Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

Is my iPhone fueling war in Africa?

“Only after the last tree has been cut down
Only after the last fish has been caught
Only after the last river has been poisoned
Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.”

That’s a Cree Indian prophecy I read for the first time today on the “Travels With a Nine Year Old” blog (it’s seriously awe-inspiring; a mother traveling round the world with her 9 year old son).

While not directly related to my post, the quote convinced me to write about an issue I don’t have a clear opinion on. The issue is  “conflict minerals” and their use in consumer electronics (the below Mac/PC video gives some background).

(I offer several article links in the below; if you’re only going to read one, make it Jason Stearns’)

It’s an issue that strikes especially close to home given my fascination with tech, and off the bat, it seems extremely clear – if buying minerals assists a group or government in fueling conflict, genocide, murder, rape, etc, then we should stop allowing the companies to buy them. That’s the point of the US legislation passed in July. But critics of the bill are pointing out that sensationalism may cloud the fact that legislation will not stop these conflicts – and in fact, may make it more dangerous because we think  it’s going to (Laura Seay at Texas In Africa posts very clearly on this). Jason Stearns (as mentioned above) responds to that here.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this isn’t a question I have an answer to. I am against conflict minerals. I don’t think the legislation can hurt as long as we’re honest about what the impact of it can (and cannot) be. But I also don’t believe it offers a clear solution; nor do I think we can ignore the economic ramifications for these countries and the U.S.were we to immediately halt all purchases of these goods.

What I do know is that this is a cautionary tale.

The proliferation of stories/photos/blogs in the Age of Information we live in has definite negatives- we’ve all seen and commented on this (why is Lindsey Lohan in the news? why is CNN telling me this non-news? etc.). Because we live in an age of instant information, we expect instant answers and solutions. And so we draft bills, issue statements, and build committees that may not actually solve the problem- but they quickly appease the ravenous news cycle of the moment. So the machine churns on to the next story, leaving problems half-solved, partially addressed, but believed to be finished. Whether a bill will or will not help this problem is a question. What will help answer that question is our ability to provide continued pressure and examination of the issue as we implement this and other laws. It is the danger of our times that information moves so fast.

As our continued use of mineral resources ravages the planet and we are forced to make tradeoffs, speed of information will continue to become a double-edged sword. On one hand, we are lucky to live in an age where information is this available- we are more informed about issues than ever before. On the other, speed can result in poor decisions, half-executed plans, and the abandonment of yesterdays crisis for the story du jour.

The class I am most grateful to have taken this year at Darden is Ethics, because I learned very quickly that I am like most people- I default to a given position without truly thinking it through and then defend it out of sheer ego. I was lucky to have a class setting in which to realize this, and lucky to have a professor that helped us develop our own frameworks for preventing this (creating the focus and patience to think through and challenge the position I was defending). Without that class, though, I don’t know if I would have realized how often I fall into that trap, and how restricting that trap is when faced with complex and challenging problems – like conflict minerals.

Challenging one’s own beliefs is a skill that is not only valuable in the careers/hobbies/relationships/lives we each build, but is also one that is absolutely necessary if we want our actions and decisions to make a true and sustained difference in the world.

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Entrepreneurs in Appalachia

Darden offers a very cool second year course called “Markets in Human Hope,” where students “build on such innovations that use business and markets as viable tools in transforming societies.” http://faculty.darden.virginia.edu/warnockf/mhh.htm

The premise is that capitalism is more sustainable than donation and that empowerment of humans through creation of markets and businesses will lead to outcomes that can significantly improve and change their lives. Microfinancing in India is an example of that line of thought. It’s a year-long class and the goal is to actually create something; not just study, but to build something sustainable that can be passed to the next year’s class for continuation.

I’ve always been interested in Appalachia (ever since a service trip there in high school) and would like to focus on a county in western Virginia. While huge improvements have been made in health and education infrastructure, there are still several counties in which education remains a challenge and high school remains a ceiling for many students.  During one of the several conversations I’ve recently had with people experienced in the area, the idea of enabling student entrepreneurs came up. Providing small loans to entrepreneurial-minded students would enable job creation (hopefully different from the low-paying, high-turnover jobs that many people depend on) and build local markets. It’s an interesting idea and one I’d like to explore.

If you have any experience with micro-financing / entrepreneurial lending / Appalachia, let me know – I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Rice Husk Power in India: Guest Blogger Samir Shah

Samir Shah, a classmate at Darden, guest blogs today on a visit our class had from Chip Ransler, co-founder of Husk Power Systems, which delivers power to over 50,000 rural Indians in a financially sustainable, scalable, environmentally friendly, and profitable manner. Samir’s post below:

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What stinks?

Look around your immediate location.  Take a second to analyze what’s there, the purposes those things serve, and how they could be made better.  It might be a small issue like the ergonomics of your computer mouse, or something more significant, like the difficulty of keeping documents organized (As you might have guessed, I am looking around my own desk right now).  Take another second to think about how you would fix it, and what you would need to accomplish that fix.

So what stinks?  And how can you make it less stinky?  Chip Ransler, co – founder of Husk Power Systems recently discussed this idea with our Entrepreneurial Thinking class.  He felt that ‘what stunk’ was the fact that 350 million individuals in rural India lived lacking reliable electrical power.  What stunk even more is that these individuals could not be part of the economic revolution currently revitalizing and invigorating much of the country.  Rice, a large agricultural product, produces a waste product, rice husks, which were also being wasted.  That stunk too.

Now what do you do?  You found something that stinks, something that needs a solution.  Ransler and his partners found a way, through technology and the free market, to develop a power system that used rice husks to generate electricity for villages in rural India.  Facing obstacles like working with clients who are not easy to reach, ‘not in tune’ with paying for electricity (read: they usually steal it), a 40% payment default rate, and a corrupt government, Husk Power has grown to reach these rural Indians and provide power solutions to more and more people.

It has been largely successful, and the exact details of their growth story are made clearer on the company website. The story of Husk Power Systems is inspiring and compelling, and Ransler brought forth some key ideas in developing solutions for problems that stink.  So what ideas are relevant for aspiring entrepreneurs and creative thinkers?

  1. Get it done.  Put your feet to the fire and get your idea out there.  You need to have passion that borders on insanity and be willing to go to the mat for your idea and vision.  Be ready to sacrifice (Ransler, along with his partners, lived in rural India for months at a time to get the system running properly), adapt, and give up what is secure.  Finally, talk to people.  Then, talk to more people. After you finish talking to everyone, find some more people to talk to.  Communicate your idea so that you can find a way to put things together.
  2. Know your customer and frame your idea properly.  Husk Power wasn’t giving away electricity, but selling power units to a market that had a demand for energy.  They tailored their product to their market, and made sure it was a sustainable way to earn revenue, grow, and maintain the initial objective of fixing what stinks.
  3. Ransler talked about the concept of second and third right answers.  I probably need more time to digest this idea, but he noted that while developing a power solution was the first right answer, subsequent right answers came from adapting ideas to develop the target market – for HusK Power, this included selling smaller amounts of power, and having customers prepay for power, bringing the default rate from 40% to 0%.  These second and third right answers have helped Husk Power develop and grow, reaching more people in an ever expanding market, which has in turn helped them develop their technology and infrastructure and continue the cycle upward.

Ransler didn’t talk much about the effect of injecting this power system on rural Indians.  I can only imagine how the company has allowed thousands of people to expand their productivity.  He did give us one quote from a local resident, who noted that “We gained independence from England 60 years ago, but it feels like we just gained our independence today”.  I have to admit, this quote choked me up just a little bit – the image of rural Indians being empowered was an inflection point in the presentation being made – things didn’t stink as much for these folks anymore.

Having visited India, and having family who grew up in lower class areas of the country, I can empathize with this quote, and it made me stop thinking about the story of entrepreneurship and start thinking about the power of the free market to fix what stinks.  In what some might call the heart of human poverty, an idea and product have been developed to promote social good and economic development.

So what stinks?  What can you do to fix it?

Samir Shah

Ride the Train, See the Culture (India Post #2)

Took me a week longer to get to this than I thought….and it didn’t help that I kept falling asleep at 9:30 every night…..

Last post I talked about the kaizen and later this week I’ll talk about entrepreneurship in the slum we visited, but today I’ll post a little about the cultural aspects of our visit . As we were in the plant all week working, our tourism was limited to the Sunday after we arrived and the Sat/Sun following the week of work (we flew out Sun night). Rather than give you the play-by-play, which would be boring, I thought I would pull out some of the more interesting highlights and cultural differences, in no particular order. To put it simply, though, India blew my mind.

I’ve posted all my pictures on Picasa- here’s the link if you’d like to look. I’ll also call out a few specific ones below.

Train Rides: On the suggestion of one of our group, we jumped on the train that went through Mumbai, and I’m glad we did- it was my favorite part of the that day. I took a pretty good video of it –  the train has fully open doors so you can lean out, which I do while filming, and then give a quick pan around the compartment. (see India Train Ride Below)

The woman who is patting the man’s head about 15 seconds in is a hijra– a “third gender”. This could encompass a hermaphrodite, a eunuch, a transvestite, and any variation of a number of themes that deal with a middle ground between traditional male and female. While everyone we met told us that Hijra are considered good luck omens, and it is unlucky to refuse them small change, or berate them (and you might get cursed in return), they are very low caste, and are not allowed to work “normal” jobs and are kept removed from “normal” culture in their own living groups. A few outside reports indicate systemic violence against hijra, but I don’t have enough information to speak accurately to that.

Colors & Energy: I’ll get more into the energy aspect of this tomorrow when I talk about entrepreneurship, but the general energy and bright colors of the city really drove the pace of life. Everything was always moving and changing. Traffic is a great example- it is the most insane thing I’ve ever seen, yet there were no accidents. People make turns across lanes of incoming traffic- no signal, just plunging in and hoping other cars stop. And they all know to stop! It’s a delicate and dangerous dance, but exhilarating to be in!Streets and buildings are draped in colors of everyday life- laundry hanging off balconies, revamped American advertising pasted up and changed to reflect India.

Race: One of the more shocking moments was seeing a Benetton store and realizing that most of the models for India Benetton are white!  I’ll let anthropologists discuss the ramifications of color identity in a post-colonial society- for now I’ll just say that there are a lot of TV ads (for products like Oil of Olay) focused on “turning skin fairer.”  This attention to “fair” skin became very clear to the members of my group who were blond. While I myself was not subject to to the rapt attention of the masses, the “blonder” contingents of our procession were. The tall, blond male in our group was called “Brad Pitt” several times, and at the Gateway to India, people would come up to take pictures with him. Many people also tried to sneak in photos with the two girls in our group- they would stand next to them, then raise their camera phone and try to get a quick picture of them standing next to the girls. No one wanted a photo with me though. Our tour guide asked if I was an “americanized” Indian. I’m not. Nor am I Harman Baweja, no matter what one blind hotel concierge thought…..

Hospitality: While the hotel we stayed at was obviously very hospitable (nice job ITC Maratha– great buffet, gorgeous place, great service), everyone we encountered outside the hotel was welcoming as well.

While occasionally beggars and street vendors could really cling to you, and one of our party had to knock a few hands away from his wallet, for the most part we were made to feel very welcome. Everyone speaks a little English, and most people speak very good English, so you are able to get around. People ask where you’re from, and want to tell their experiences with other Americans (if any) and seem genuinely happy to see you visiting their country. I only felt unsafe once, in a somewhat “iffy” section of a large market section of town, and even then, I felt safer than I do sometimes in D.C. Everyone really wanted to engage in conversation they wanted to ask questions, they wanted to hear what we thought, they wanted to warn us not to eat the street food….everyone was extraordinarily welcoming.

Poverty: What was most striking about Mumbai- which kinda reminded us of L.A., given the crazy freeway and the spread-out nature of the city (and a few palm trees here and there)- was the close proximity of wealth and poverty. While I’m sure there are “nicer” sections of the city and “poorer” sections of the city, the two are integrated quite often. There’s an enormous amount of construction, and new buildings seem to spring up in the middle of desolation. Million-dollar rowhouses on the beach are next to shanty-towns slums; shopping centers have security guards checking everyone who enters….and I believe, stopping beggars from entering. The city is moving at such a pace that these two populations are thrown into contact again and again, until growth draws it’s breath once more and sends them hurtling apart till the next conflict zone.

It is the hardest thing in the world to look a child in the eyes and refuse to give money you know you can spare, but we were warned time and time again not to, as most of that money goes to “bosses” who run the beggars, and also leaves you vulnerable to another hundred beggars who suddenly appear as your money comes out. That reasoning doesn’t make it easier though…..

It was definitely a fantastic experience, and I don’t think I’ve really thought and worked through it all yet. So I apologize if these seem to be random and unconnected mumblings. I enjoyed my time in Mumbai- although I was ready to go home, I was also sad to leave. There is a passion and energy and drive there that I connected very strongly with- I’ll speak to that more in my next post, when I talk about the businesses in the slums we visited.