Nilima Achwal

Sankalp Unconvention Summit 2013: The Global Hotspot for Innovation

Intellecap’s Managing Director Richard Weingarten characterized the 2013 Sankalp Unconvention Summit as the “world’s leading forum for social enterprise,” and India as the “most sophisticated and varied social enterprise environment in the world.”

Before joining Intellecap, Weingarten was the managing director of the Norwegian Microfinance Initiative, and before that was the executive secretary of the United Nations Capital Development Fund. Given that breadth of experience, what makes this forum of 1,000 delegates so dynamic?

It’s in the enterprises – the “consistent high quality of the entrepreneurs” with “pure, raw talent” who arrived in waves to the forum, bringing a world-class expertise in their respective fields, Weingarten said. From democratizing medicine to rural food supply chains to innovating microfinance, the entrepreneurs present gracefully combined their high level expertise with a typically Indian practicality to bring their innovations to the masses.

Though the ecosystem is fairly developed in India, with innumerable incubators, investors, and facilitators, it is the entrepreneurs who continue to push the boundaries of innovation in India, capitalizing on the country’s rapid growth and optimism, and fighting head-on with the harsh realities of rural distribution, need-finding and scaling in a country where consumer tastes change every 100 kilometers, and institutional bureaucracy and corruption.

In past years, Intellecap’s Sankalp Forum was typically most attractive to domestic and international investors looking for deals, while Villgro’s Unconvention — based in Chennai — attracted more budding entrepreneurs from smaller cities. So in an effort to create a more equal mix of the two, this year’s combined Summit offered Villgro Scholarships (including travel, room, and ticket) for 58 high-potential, early-stage social entrepreneurs to attend the summit. These included everything from tech-enabled rural health care provider iKure TechSoft, to Justrojgar, an online platform for informal sector jobs, to Evomo, a rural mobility enterprise, to Zaya, a cloud-based solution for rural classrooms with infrequent Internet access. The full list can be found here.

The Sankalp awards continued to honor high-performing social enterprises. This year, the winners — chosen from a pool of 100 applications— were:

  • Best First Step Education, bringing affordable skill training for sustainable livelihoods in under-served states, with a placement rate of 97 percent
  • Banka Bioloo, with an innovative biodigester technology that turns septic tanks into bio-tanks (its flagship partnership with the Indian Railway System eliminating the need to drop waste on the railway tracks)
  • Awaaz.De, a voice-based platform for simple mobile phones, in which farmers can “follow” voice-based streams of information on their mobile phones, much like an off-line Twitter
  • Green Power Systems, with a biodegradable waste-to-energy converter called BioUrja
  • Barrix Agro Sciences (who also took away Villgro’s Innovative Enterprise Award), which developed pheromone traps to reduce the use of pesticides and increase yields

Also honored were Inventure and Sakhi Unique Rural Enterprise as winners of the DFID Samridhi-Sankalp Recognition for Women Empowerment.

All of the finalists were impressive – view the full list here.

Villgro also recognized the leaders in the social enterprise ecosystem with the Villgro Awards 2013: Be! Fund in the incubator category, Unitus Seed Fund among investors, Professor Shambu Prasad from Xavier Institute of Management for academic contributions, and Shruti Chakraborty from Entrepreneur magazine for journalism.

In a new initiative, several sessions on South-South engagement focused on sharing India’s learnings with Africa, Mexico, Brazil, Singapore, and in a unique session, frontier market Afghanistan.

The closing debate of the summit, however, focused on the investor side, asking the question: “Are grants necessary in impact investing?” Partaking in the discussion were Vineet Rai from Aavishkaar, Mark Kahn from Omnivore Capital, Sachindra Rudra from Acumen, and Harold Rosen from Grassroots Business Fund.

Rai and Kahn asserted that grants, by and large, should be reserved for nonprofits – not for impact investors, nor for the models in which impact investors should invest. However, Rosen pointed out that “fundamentalism is bad” – governments have a role and subsidies can catalyze business serving the 90 percent of the population that sees nothing from purely commercial business. He also pointed out that every type of capital, if not properly used, could cause huge problems for an enterprise. Agreeing with that sentiment, Rudra emphasized that fund managers need to be clear on their level of patience – if they set up their investments well (the right type/amount of capital in the right time frame), they would know that an investment is running into trouble far before it has problems.

“When we start displacing commercial capital, that’s a bad story,” Rosen added.

So, though impact investors may be purely commercial in some ways, there must be some aspect to their work that is social, whether that’s in targeting underserved regions or being more patient investors. Overall, it came through clearly that though many conceive of impact investing as being necessarily commercial, a large amount of social enterprises do indeed receive grants at the startup stage. The key ambiguity for investors lies in whether grants provide a necessary cushion, or limit entrepreneurs from innovating. The question then becomes: Do grants inhibit long-term sustainability and innovative thinking, or are grants a necessary step for enterprises to become sustainable?

The jury may be out on those high-level questions, but the social entrepreneurs aren’t too bothered – they are far too busy transforming the way information, goods, and services are packaged and delivered, in a sub-continent that is ripe and ready for transformation.

Read more of NextBillion’s coverage of the Sankalp Unconvention Summit:

Social Enterprise