Social Entrepreneurship at the Grassroots Level

The 6th Social Entrepreneurship (SE) Conference was held at Xavier School of Management (XLRI) situated at the bustling industrial city of Jamshedpur in the state of Jharkhand. The conference brought together a large number of social entrepreneurs, academics and students at the campus to discuss and debate the current thinking in grass-root development and role of social entrepreneurs in driving change in the development landscape of the country. Given the vast scope of the subject, the two day conference had a packed schedule and with the time-limitation could only provide a snapshot of some of the interesting experiments taking place in the development sector. 

Social Entrepreneurship (SE) is a broad concept and is never easy to define precise terms but a few characteristics set it apart from the traditional development thinking. SE can be viewed as an approach and practice to social/economic development that seeks to find new and better solutions for enhancing effectiveness and outreach focusing on the poor and marginalized. The driving force of SE is innovation- the design, process and implementation stages can work together to produce effective and scalable solutions. 

The Development Sector in India

The development sector in India has been largely traditional in its approach and practice, focusing on problems at the grassroots level using a combination of advocacy, capacity enhancement and institution building support. Most of the innovations in the past focused on trying out new institutional arrangements that provide alternate pathways to development. Matters related to efficiency and enterprises are largely left to the market and private sector and for many NGOs working on poverty alleviation, markets continued to be an anathema.

The past decade or so has seen a rise in interest of venture capitalists and social entrepreneurs seeking to leverage bottom of the pyramid opportunities. The increasing role of professionals in development management has tempered a new outlooks towards development thinking and fostering the entrepreneurial approach. With the IT boom, there has been a sudden interest in seeking new ways to reach the last mile with development solutions. IT platforms, for example, spawned a range of interesting innovations from micro-finance, weather forecast applications for farmers, to variety of information services in remote rural areas. Together these factors have led to building up of an ecosystem ripe for SE. 

In the coming years, one can expect a fundamental makeover in the development sector approach primarily led by new generation entrepreneurs riding on technology enabled services to deliver transformative solutions to age old development issues. The change in thinking comes from this belief that ‘poor people don’t need poor solutions; but different and smarter solutions’. Today the SE buzz is spreading rapidly and is increasingly bringing into its fold a vast array of institutions, big and small, new and traditional, operating in variety of sectors and practices, all of whom are using out of the box approaches to solve development problems. 


The Conference reaffirmed the growing interest and challenges in SE and also highlighted the aspirations of a number of traditional development agencies to embrace SE philosophy. If one tries to locate agencies showcasing their work on a SE curve, we can identify three broad categories: 

  • organizations aspiring to embrace SE thinking and thereby trying to package their work as SE. However, they have not much to showcase in terms of genuine SE approach;
  • organizations that have made attempt towards their SE journey and have achieved mixed success and
  • a few organizations doing some really interesting and cutting edge SE driven work, challenging orthodox pathways to development and in the process, illuminating fresh insights. 

Agencies in the health sector like Healing Fields, Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health (SEARCH) and The Comprehensive Rural Health Project (CRHP) are seeking to transition from the traditional service driven approach to more efficient SE models. Some have started to experiment with new institutional arrangements for curative healthcare but the scalability and efficiency of such an approach remains a big challenge. The success of agencies like Healing Fields, which leverages the public healthcare system, is noteworthy for its innovative and sustained policy advocacy in the sanitation sector. Agencies like Goonj have achieved significant success by targeting the niche sector of promoting female sexual health through a women's enterprise of manufacturing sanitary napkins made from discarded clothes in urban area. 

To truly change into SE based models can be difficult for organizations given the often entrenched ways of working and rigid program framework. Further, the philosophy of providing specific services rather than focusing on niche areas that enable a system to perform, often fails to bring transformative change in the operational environment. 


 The Conference brought to the table salient opportunities and challenges in the SE approach but fell short of taking a full spectrum account of the sector. Lack of clarity at the outset on basic elements of SE led to a mix-up between the traditional development paradigm and SE approach resulting in a discourse that was somewhat incoherent. A more innovative conference format with mix of plenary, small group discussions and development market place could have facilitated more lively exchange. There was near absence of discussion in emerging critical areas like market led approaches where large numbers of innovative experiments are going on and which is poised to play an important role in social and economic development of the community in the future. The basic proposition of grassroots development, which often takes a micro and disjointed view of development and works against the approach of market-based solutions, taking a more inclusive approach to markets, service delivery systems, governance and administrative mechanisms as well as institutional arrangements. While understanding of local factors of poverty is important, an over-emphasis on the grassroots approach misses the crucial aspect of market linkages and thereby perpetuates factors that are responsible for entrenched poverty in the first place. Finally, there was a need for more academic discussion on enterprises in the social sector and vigorous participation of the academic community from XLRI and regional institutes like XIM could have provided current perspectives on SE in India and globally.