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Interview with Mehmood Khan by Ulrike Reinhard

 

Mehmood Khan quit his high-flying global career to focus fully on transforming his poor village in Haryana: Nai Nangla. Khan is an unlikely son of the village. Unlike his peers who remained trapped in the village, he escaped – as he puts it – and led a life that people in Nai Nangla can’t even dream about. He got a good education, including an MBA from IIM-Ahmedabad, and worked for Unilever across the world. He launched Unilever’s brands in Cambodia, Mongolia, Vietnam and Laos before becoming the innovation head at the company’s London headquarters.

 

IMG_0267What does social entrepreneurship mean?

I define it as follows: you are working on ideas for the benefit of the society and you are bringing a transformational change. The heart of the idea is the well being of the society. And obviously you are trying to do it in a viable manner that it becomes self sustainable. It needs to stand on its own legs.
This is how the entire social entrepreneurship movement is thinking across the world in the 21st century.

 

Why rural India?

If you look at the global issues, the maximum poverty in terms of magnitude and numbers is in India. Rural India has 700.000 villages. On a concentrated basis I am working in 1.200 villages south of Delhi in the states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. But my network now is much bigger – we are working in Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Gujarat, Maharashtra and with you, if we start working together, in Madhya Pradesh. We are creating a network of people who are bringing transformation to rural India.

And we say if we can address the poverty in India than we are addressing half of the global problems because half of the global poverty is in India.

 

What is key when you go into a village to start the transformation process?

Key for me is bringing hope to the hopelessness. If you look at India’s development in the last 66 years it’s the rural India which has been neglected. In what ever way you want to take: education, adoption of technologies, sharing resources – it’s rural India which has been deprived of.
One of the major reasons for this is that migration is and always was one way traffic. The rural talent has come to urban India and rural India has been left behind. What ever is happening the enterprises or the technologies – it all begins with urban India and rural India is sort of left out. But on the other hand India’s resources have been very heavily consumed by urban India and rural India – where they all come from – didn’t benefit. I’ll give you an example: The school where I was educated 40+ years ago had science – now the school is no longer teaching science. There was abundance of water in the area when I was born, now there is a serious scarcity of water. And ultimately the poverty is very high because people were not educated, they were not capable to make a daily living and as a result they have been left behind. And what they’ve done is they produced more children – so the poverty has even magnified.
Today when we go into the villages we ask: Why has this poverty happened? Why is here no hope? And we try to give hope to all these people by bringing education, by bringing ideas, by bringing technology, by bringing resources which have sort of gone the other way.

It’s all about to discover and encourage the entrepreneurial spirit of the people, creating in them that spirit of entrepreneurship. And this only happens by education, by building capabilities, showing them what is possible. That is what we go through in the process when we go into a village.

 

Transformation is a process – as you say. And it usually takes time. What I see in Madhya Pradesh, where I am based, is that people’s daily problem is somehow to survive. How can you attract them, encourage them to your ideas?

First and foremost to the common people you have to talk in their own language. As you said they have to make their daily living, right? You need to bread, you need to eat to survive, you need to drink water, you need to wear clothes, you need to have a roof over your head – these are daily things they struggle with. You have to address them in their language. Not in jargon. Their daily language is this: For your daily living it’s not only just bread, eating and so on – you also need to develop your brain, meaning you need to learn reading and writing. And this needs to become part of their daily living. Education is a must. And that’s the first thing we address.
Today, if you go around in rural India, 98% of the children in the age range from   6-14 are in schools. That is a major breakthrough that we’ve had in the last 5-7 years.

 

But is it really like this?

Now you are asking for the quality of education.
What I was saying is the first state: they are reading and writing. The 6-14 years old go to school – they can read a bit, they can sign their signatures. They become literate.
So the next big challenge is the quality part of it – what does this literacy mean in their daily lives?
And this is how we address it: the capabilities of each individual are on a different level. Some children finished school after grade 5, others after grade 8. Or take the girls: In the areas where we are working 70% of girls drop out after the 5th grad. The moment they reach puberty they have different needs and schools simply don’t provide them: they don’t have water, they don’t have toilets, they don’t have private spaces – and in the process the girls feel shy and they drop out.
We are trying to focus on these drop outs. They do need work to make their living as well. So within the work we are saying: start embracing technology, start doing things which will give more value than just the usual routine of a daily wage earner. This is how entrepreneurship develops. We use their language and tell them what entrepreneurship means – for example: if you start using solar power you will have a sustain source of energy. Or if you start raising animals scientifically then not only you will get more milk, your animal will also give you gas. Then you turn that gas into compost and through worms you make it a better compost and then you take the compost to your field and your field itself will re-energized and it will become more productive.
We inject ideas into their daily routines that their lives start to become more scientific and then they suddenly realize: Oh! For my labour, for my work I am magnifying the value.
And that is the sort of the process we go through on various levels. With simply daily routines you start transforming their lives.

 

How open are they to new ideas – no matter how close they are to their daily lives. They very often simply stuck within their routines and don’t seem to be ready to accept or try out new ideas.

Absolutely. This is why the technology we bring in has to be really smart. People in rural India they want a state of the art technology. So for example everybody embraced mobile technology. Why? Because it is handy. It is clean technology, it has connected to them straight away. Mobile technology is the biggest growing market in rural India.
But there are other examples out there where technology is very poor – then of course people won’t accept it, let alone use it.
The way we have done it in the villages is we’ve brought in German machines, Japanese machines and we were showing them how they can make state of the art manufacturing clothes in the villages and many other things.

 

But making clothes is one thing. There also needs to be a market for the products as well, doesn’t it?

Yes, absolutely!
What you are bringing in is a very right thing. Ultimately technology alone as an option is not sufficient. You need to get one step further – you want technology that produces products and services which have a use, which can be sold. You have to answer the question: Is there a ready market?

Ultimately it is a 360 degree cycle you have to create for the enterprise. For an entrepreneur the ideas which are leading them to make goods and services is ultimately about the question: Have you closed the circle? Have you connected your products and services to the end market?

And this is what we are working on: to close these loops completely – to connect it to the end consumer market. To create this 360 degree. So wether it’s an technology idea or wether it is an idea of the clothing manufacturing, whether it is an idea on the water or wether it is solar energy – for each of these ideas this loop needs to be closed. And interestingly with many things you can close the loop in the villages itself. Take solar energy. You can generate the energy in the village and you can consume it in the village. In the bio gas area you probably also can close the loop within the village. But for the garment industry you have to connect with urban structures, the super markets and others to close the loop. Here we provide help as well and we try to connect them with the markets.
Another missing link in all of that is finance. These people will need money. Right now we are busy creating that loop. We are setting up a banking network around all of that. I do this with one of my peers from the Alma Mater. He has created what you can call a one stop world.
Our entire work here is all about new management methods. It’s about imaging a world how India might look like. It’s experimenting, co-creation, collaboration. Co-creation is done by the villagers themselves. Collaboration takes place with the expertise that comes from technology providers or domain experts in any kind of field.
You know, we live in the 21st century and I do believe that a single person or a single village or a single company or a single organizer can not do it.
But  all together we can do it!

 

So it is the network kind of thing …

Networking is part of the building process as I just described.

 

It seems to me that what you are saying is basically we have to walk down two paths: one is education and the other one is making (social) entrepreneurship sustainable. Do you see any way to combine these two?

It’s one!
You see – in my mind education is a social business. Bringing technology is social business. Bringing banking is social business, bringing market linkage is a social business. In my definition of a social enterprise ultimately everything is about creating a balance where everybody gets a fair deal.
So when we take the example education when the child is not being educated properly that school will close down – sooner or later.  Because why should a parent send a child to a school if the school is not delivering value? Even in rural areas I think this will happen. I believe if government schools don’t provide valuable education they will die!
Why do I say so? The place I am sitting right now, in this state (Haryana), more than 50% of the children go to private schools. The government schools are irrelevant for these people. They don’t produce value – so they will be kicked out of the system.
You can even take this on the level of government. A government which is not delivering value has to be replaced. And this is what happens in a democratic system – a government which is not delivering value will be out-voted by the people.
The joy of democracy is that ultimately it balances itself out – because in democracy, people make the choice.

 

So you do have a deep trust and belief in India’s democracy? How can we scale this all over India? We need to include more than 900 million people! Can we scale at all?

Not only in India’s democracy. In democracy in general.
Democracy is the right solution to societies problems.
Even for the biggest most complex problem societies will face, society itself will find the solution.
Yes we can!
India will be a wonderful story in the next 20, 30 years.
I generally believe in it.
What will happen in India?
It only happened in the last 5, 6 years – suddenly there is an almost universal literacy coming to India. This has not happened in India’s previous history. So literacy itself is a new phenomena. And literacy going along with our demographic structure – all these youngsters armed with education they will bring change. If they become capable of doing of what I earlier explained, if they understand the entrepreneurial idea – then India starts taking off.
India will be an unstoppable story.

 
The video interview was conducted in February 2013.
Besides the text above it covers also insights into India’s society, culture and history.

 



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