Lina Sonne

Mapping Bhopal and Chandigarh: A social enterprise push for jobs, a non-profit culture looks toward business

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles provided by Villgro’s Unconvention|L team and Okapi Research, which are visiting nine tier III cities in India to map regional social enterprise ecosystems and outlining highlights and insights. The first post focusing on the overall research initiative can be found here. For updates to this series, click on the NextBillion tag: Villgro.

The Oasis Social Innovation Lab is a Bhopal hub for social enterprise activity, providing advice and mentoring and connections for budding social entrepreneurs. The lab also creates new models of social sector engagement, including encouraging volunteerism among the city’s young population.

However, with a historical lack of entrepreneurship, but a strong NGO culture, it comes as no surprise that social entrepreneurship is not widely understood. Apart from Oasis, Bhopal has little in the way of support ecosystem at present. There are no investors, incubators or other kinds of financial support. Nor are there any formal networks or other platforms for entrepreneurs to use.

However, enterprise activity may be about to accelerate. The state government is prioritizing innovation and entrepreneurship as part of its efforts to create new jobs for its graduates. It was one of the first to set up a State Innovation Council, and has since created a Ministry for Science, Technology and Innovation.

Today, more and more businesses are starting up in Bhopal, and the city is expanding its commercial sector, becoming more entrepreneurial. Further, NGOs working with entrepreneurs through livelihoods promotion make up a nascent set of organisations encouraging social enterprise.

A key feature of Bhopal, which holds promise for social entrepreneurship and startups more generally, is that the city is a higher education hub of considerable proportion. The city and its environs are home to more than 110 engineering colleges, and several management and medical colleges. Few of the higher education institutions (apart from the Indian Institute of Forestry Management (IIFM), which holds a business plan competition and encourages entrepreneurship) currently conduct courses on social entrepreneurship or provide student mentoring. However, with too few work placements to go round, colleges are beginning to recognise that encouraging students to start their own enterprises is a much-needed alternative.

While still very nascent, creating awareness, implementing courses and setting up support to encourage social entrepreneurship among the huge student population is a major opportunity.

Meanwhile, Chandigarh, a city, Union Territory, and capital of two states, has all of the ingredients to become a hub of social enterprise activity in northwest India. It’s only just growing into this potential.

Medium and small enterprises (MSMEs), primarily in light engineering, have historically thrived in the area. More recently we are seeing a lot of startups in ITC thriving as well.

Left: A Networking break at UnconventionL in Chandigarh.

Social enterprises – MSMEs with a social bent – are still few and far between, but there are many non-government organizations and a strong tradition of corporate social responsibility. For example, Gillar Electronics is a family-run electronics manufacturer that undertakes a range of small CSR activities such as competitions to improve environmental sustainability, poster exhibition on water conservation, and setting up a play raising awareness of gender-based violence, focused primarily on its own employees, as well as raising awareness in local schools and the wider local community. The Competent Group has set up the Competent Foundation, which undertakes a number of CSR initiatives in the area of health and medicine for poor patients, as well as education and reading material for poor children.

Will the two strands merge? There are plenty of reasons to think so, with education and infrastructure in place to support new socially-minded businesses.

The level of education in Chandigarh is high and there are several good higher education institutions in and around the area (e.g ISB Mohali, Pubjab University, PEC) and many more institutions are coming up.

The Chandigarh and Punjab governments are setting up support infrastructure in the form of financing schemes and incubators in and around Chandigarh. These incubators have taken a long time to establish themselves and do still not provide a full set of services. They either provide testing services for samples, such as the Punjab Biotechnology Incubator, or office space, such as the Chandigarh Incubation Centre. Another organisation that provides office cheap space, but no additional services, is Quark.

A start-up accelerator, Morpheus provides support, training and seed-funding. While there are no startup venture funds, there appears to be a fair amount of money flowing to and from Chandigarh – for example from industry and from overseas remittances.

Lastly, local networks working with conventional start-ups and entrepreneurs include TIE, NEN and CII’s youth initiative Young Indians.

With the existing ecosystem, startup networks and booming education sector, there is great potential for the future.

Above: Audience interaction at UnconventionL Chandigar

About the research:

India’s social enterprise ecosystem is at the frontier of social impact and social entrepreneurship. We know that there are plenty of entrepreneurs and innovators coming up with, and taking forward new ideas, technologies and business models. There is plenty of support too – impact investors offering finance, incubators and accelerators improving the business plan, mentors to offer strategic guidance, and network platforms and facilitators to connect entrepreneurs, investors and incubators with one another. While this is generally true for the major metros in India, we do not know much about social entrepreneurs and innovators, or the support ecosystem in different regions of India.

Lina Sonne leads research on inclusive innovation and entrepreneurship at Okapi, a research and consulting group focused on institutional design with offices in Chennai and Mumbai. She previously co-led research at social investment and research consultancy Intellecap, in Mumbai.

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