Social enterprises at their best are nursery beds for innovation. They need to tap into the strength of other actors in the ecosystem (e.g. government, civil society, commercial market players) in order to enable scale. In particular, government and social enterprises should engage in a real two-way dialogue about what is working and how to scale ideas that matter.
  • India has organically excelled at growing social enterprises in the global context. The challenge now for the government is to create frameworks at the national and local levels to channel this start into structured ecosystem growth.
  • The UK provides a wonderful case study in how to develop an ecosystem around social enterprise. India actually may actually have even greater potential in this effort in the long-run due to market size, level of innovation, and early stage of the ecosystem.
  • Part of the growth of this ecosystem will involve changing attitudes around the role of social enterprises, and how they are different from NGOs, government services, and CSR. This is particularly needed in industries where social enterprises have proven out private models for the provision of seemingly public goods (e.g. clean drinking water), as the many still feel it is contentious to charge customers for these goods.

While it is still early days in building this ecosystem, and fusing a truly efficient marriage between the three vertices of Mahajan’s equilateral triangle (government, civil society, and social enterprises), the momentum towards this goal in India is undeniable. At IMAGO, we are excited to continue helping this ecosystem emerge and creating more opportunities for the people who need it most.