When we live our crazy busy urban lives, do we ever think about where a majority of the people are still living? We don't, until we head off on a holiday to the hinterlands. We enjoy desolate places, call them rustic and calm, and come back all refreshed to resume our daily routines after that getaway.
How different life would have been if we had not been on the crowded side of the rural-urban divide, and how we take certain things for granted like electricity, water, healthcare, banking and, livelihood and hence food!
Although migration numbers are growing forever, 65% of India still lives in villages. Not just India, this is true for most of the global South, except may be Brazil or China now where migration has been more rampant and deliberate.
I recently traveled 350 km North-East of Bangalore as part of my work at SustainTech, a former Villgro incubatee that markets and sells smokeless, energy-efficient commercial cookstoves. While Sustaintech does not aggressively promote its household Cookstove (PYRO mini), we do sell them when a known partner is interested. This time around, Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), a non-profit doing some phenomenal work in Andhra Pradesh's Rayalseema belt (which was our customer for the larger commercial cookstoves), invited us over to see if village households in the Rayalseema belt would benefit from our household version.
Hence began a journey that took 5 hours by road, the last two hours of which consisted of only villages with less than 50 households, where it felt like both the villagers and the rain gods were on a siesta forever, and both were not willing to wake up and meet each other. Maybe they meet each other in their dreams every day, convincing one another that they can co-exist if at all one meets the other in real life. The earth in the canals and riverbeds we crossed had cracked to an extent known only to desert lands. Yet, this was not a desert; far away from it but had a vaguely uninspiring landscape, with acres of dry soil surrounded by hill-clad boulders. For the last stretch of this journey, for more than an hour, I did not see a gas station, an ATM or a bank, a restaurant or any other business typical to a highway for that matter. It is in these hinterlands, that FES has been doing their work on livelihoods and ecological conservation.
We finally reached our destination behind a hill where FES had gathered representatives from 50 villages. Coincidentally (or not), we reached when they were having a heated discussion on LPG vs firewood as household cooking fuel. As we walked in with our cute little household stove, the PYRO mini, attention turned to us, and my colleague seamlessly explained the benefits of our product in 15 minutes. This was followed by curious questions by almost all of them.
This is when one woman, Parvathamma, took the lead and claimed she had always advocated the use of naturally available resources for cooking – be it firewood from nearby not-so-useful vegetation or shells from locally grown groundnuts. She took the stage and declared that she would be the ‘early adopter’ of the new product she had just seen. She then took us to her village, which was an hour away. She continued to demonstrate her leadership as she called 10 other women from her village's households. Our show repeated in her home's front yard, witnessed by 10 women, two kids, a hen and her three chicks, a cow and a dog.
You might think I am ridiculing this scene. I am not. It's these people in remote villages who know how to survive in low-resource settings. You and me with our urban baggage would fail miserably.
What has not happened in these villages is access or awareness to latest products or services. Yes, once a consumer product is taken to a household, especially rural areas in a developing country, it is only the marginal utility of the product that matters. Ask yourself what does your product or service have that changes the lives of the consumer every day. Yes, it is the smokelessness, the heat retention and the fuel cost savings that basically change the entire socio-economic equation in such a rural household, at least in the case of SustainTech. Our customers have cleaner and cooler kitchens, and can set aside money for something else that was being spent on cooking fuel. In most cases, we have noticed this could be an education loan or added savings for health care or, well, more jewelry.
From the point of view of the social enterprise industry, what we witnessed was how one can penetrate the grassroots using a trusted NGO partner, who in turn has the trust of the community. However good your product is, trust cannot be sold as a USP, and that is when active NGOs or MFIs or even individuals who are influencers fill the gap. Moreover, these intermediate organizations can act as last-mile distribution networks as well, a fact that is leveraged by corporates like Samsung or Unilever and should be no different for a social enterprise selling products.
To conclude, FES has placed an order of 500 stoves from us after Parvathamma gave positive feedback, and that is a strong testimonial from an influential early adopter, giving us confidence in our products and the ability to make large-scale social impact through market-based approaches.