A Week in the Field with our Entrepreneurs
Earlier this year the Artha and Menterra teams took a step back to visit a number of our portfolio companies across India and below are some highlights from that informative, educative and deeply inspiring week. (This is a slightly long post, but bear with me — it’s completely worth it).
First, a quick introduction to the Artha Initiative and team: The Artha Platform (an initiative of Rianta Capital, Zurich), in partnership with Menterra, has been working to catalyse the impact of social enterprises in India with access to finance and connections. Over the course of the last few years, Artha has built up a very powerful and impactful list of enterprises, all focused on solving the India’s big development challenges. On this trip, Artha was represented by Dr. Audrey Selian (Director Artha Initiative, Rianta Capital) and Claudius Guteman (Manager Artha Initiative, Rianta Capital).
Day 1 started early. Just 4 hours away from the National Capital Region, are the heartlands of agricultural Haryana. This is where post-college placement records are in the low single digits (in a good case scenario), and still colleges are turning students away at admission time.
Distressed by the way the higher education was failing college students, Megha Aggarwal and Ankit Durga co-founded Leap (Learning, Employability and Progress) Skills Academy 3 years ago. Leap works to impart skills that are essential to career growth, specifically aiming to providing exposure, employability skills for the 21st century, and job access to the under-served youth in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities. In the morning we spent time with the young and extremely energetic Leap team, many of whom have given up established corporate jobs towards the mission of creating better opportunities for all.
That afternoon, we moved to Khalsa College and got to sit in on a class. The enthusiasm was palpable, as was the drive and ambition. What emerged after the class were candid and moving conversations with the students, most often first-generation college goers, often from daily wage or farming backgrounds. These were students who had heard about the possibilities opened up by a Leap Skills course, and many of them had borrowed money just to attend. Their aspirations were simple and strong — to get a better job, a better life and a better way to support their families. They saw Leap as crucial partner in this journey.
Starting in Haryana 3 years ago, Leap is now impacting tens of thousands of young people across Haryana, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal.
Day 3 saw us in Mumbai, meeting Shalu Nanaware, one of the oldest employees of Sampurn(e)arth. Shalu used to earn between Rs 80 and Rs 120 a day ($1.5 — $2), working 12 hours a day in unorganised environments picking and sorting through waste to sell to intermediaries. It was arduous, poorly paid work, often exposed to infections, without medical insurance of any kind and no formal protections. She was one of India’s millions of informal waste pickers. That changed in 2012.
Debartha Banerjee, Jayanth, Ritvik Rao, the three co-founders at Sampurn(e)arth came together with the mission of recycling waste to prevent environmental damage and also create formal employment for the waste picker community. Sampurn(e)arth provides decentralized waste management solutions for housing societies, corporate houses, townships, school and college campuses, to eliminate emissions, while providing dignity of labour to the Shalus of the world. Shalu was formally employed in Sampurn(e)arth in 2012 to manage the bio-gas plant installed at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. Everyday, TISS generates 400–500kgs of wet waste, that Sampurn(e)arth has converted into bio-gas for the TISS hostel kitchen.
Sampurn(e)arth provides decentralized solid waste management solutions which are environmental friendly and actively engages the waste-picker community. Sampurn(e)arth works in environments like corporates, educational campuses, residential units. Initiated in 2010, Sampurn(e)arth was registered in 2012. Based out of Mumbai, today, Sampurn(e)arth is a team of 60, has reached 50+ clients, managed about 4,500 MT of waste and engaged 35 wastepickers. In the next few years, they plan to reach a handling capacity of about 400–500 MT/day and engage about 1,000 waste pickers.
On Day 4, we traveled with the Biosense team around ~150 kms north of Mumbai to a Primary Health Center (PHC) at Nandgaon Village in Palgarh District. The district was carved out of Thane in 2014. The Mumbai-Ahmedabad rail corridor passes through this district. Despite its proximity to Mumbai city and Gujarat state, the lack of development and economic opportunities were clearly visible. With close to 40% undernourished and underweight children, the Palgarh district is grappling with severe child malnutrition. Government data reports between 400–600 children dying of malnutrition each year. Last year the government initiated a program to screen all children (200,000+) in the age group of 0–6 in the Palgarh district. Biosense is closely working with the government to implement this initiative.
The PHC that we visited at Nandgaon was in a very good condition and catered to number of sub-centers covering a distance of around 18 kms. Here, we met a general nurse and midwife (called a “Yashoda”), trained and employed by the Jindal Steel Foundation. A Yashoda covers around 5–6 villages and works with around 10–15 Aanganwadi workers. The Yashoda is the person responsible for screening, providing nutritional supplements, and where required, flagging acute cases to the PHC. The work they do is deeply important from a preventive level and creates real, grass-roots impact.
Artha and Menterra investee Biosense has created a non-invasive haemoglobin measurement device(TouchB), a connected device with geo tagging. At the request of the government, the Biosense team is working on Aadhaar integration and data-tracking capabilities, enabling intervention tracking by district, village and patient for more targeted intervention.
Abhishek Sen and Yogesh Patil (co-founders), medical students at the Nair college were sent on a rural internship in the Palgarh district. What they saw in terms of anaemia prevalence perplexed and concerned them, and was the inspiration for TouchB. Shortly thereafter, they met Aman Midha, an industrial designer from IIT Delhi, who was designing cars at that point with a Tata group company. Together, they brought medical focus and a design-centric approach to core diagnostic challenges.
Today, Biosense Technologies has evolved from a college project and garage start-up to a 7-year old company that has launched several products with a focus on ABCD (Affordable Basic Connected Diagnostics). Biosense has partnered with multiple levels of central, state and district officials and with different ministries — health, women and child development and tribal- and conducted more than 13 lacs tests since inception.
(We also spent some time with Krishi Star, while in Mumbai).
On Day 5, we met Mr Gangadhar, an agriculturist, farming in the outskirts of Bangalore. Like 1000s of farmers across water-starved India, Mr Gangadhar has been struggling to find a sustainable irrigation solution for his land. When he started farming 10 years ago, the water table used to be around 400 feet; today there are bore wells that go well beyond 1000 feet. At the same time, migration of farm workers to city jobs was making labour for farm operations an enormous challenge. The Flybird products were able to irrigate his entire stretch of land in an automated, electricity-efficient manner. Flybird’s Smart irrigation controller has an in-built cache memory which intelligently switch on and off the valve (irrigation) depending on rains and moisture content in the soil.
FlyBird Farm Innovations was born from a desire to solve the key problems of the small farmer. K.A. Satish (the founder) wanted to approach the challenges through the lens of technology and innovation and has focused on solutions that improve crop yields and save water and electric power. Flybird’s Smart Irrigation Controller, Siri, does just that, by enabling automatic precise irrigation and fertigation system. Siri is affordable and prevents under and over irrigation of crops and plants, enabling farmers like Mr Gangadhar to see an improvement of 15–20% in their yield. In a country still largely dependent on agricultural output, this is deeply impactful.
Flybird has been closely working with 100+ farmers in various districts of Karnataka and has automated their drip and fertigation systems in their farms.
(That afternoon we met the Artoo team in their Bangalore headquarters).
It was a week of intense experiences and insights. We should have been exhausted, but instead and we came back re-energised by all the teams we had met, the work that was being done and the very tangible impact that was being created on the ground. Our country’s development challenges remain huge, but there are many smart, passionate minds attempting to tackle each of them, and our work remains to support them.