Lina Sonne and Michelle Abraham

Beyond the Metros: Nurturing regional social enterprise ecosystems in India

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles that will provide highlights and insights of the ongoing research of regional ecosystems that Villgro’s Unconvention|L team and Okapi Research are conducting. Check back with NextBillion periodically for updates to this series, or by bookmarking the NextBillion tag: Villgro.

Sitting at Bombay Connect, the shared office space for social start-ups run by UnLtd India in Mumbai, it is evident that the social enterprise community is going from strength to strength. People here are working on a variety of social start-ups – some being incubated by UnLtd India, others simply looking for a vibrant (and affordable) workspace. The connections they make here help them access many of the ingredients of a viable social business: collaborators, suppliers, channels to new markets and customers, the availability of finance or even incubation possibilities, a qualified workforce, and the opportunity to find mentors and like-minded social entrepreneurs facing similar challenges (and opportunities).

Across India’s largest cities, these are increasingly critical components of a social enterprise ecosystem within relative easy reach for managers of social startups. The social enterprise landscape is quite well developed in India and impact investors are flocking here with capital, while incubators are looking for new business ideas to support.

However, it is also increasingly clear that the social enterprise ecosystem, including impact investors, are centered in India’s major metros, a world away from some of the most pressing needs and challenging contexts for entrepreneurship in India. Recent reports and discussions among impact investors and international funders highlight the fact that impact across India will require an extension of this impact investment and social enterprise ecosystem.

Not only are the opportunities for social enterprises to make real change larger in the smaller cities and towns across India, but these are also much more challenging environments than the major metros. Why? Because starting a social enterprise in a region further away from the metros often means having to create your own market intermediaries, suppliers, value chains or even markets. You are more likely to struggle with finding an experienced local workforce and there are probably fewer fellow social entrepreneurs with whom to work, or share lessons and troubleshooting. This is compounded by the lack of organizations – incubators, accelerators and investors – offering support to social start-ups.

Intermediaries, impact investors and international financiers are interested in the social enterprise ecosystem outside the bustling metros. This is evident by recent reports and initiatives by GTZ, for instance, as well as Word Bank’s Development Market Place bringing investment to some of the poorest states in India. And in 2012 we saw the major industry conference, Sankalp Forum, undertake the Sankalp Forum – Samridhi Social Enterprise Recognition & Regional Summit in Patna, Bihar, in an effort to shift the focus of social enterprise and innovation to Bihar and surrounding states. UnLtd India has been supporting local affiliations this year with similar intent.

Here, Villgro is hoping to break new ground. We are organizing a series of 15 single-day Unconvention|L (Unconvention|Local) events across India, to create awareness of, and enthusiasm for, social enterprise in smaller cities across India.

Unconvention|L started in 2012 and has in the past year held events across nine cities in India with eight more planned in the coming months. At each event, our goal is to bring impressive social entrepreneurs to speak and inspire budding local entrepreneurs and students, and share some of their lessons and knowledge. Each event also includes an interactive session on the Business Model Canvas, adapted and taught through a live case study of an Indian social enterprise.

In many of the cities we have visited, Unconvention|L is the first event of its kind, and the concept of social enterprise is often not commonly known. It is great, then, to see the appetite for social entrepreneurship among the attendees, who participate in pitching sessions at the events that allow ideas to be unearthed and shared. Here, connections are being made between regional social entrepreneurs, institutions that are interested in supporting social enterprise, and the wider ecosystem.

What has become apparent is that we are lacking a good understanding of existing social enterprise ecosystems at a regional level in India. And so Villgro’s Unconvention|L team has been working in collaboration with Okapi Research to undertake a research and mapping exercise of regional ecosystems alongside nine of the Unconvention|L events across the country. We use an interactive and participatory research design, incorporating both conventional research methods such as observation and surveys, but also a focus on understanding local entrepreneurs’ perspective through dialogue and discussion.

The aim of this research design is two-fold. The first goal is to enable local ecosystem stakeholders to drive the way the regional ecosystem is depicted, giving these stakeholders more agency in diagnosing the gaps and possible solutions. Secondly, we hope to build momentum for making these local innovation ecosystems more transparent to those who wish to connect with or support them. To be able to compare ecosystems across the country, we are currently developing a set of indicators, inspired by other wide-scope reports such as Doing Business, Global Innovation Index and NESTA.

We hope that this research will not only provide insights into the current state of regional social enterprise ecosystems, but also highlight the gaps, and priorities for filling those gaps, as felt locally. The Unconvention|L team plans to continue engaging with some of our regional partners through, for example, a monthly speaker series, as part of a larger ongoing effort by Villgro to look into how best to support and strengthen regional social enterprise ecosystems.

This could be a first step towards decentralizing the social enterprise ecosystem in India, and provide the opportunity for collaboration and support that currently exist mainly in the major metros, to social enterprises and start-ups in smaller cities and towns across India.

Lina Sonne leads research on inclusive innovation and entrepreneurship at Okapi, a research and consulting group focused on institutional design.

Michelle Abraham is the co-founder of Unconvention at Villgro.

business development, skill development