In fact, if I could take up just one of the many ideas in motion at this project, and do it myself for the rest of time, I think this would be it:
A hub that allows for business idea exchange between entrepreneurs from middle income, low income, or very deprived backgrounds. And not just for exchange of "ideas", but also for business linkages, since each entrepreneur would bring a completely new set of insights, skills, social networks and market linkages with them. But the meeting would be between equals; it wouldn't be a 'job fair'.
The Business Opportunity
One of the models that they're testing in urban slums in Bhubaneswar, comprises providing a range of solar "packages" (with some lights, a solar panel, a cellphone recharging socket and other things) to a community via a community-based micro entrepreneur. The entrepreneur then rents this package out to households in her/his community that do not have access to electricity, collecting rent on a daily/weekly/monthly basis. As this is considered a "business loan", the entrepreneur makes a month repayment to SELCO (they have 12 month, 18 month, and 24 month repayment schedules typically), with the interest rate being low or zero, depending upon how viable it is for the entrepreneur (SELCO's primary goal is to create a network of entrepreneurs, rather than earn an interest from a few individuals here and there).
From our own slum community survey last year, I know that on average, a slum household in Bhubaneswar spends between INR 350 - INR 450 per month on electricity. Of course the amount is not this high for households that get by with just 1-2 light bulbs and a fan for example, but the median house in some of the communities in which we work, have a number of household appliances as well as lights and fans in every room.
The rental rates that my friend suggests to community solar entrepreneurs in Bhubaneswar therefore is Rs. 10 per day (thus a maximum of Rs. 300 a month). This is significantly cheaper for an urban poor household. While most slum dwellers - in my experience - would prefer electricity (for both aspirational, and technical reasons), this access to solar-based lighting/cooking/fans could be a good interim solution.
We thus got my friend to meet 3 women from our key target community, all 3 of whom have expressed their commitment to pursue any livelihood opportunity that comes their way; they honestly do. After the solar products were demonstrated to them, there was a detailed discussion regarding the financial viability of this project. The discussion was guided by me, as I had in depth information about both sides.
The Business Viability
The finances worked out as follows: with just 20 household rentals per month (@Rs. 300/mo), the entrepreneur would collect a rent of Rs. 6000/- at the month's end. If the entrepreneur chose to pay SELCO back within 18 months, then SELCO would be due an amount of Rs. 4000/month (give or take a few hundred). This would leave the entrepreneur with Rs. 2000/- per month in profit. The time cost would be little; daily work was not required. What was needed was the identification of appropriate households, and pursuing renters for fee collection. Thus this would make a really wonderful source of supplementary income for the women.
Or so the picture seemed to us.
One of the 3 women decided that this wasn't right for her. So she listened to the details with great interest but went home after a couple of hours of discussion. The other 2 women paired together, and went back into their community to investigate market demand.
Nearly 4 hours later, they returned to report.
It turned out that they were unable to convince a single electricity-less household in their resident slum, to buy into this rental scheme and use solar products. And not only that, but the 2 women had also been completely embarrassed by the kinds of responses that community members gave.
Many of the community members apparently made sarcastic comments , referring to the "Rs. 2/- per kilo of rice" welfare scheme to colour their remarks - "Why don't you give these products to us at Rs. 2/- a day instead of Rs. 10/- ?". Others simply said that they weren't interested, some explaining that they were looking for electricity-based options.
The pair of "market researchers" returned sheepishly around 7pm, saying that it looked as if this idea would be unviable for them at least in this slum cluster. And that they were sorry, but it wasn't something in which they wanted to invest their time.
I personally thought it was quite remarkable, and thoroughly entrepreneurial, that the two women did this research at all. Most of the time our beneficiaries dismiss ideas outright. These two are extremely needy. They are sole breadwinners, they have 2 young children each, they get by with odd jobs, and have no family support.
While I am proud that their engagement with us has slowly led to a transformation where they are exploring new ideas for earning an income, I am crossing my fingers that I can bring a viable opportunity their way within the month.