About a decade back, as a part of some NGO assessment work, I (along with a professional colleague, Sri Rajeshwar Mishra) had visited a small NGO on a remote impoverished island of Sunderban Delta of West Bengal.
Sebayan was founded by one Mr HS Rauth who was among the few youth from the island who could avail free education and get a decent government job in Delhi. Having achieved a certain level of success in life, he was motivated to support the community of his native place, and thus the NGO came into existence. It was managed by family members (his wife was the President, and younger brother was the secretary) and some close community members – and ran an assortment of small scale programs related to education of local children, biogas, horticulture, renewable energy, etc., to meet the needs of the local community of the island. Like similar small NGOs, it was largely funded by individual donations (including from part of Mr Rauth’s salary), and some small grants from government schemes in the region.
We had, however, gone to look at their “Jetty Project”.
One of the problems faced by the island was its lack of connectivity with the mainland, which could be accessed only by crossing three contiguous islands. Since it took about 3-4 hours to reach the mainland, it deprived the local population from availing better opportunities.
To overcome this constraint, Sebayan devised a simple but innovative solution using local resources. It mobilized the villagers to provide physical labour to make a jetty on the island where a ferry could dock, and take the locals to the mainland. This reduced the travel time to about 20-25minutes, and had a transformative impact on the economy of the island, e.g.,
· the locals could now get better price for their produce (fish and vegetables) by selling it on mainland,
· the youth could reach the mainland and earn more through wage employment,
· small shops on the island had easier and cheaper access to buy and sell items of local requirements, etc.
Moreover, the easy accessibility of the island had also increased the interaction of the community with the local government officials and counselors, thus enabling them to influence their entitlements. We met the local counselor on the island, and he shared that now it was easier for him to visit the island. On our trip on the ferry, we also met an educated gentleman in white dhoti-kurta who introduced himself as the teacher of the government school on the island. He told us that since the Jetty Project started, he had started coming to the school.
What was remarkable about the Jetty Project was that in the sector jargon, it was an entirely self-sustaining, surplus generating social enterprise. The collection from the jetty fare, which was just Rs. 1-2 per trip/ person, was enough to meet the operational cost of the ferry. It also generated enough surplus to fund the annual repair of the jetty – and employ and old man from the community to collect the fare.
We found this an innovative model which could be scaled up to many other islands to solve similar problems. However, when we asked the younger Mr Routh, the secretary of Sebayan, why doesn’t he replicate this project across other island, his reply was, “Why should I? People in those islands can copy it if they want.”
Clearly, he didn’t have the ambition of an entrepreneur (or what we ascribe to changemakers); he was son of the soil (or of the island, in this case), who was sensitive to the needs and pain-points of his community, and had found a way to address them – and was content with having done that.
I was new into the sector then, and learned many things from this visit:
· “Scale” and “Social Impact” is a relative thing. In the larger scheme of things, The Jetty Project was just a blurp – a minuscule initiative with no “large” impact. But for the inhabitants of the island, it had completely transformed the socioeconomic landscape in which they had been living their lives.
· There is a limit to “scaling”. Even if Sebayan had decided to replicate and scale the innovation, it would have impacted only some islands in the region with similar issue of lack of easy access to mainland. Moreover, even when these entrepreneurial innovations are scalable and/ or replicable, often the entrepreneurs lack resources and aspirations for scaling them beyond their limited local contexts.
· The Jetty Project represented countless similar highly localized, but high impact, change initiatives, which remain conspicuously absent in the discussion on social entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, since the award-giving foundations, researchers, investors/ funders and media emphasize scalability (in terms of size of population or regions) as an important criterion for defining and identifying social entrepreneurs, these Local Changemakers remain outside their search ‘radar’.
· “Social Change” – whether at a large or small scale – starts with a small lever which creates transformational ripples of change in the community - in the case of Sebayan, it was the Jetty Project. Somehow (and most probably intuitively), the Sebayan team was able to identify that lever… which in retrospect, makes sense.
Many such small, yet transformational changes, happen because only the local social entrepreneurs (as we would call them) are uniquely positioned to do make them happen - they leverage the highly contextual, and often tacit, local knowledge to identify critical social problems, mobilize local resources and develop a solution which is relevant and viable in the local context.