My former colleague and good friend Saqib, the COO of Micro Drip, sent me this article written in Dawn today. It is something beyond remarkable when I read about Micro Drip and the good publicity they have begun to acquire. With an investment from Acumen to articles in papers to becoming a model business in Pakistan, I couldn't be more proud of my association with the project that literally went from a paper concept to a real live poverty addressing business.
RECENTLY I attended a talk given by Jacqueline Novogratz of the Acumen Fund on the concept of social entrepreneurship. The Acumen Fund is a New York-based investment fund seeking to invest in business that can help alleviate the problems caused by poverty.
Deeply affected by the events of 9/11 and wanting to help build civil infrastructure as an alternative to the American war on terror, Novogratz and her partners opened offices in Mumbai, Nairobi and Karachi, and work on building investments in companies that deliver both financial and social returns.
In layman’s speak they’re investing solid charitable contributions from American corporations in innovative businesses in India, Pakistan and Kenya that impact the lives of low-income populations in these three countries. But what really made me sit up and take notice was when Novogratz began speaking about one of the projects they fund: a low-cost drip irrigation project started in Tharparkar, Sindh.
All Sindhis know of our dependence on water. The drying up of the Indus has been a major source of concern for agriculturalists of the province, who are, because of our geostrategic location, the last in line to receive benefits from its abundant flow. We are also dependent on the generosity of India and Punjab in ensuring that we get an adequate supply of water. Who knows how long we can depend on India honouring its side of the Indus Waters Treaty? And the growing demands for water in Punjab will always affect Sindh’s water supply.
Drip irrigation, first developed in Israel, is a technology that can change all of that. It delivers a steady stream of water straight to the roots of crops, thus minimising wastage and making delivery much more efficient. It has its pros and cons, but has always been prohibitively expensive for Pakistani farmers. The average cost of installing a drip irrigation system for even a minimal-acreage land holding runs to Rs100,000.
There’s no need to tell you about the extreme poverty and deprivation of the Thar area, but most farmers live on less than $1 a day. Drought and lack of access to water make survival extremely difficult for the small farmers who own less than four acres of land. But with an initial investment of $200,000 in debt, and $300,000 in equity investment, the fund partnered with the Thardeep Rural Development Programme, and brought over low-cost drip irrigation technology from Global Easy Water Projects, its partner in India.
With this financial support, Thardeep was able to set up a for-profit, drip irrigation company called Microdrip, run by Dr Sono Khangarani, a Hindu Sindhi from the Dalit caste who wanted to do something for his community in Tharparkar. They have marketed the drip irrigation system, which costs on average Rs28,000, to a staggering total of 3,000 villages in the Thardeep network.
They plan to reach 20,000 farmers over the course of five years, and the impact of this work will be grand: not only will small Sindhi farmers become economically secure, they will also be able to reduce their dependence on rain-fed farming and reduce their need of water by about 50 per cent. They’ll also be able to farm all year around so they won’t have to migrate to the cities during times of drought; and this will result in more stable food supplies for the entire province.
The biggest lessons from this entire experience are that the poverty stricken of Pakistan require three main elements: access to financing, an investment in quality inputs and technology and probably the most vital of all an investment in knowledge. But what lessons can we Sindhis learn from the way social entrepreneurship conducts its business? First of all, dignity. You can throw all amounts of charity at a person, and charity will always be an important part of our efforts to aid the poor. But charity has a tendency of maintaining the social structure, and of encouraging everyone to stay in the have-and-have-not paradigm. Unless you make a person an equal partner in the attempt to better his or her life, there will never be significant change in society. Following the model of social entrepreneurship gives dignity to the people you aim to help. Sindhis need that dignity badly, as the last 30 years or so have robbed them of it in the most violent ways. Second, integrity. Those companies that want to do social entrepreneurship the right way will vet their potential partners carefully, following all the protocols of due diligence. If they find any irregularities in the way the partner company does business, any evidence of bribe-giving or bribe-taking or notes any sign that the partner company is involved in corruption, they must refuse to take on that company. Social entrepreneurship requires cleanliness of the highest sort, because it is serving a population that has suffered for generations under the brutal yoke of corruption, which has been a particularly crippling problem in Sindh and all over Pakistan. Thirdly, sincerity. I was struck by the willingness of two of the American partners involved in this social entrepreneurship project to travel to Karachi during the ethnic riots that have gripped us in the last two weeks. Not only were they sincere enough to actually come here instead of conducting their business via remote control, they also wanted to engage with the audience and really listen to the suggestions and solutions that could come from those conversations. There was no sense of superiority, preaching or posturing. Sindhis need to feel that sincerity from those who claim to want to help them, whether they are local or foreign partners.
Empty promises from politicians, the draining of funds that end up in people’s pockets and a complete disregard for the Sindhis’ needs and wants have made them very wary of outsiders promising them the moon and the stars. Sincerity, integrity and dignity are the cornerstones of social entrepreneurship and they signify a willingness to invest in people as well as projects. We Sindhis would do very well to listen to what social entrepreneurship can teach us if we want to make our people once again part of a peaceful and prosperous nation.
The writer is a novelist.