Biplab Paul (3rd from left) with villagers [Photo © Naireeta Services]

This article is contributed by our sector champion, Syngenta

We first met Biplab Paul and his team last year at the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia. They clinched the Syngenta Agriculture Social Enterprise Award for Best Use of Technology and Innovation. We were inspired by their vision behind Naireeta Services, a social enterprise that developed ‘Bhungroo™’, a water management solution for farmers whose livelihoods are affected by droughts and floods.

A year later, Biplab chats with us about the progress his 17-member team has made, corrects common misconceptions people have of social enterprises, and offers tips on effective communication, and successful partnerships with multinational companies.

Tell us a bit about Naireeta Services and the inspiration behind the enterprise

‘Naireeta’, which means ‘cloud that brings the best rain’ in local language, is founded upon Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of ‘Antyodaya’, where society collectively protects and promotes the welfare of the weakest and poorest.

Inspired by this principle of inclusive development, we worked with farmers, women, smallholders and youths, starting first in India and now across Asia and Africa, to educate and equip them with knowledge and skills to manage water in the context of climate change and food security.

‘Bhungroo’ is an easy-to-use gadget that captures and stores excess rainwater during the monsoon seasons, and release it for use during the drier months. This technology is available at zero to minimal cost to farmers.

What has been Naireeta Services’ greatest achievement in the past year?

For our women smallholders, who are running women-initiated and women-managed Bhungroo programs, being recognized at the global platform for our efforts has been key, especially as they constantly face discrimination and social marginalization in India’s caste system and patriarchal society.

For example, when we won the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia Syngenta Agriculture Award, women farmers were elated with joy. They excitedly gathered the entire village to share and celebrate their success. The state newspaper further published that whole story to showcase the achievements and contributions of these women.

Formal recognition is a powerful way to validate women farmers and show them that their voices matter.

As a social enterprise how do you reach people with your vision? Do you have any tips for aspiring social enterprises?

Let your work speak for itself. Many companies focus their efforts on grasping how to use media at a premature stage, and developing visual collaterals, when they really should be focused on creating positive change, tackling the problem for their target communities. Media interaction must be managed carefully – knowing when, what and how to engage.

I have found that media attention comes once you have implemented a successful project and can speak about it in a tangible and concrete way.

How would you define meaningful impact?

A social enterprise will only survive if they are making good impact to the community. There are four questions I ask myself and the team when evaluating if we are making a positive difference in our target communities. This questions are applicable to both social enterprises and multinational corporations.

First, are we able to solve the most pressing issue identified by the local community? Second, are the solutions we propose inclusive and accessible (financially and socially) to everyone in the community? Third, what is the acceptance level within the community, do people believe in the solution, are they keen to adopt it? Finally, is this model self-sustainable and scalable across communities in different geographies?

Profit is the by-product of making positive impact.

On Misconceptions, Leadership, and Retaining Talent in a Social Enterprise

“It is alright to make a financial loss, but it is unacceptable to make profit at the cost of your value.” – Biplab Paul

What are some common misconceptions people have of social enterprises?

People think social enterprises are ‘Non-Profit’ organizations. This is not true – we have been making profit since last year, mainly because we have broadened the scope of who we work with. In vulnerable communities, we provide the technology and service for free. However, with people who are able to afford the technology, such as middle-income farmers, large plantations, cricket stadium owners, and the government, we charge a premium. By creating different revenue model, we segregate the market according to needs and their ability to pay. In this way, everyone has access to water and are happy to pay for our technology.

Making profit does not mean compromising on ethical standards and social values. It is alright to make a financial loss, but it is unacceptable to make profit at the cost of your value.

Have there been any challenges along the way in becoming more commercially complex and profitable?

Social enterprise are born to tackle a pressing social problem, never motivated by profit. The ethical, emotional and philanthropic appeal of a social enterprise’s cause attracts many talented and passionate individuals.

However, as a social enterprise evolves and becomes more profit-oriented, this appeal might conflict with commercial performance.

Many social enterprises are characterized by the leader and individuals. The challenge then is to ensure that the ethical, philanthropic and commercial aspects continue to complement each other in a system, independent of who is leading the organization. It’s very important to create this system, otherwise you would not be able to retain your best employees.

How do you help your team remain connected to the social and ethical vision of Naireeta as it evolves to become more complex?

Leadership is very important in integrating everyone, socializing them with the purpose of Naireeta. We also try to create new opportunities for people who are getting sidelined. Since there are different generations working together in our team, care must be taken to create a space for each employee to develop and perform to their fullest potential.

On Learnings, Partnerships with Multinational Corporations

“Social enterprises should position themselves at the same playing field as multinational corporations and discuss how best they can synergize with each other.” – Biplab Paul

What are some advantages of being a social enterprise?

Social enterprises are strong at building rapport with communities and delivering service to the last mile.
Closer interaction with communities helps us to be more aware of the community’s existing knowledge and resource capacity. This gives us an advantage in being the first to learn about innovative ideas from the grassroots that would make the implementation and service delivery more cost-effective and effective, which in turn drives up our profit and creates positive brand value for us.

Being closely connected with the community also allows us to learn how local culture and tradition influences decision and behavior. This allows us to involve the community in creating solutions that they are able and happy to adopt.

How can partnerships between social enterprises and multinational corporations be mutually beneficial? For example between Syngenta and Naireeta Services?

Social enterprises and MNCs are both interested in tackling the same issues, but one does so at the micro level and the latter does it at the macro level.

Multinational companies can consider making their data and learnings available at an open source to facilitate horizontal exchange of knowledge.

For example, when Syngenta team paid a visit to our program areas to learn about how Bhungroo benefits communities, they also shared about Good Growth Plan of Syngenta. In that interaction, community was able to recognize Syngenta’s ethos of environmental sustainability and community-centric agriculture development. As a result, the community picked and implemented a few points from the Good Growth Plan.

In this way, Syngenta brings the capacity building, guidance and discussions to the door steps of the community, while Naireeta Services helps with the handholding support.

Taking inspiration from the Good Growth Plan’s ‘Empower Smallholders’ commitment, a non-profit called Sustainable Green Initiative Forum (SGIF) was established. Here, women farmers and community members play a central role in the integrated agriculture growth plan of their community.

We identify key women farmers across India, who in turn identify farmers who are most vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change, and find out the main problems they face. We then approach different sources to search for solutions. These solutions are made available to women farmers. In this way, knowledge is shared and society’s problems are addressed.

What is one area where multinational corporations can do better in?

Leadership of multinational companies need to think out-of-the-box. In a for-profit company, leaders are hard-pressed to meet profit lines, and few have the freedom to think of creative solutions and ways to engage with their customers and stakeholders. Innovative thinking and ideas can surely create more cooperation for internal and external stakeholders within MNCs, which ultimately translates to growth.

Social enterprises should position themselves at the same level playing field as multinational corporations and discuss how best they can synergize with each other in co-market penetration, service delivery, financing process and government advocacy. This is lacking at the moment and there is certainly room for more involvement.