If white, as it has been historically, is the top of the racial hierarchy in America, and black, historically, is the bottom, will yellow assume the place of the racial middle? The role of the racial middle is a critical one. It can reinforce white supremacy if the middle deludes itself into thinking it can be just like white if it tries hard enough. Conversely, the middle can dismantle white supremacy if it refuses to be the middle, if it refuses to buy into racial hierarchy, and if it refuses to abandon communities of black and brown people, choosing instead to forge alliances with them. – Mari J. Matsuda, We Will Not Be Used
Last week was a difficult one for America. Since I’m in India at the moment, I don’t even get to experience what the atmosphere must be like in person. But when I read the news reports and the responses from people I know, I felt very heavy hearted.
Here are some memories of growing up and learning about blacks and whites as a yellow person. In my home, we were particularly vocal about race — as in, race is something we spoke about pretty vocally. I left some of the more racially-charged comments out. Here are some memories, in roughly chronological order.
- My dad had a white manager who used to “joke” about dropping an atomic bomb onto South Central Los Angeles, which is predominantly black. My dad never found the “joke” to be very funny, but he repeated it out of a blend of anger, sadness, and that sarcasm that you use when you don’t know how to react.
- “Be thankful for blacks and Hispanics. If they weren’t around, we’d have it a lot worse.” — my dad.
- I watched the Rodney King police beatings on TV from my grandparents’ house. I didn’t understand what was going on. My grandparents and parents were frightened by the consequential LA riots. My dad said that if I hear gunshots from home, I should lie facedown on the ground floor utility room to lessen the chances of stray bullets hitting me.
- One of the main reasons that my parents sent me to a preppy all-girl high school was so that I could “learn to talk to white people.” However, my friends ended up being all Asian, and one of the worst insults was to be called “white-washed.”
- My high school history teacher walked us through American history through different lenses. When we were finished with the African American unit, I thought to myself, “I am so thankful to not be black.” I had finally understood that black in America is still so hard.
I think that a lot of Asian Americans don’t know how to react to the police brutalities and to the reality of institutionalized racism within our justice system. Asian Americans are a minority, like blacks and browns, but we’re a “model minority.” Being in the middle, we both experience privilege (which we have to acknowledge!) and also discrimination (which we also can’t brush off). It’s easy to be indifferent when our own “kind” is sitting pretty comfortably. It’s easy to stay silent so that we don’t ruffle any feathers in the wrong way.
I personally believe that we Asian Americans should get behind #blacklivesmatter. Blacks and Hispanics have had to fight in ways that our most recent generations of Asian Americans cannot identify with, although we also cannot ignore the price our ancestors have paid and the price that some current immigrants are paying right now. Rather than ignore the more evident struggle of blacks, Hispanics, and other groups, let us Asian Americans actively acknowledge it within our own communities, speak against the racist speech and violence wherever we find it, and allow individuals we know in those communities the space to speak out wherever we can.
If you’re interested, here are a few articles and initiatives on the matter:
There are now, in a sense, two Asian Americas: one formed by five centuries of systemic racism, and another, more genteel version, constituted in the aftermath of the 1965 law. These two Asian Americas float over and under each other like tectonic plates, often clanging discordantly.
This article came out almost a year ago, but someone brought it up again to me. Both my mom and dad’s families immigrated to the US prior to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. My great-grandfather and grandfather fought for the USA in World War I and II, respectively. My great-grandmother was blamed by her parents for the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. My grandfather remembers growing up in the Great Depression, during which he ate chicken everyday … and afterward would no longer eat chicken. My dad remembers the various phases and places of LA’s Chinatown and grew up on the poorer side of the spectrum. He and his brothers and sister participated in the early years of the Love Boat. My mom’s parents ran a grocery store in Texas, and in California, my grandfather worked as a butcher and my grandmother worked as a seamstress. My grandmother never learned English in San Francisco’s Richmond district. My aunt, who was a chemistry professor in China, took up a job as a hotel maid.
Because of the grit and hard work of the generations that preceded us, my cousins and I have been able to capture part of that American dream that our ancestors longed for years ago. We’ve seriously taken it for granted, as well. Not all immigrant families who arrived like my family were able to achieve wealth and material success, even in subsequent generations. This may be surprising to some people, who probably equate Asian Americans with higher education and wealth (and math). But in reality, overall Chinese American prosperity that stems from the newer wave of post-1965 immigration tends to obscure the higher-than-average poverty rate for Chinese Americans.
Growing up in Los Angeles, I had a lot of “new immigrant” friends. They generally lived in big houses in rich, very Asian neighborhoods (e.g. Chan Marino and Arcasia). Many of them had fathers who did some type of unspecified “business” between the US and China. We were all Chinese-blooded and living in America, but my Chinese American culture was completely different from theirs. Like, I was kind of ghetto — I lived in a neighborhood where my mom was scared of letting me walk outside because of, you know, the gangs and drive-by shootings. My family frequented Chinatown, and their families stayed in the San Gabriel Valley. I was used to Chinese restaurants with greasy tables and kitsch red and gold decor; they ate in places with tablecloths. I have a new wave immigrant friend whose boyfriend is old school immigrant. My friend’s mom disapproves of him, since his mom is a dim sum cart pusher. But when I visited his parents’ house with my friend, the sound of clacking mahjong tiles and loud Cantonese banter made me feel at home.
In reality, there are two Asian Americas. It’s too easy to believe that all Asian Americans work as doctors, lawyers, or engineers and have children to go to Ivy League colleges. Despite what the media says about Asian Americans being the “model minority,” it is unjust to assume that all Asian immigrants reach that level of achievement. Asian American poverty is invisibly growing, especially among seniors and Southeast Asian refugee communities, which tend to get clumped together in the data with other Asian ethnic groups. Recognizing their problems is the first step of making progress.
While that happens, though, please enjoy this 42 year old video of my dad doing a Chinese sword dance. This is what happens when a boy born in Bakersfield, California attempts to get in touch with his Chinese roots.
Earlier this week, Josh and I returned from a trip to Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh. Spiti is a part of the Himalayas and is located about 8 to 14 hours outside of Manali, depending on how fast you drive and whether or not you get stuck behind other vehicles on narrow, single-lane, mountain-hugging roads. The landscape is barren, as the terrain is rocky like a mountain and dry like a desert. It never rains in Spiti; the only precipitation it gets is snow. I’ve seen no other place like it.
When we talk about disconnected, remove villages in India, these small villages in Spiti would be exemplary. For example, we visited Komic, the highest inhabited village in Asia with 82 residents. Komic and other villages like it are completely inaccessible during the winter, when the roads are shut because of snow. (I also learned that winter activities in Spiti consist purely of eating, drinking, and sleeping.) If Essmart were to work in Spiti, I have no idea how the company would make money. Rural South India’s density and easy-to-drive roads make it a much easier market to serve.
Spiti Holiday Adventure, the company that we booked our tour with, prides itself in being a company run by Spiti locals. Hence, customers also get local guides, experiences, and prices. Our 7-day Innova Jeep Tour cost only INR 12,470 (USD 185) per person. The accommodations exceeded my expectations (e.g. when camping, I slept in a comfortable bed instead of a sleeping bag like I was expecting). We got to try non-touristy activities, like riding in a steel basket that’s used to connected two villages a gorge part from each other. I’m not even sure if the company profits from these tours (perhaps they’re being supported by public funds?). Either way, Spiti Holiday Adventure is definitely driven by the mission of bringing sustainable development to Spiti, and I would recommend going with the company if you’re planning a trip or a trek there. You can learn more about them on their Facebook page or by Googling Ramesh Lotey, one of the founders who’s been working to bring people to Spiti for the past 27 years.
And now, for some photos, which are mostly also on my Instagram account.
… even when you didn’t really expect it to. I’ve been learning that empowerment — “the process of enhancing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes” (according to the World Bank definition) — is a powerful thing.
I’m writing this from Pollachi, a town of about 100,000 people that is located about 1.5 hours south of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, India. The surroundings are beautiful; they’re green and lush, with coconut trees sprouting out of every barren piece of land. Pollachi is the home of Essmart’s first Distribution Center.
I’m here this week because I had to follow up with some women whom we trained three months ago. The training was based on the United Nation Foundation’s Global Alliance for Clean Cookstove’s Women’s Empowerment Fund’s Empowered Entrepreneur Training Handbook (that’s quite the mouthful), and it was funded by the same organization. Our goal was to encourage higher levels of women’s participation in business — namely, the women who worked in Essmart’s stores. We encouraged women’s participation in retail stores by first training the men on business skills while emphasizing the contributions that women can make. Then, we trained the women on business skills while emphasizing their own capabilities.
At least, that’s what we had planned to do. We managed to run two training sessions, one for men and one for women, but our attendance numbers were low. The multiple-day workshop setup wasn’t conducive to the busy lives of shopkeepers, so participants floated in and out of the sessions. All but one of the women worked on businesses outside of Essmart’s stores; technically, they weren’t our target audience. But we worked with what we had.
I didn’t expect that a three-day training session would make much of an impact on either the men or the women. I was more or less correct about the lack of concrete impact on the men — I think that their biggest takeaway was that it is critical to, well, speak to customers nicely (which I thought was obvious?). But the women — they surprised me. There was the young Muslim woman who broke out of her shell through this single training workshop. The sales of her door-to-door nightgown selling business increased by 50 percent, after she became more comfortable talking to potential new customers. Her utilization of technology — namely, WhatsApp groups — made a huge difference in reducing her gasoline prices, since she no longer had to show her designs door-to-door via scooter. The WhatsApp group also helped her gauge customer demand so that she wouldn’t waste money on inventory that no one buys. She now takes pre-orders based on responses from her WhatsApp group. Additionally, her WhatsApp group has eased tensions with her family, who were previously discouraging her business because it required her to drive around town alone. Her family members are now quite supportive of her. Way to go, sister!
Another woman works at her family’s motorbike financing business. After the training session that Essmart held, she went back to analyze her costs. She realized that the business was spending far too much money outsourcing repairs to a third-party workshop. They were paying Rs 700 per day for just the labor to fix broken motorbikes. This woman realized that she could spend Rs 7,000 per month on a mechanic who could fix many motorbikes. She ended up starting up a new motorbike servicing center that falls under the umbrella of the family’s motorbike financing business. She has three male employees who service 10 to 20 motorbikes per day. This new servicing business is earning more profits than the company’s core financing business.
Empowerment is powerful. Being told that you have something to offer — and then truly believing it — unleashes so much potential. Limiting beliefs are destructive, and our training workshops helped participants unearth the limiting beliefs they have of each other (mostly in the sense that men believe that women are limited in, for example, their ability to learn new technology) and limiting beliefs they have of themselves, which both women and men suffer from. Of course, there are much larger, societal issues at play here, and training workshops that emphasize gender equality are small steps. However, something good is happening through them, even if it’s in the lives of two people and their families.
After attending a second cousin’s wedding in Chennai, Josh and I went to Pondicherry (also known as Pondy or Puducherry) this past weekend. Pondicherry is known for being the headquarters of the French East India Company, so its French Quarter area, by the beach and separated by a canal, still has that colonial look.
Neither Josh nor I had been there before, and the town was on both of our must-see-in-India-before-we-leave lists. Despite it being early June during our visit (that is, near-deadly hot and humid), we took the trip. I thought I’d write about our trip there.
Getting there: We weren’t sure how to get to Pondicherry from Chennai. There were air conditioned private buses that we found on Goibibo and Redbus, but those tickets were Rs 500 per person. We knew we could do better. Josh’s dad recommended that we head to Chennai’s government bus stand at Koyambedu and see if we could find any air conditioned public buses. Sure enough, we found the Pondicherry Road Transport Corporation buses that were located at the right side of the bus stand after entering through the main entrance. One ticket in an air conditioned bus cost Rs 200, and we could pay onboard with cash. Our bus left at 5:30pm, and it took us four hours to reach Pondicherry (one hour was spent trying to get out of the massive urban agglomeration that is Chennai).
Getting around: We rented pedal bicycles to get around Pondicherry’s French Quarters. There’s a row of bicycle rental stalls on Mission Street. I think we were overcharged for our bicycles, though — we paid Rs 75/bicycle/day, and I later learned that the going rate was around Rs 50. Alas. You can also rent scooters and motorbikes from some of these stalls, if that’s more your style.
What to Do
What is there to do in Pondicherry? Josh and I aren’t the type to visit ashrams and temples, so to be honest, there’s not too much to do. Hence, it makes for a relaxing vacation. We also went during a very hot summer month, so we spent most of our afternoons in an air-conditioned cafe or our hotel room.
The beach and promenade: Pondicherry situated along the Bay of Bengal. However, the beach is a rocky one, not a sandy one. What’s nice about the beach, though, is that the road along the beach is closed to all vehicular traffic from 6:30pm to 7am. In the evening and early morning, it turns into a large pedestrian street with folks strolling along the paved road, sitting on the rocks at the coast, and little people climbing up and sliding down important monuments like the Gandhi statue.
The sunrise: One of my favorite activities was watching a sunrise at the beach. Josh and I woke up at 5am to head toward the beach by 5:30am. The sunrise was at 5:45am, but because of the clouds, we couldn’t see much until around 6am. The view wasn’t super spectacular (that really just depends on atmospheric conditions), but it was a fun experience. Afterward, we attempted to find a breakfast place that was open … and didn’t quite succeed. Pondicherry commercial establishments wake up late.
The French Quarters: We stayed in the French Quarters, and a highlight was riding our bicycles through the small streets of White Town and Heritage Town. The traffic was relatively light so that I, an unconfident bicycle rider, could still feel relatively safe. The tree-lined roads and heritage buildings were scenic.
The eats: This was probably my favorite part of Pondicherry. The French Quarters are littered with small cafes and restaurants. I wouldn’t say that the food is particularly cheap, but the variety is good. I’ve noticed, though, that restaurants shut down quite frequently or are closed during hours they’re publicized as being open. Try calling ahead before attempting to follow Google Maps to the location.
For pizza: I’m not sure why, but there are at least five pizza joints in Pondicherry. Of the ones that Josh and I tried, Cafe Xtasi on Mission Street is our favorite. The variety of pizzas on its menu is quite astounding (more than I’ve seen on menus in Bangalore), and the thin crust is actually crisp and not soggy. We went for lunch on a Saturday, and it was pretty crowded. Also note that the air conditioning doesn’t work if there’s a power cut, and their brick oven can make sitting indoors quite brutal.
For burgers: Canteen 18 on Canteen Street. I actually wrote my first Zomato review for this tiny restaurant, since I agreed to do so after the guy at the counter asked me to. Anyway, these beef burgers are juicy (unlike the overcooked ones I normally get in Bangalore), come with special sauces (I got barbecue), and are completely made to order. There’s only outdoor seating for perhaps 10 people, but at least there are fans that make it pleasant enough.
For croissants: Baker Street on Bussy Street. The quiches and sandwiches are overpriced, but the croissants are affordable and delicious. However, Josh likes to note the cafe’s confused identities: the place is named “Baker Street” and has signage that invokes Sherlock Holmes, it sells French foods, and there are paintings of geishas hanging indoors.
For gelato/ice cream: Gelateria Montecatini Terme (GTM) on Beach Road. This place probably had the best value for money for food items. I mean, Rs 40 for a legitimate cup of ginger and lime gelato is a great deal, and that little cup packed so much taste. The spread of flavors was very wide, including everything from mango and guava to mocha and more traditional and decadent Italian flavors.
For an air conditioned cafe: The Indian Kaffe Express on Dumas Street. The cafe sports a decent list of coffees and non-coffee beverages to choose from, as well as waffles and other small eats. Josh and I spent hours in there to beat the mid-day heat.
For South Indian: Surguru, in multiple locations. This is Pondicherry’s South Indian food chain. There was even a map of Pondicherry’s French Quarters on the door of the restaurant that we went to. Josh was craving a Tamil Nadu-style ghee roast, since they’re more difficult to come by in Bangalore. I wanted a masala dosa, and we were both satisfied. Service was meh, but the air conditioning was super strong.
For date night: Le Dupleix on Casern Street. This restaurant/hotel is the restored house of a French general. His mini-biography is in the restaurant’s menu, and it’s pretty sad, actually — by the end of his life, he was professional and personal failure. However, some smart people did do some beautiful things with his Pondicherry home, so I suppose that all was not lost! The food is a mix of Indian and “continental.” We had the French onion soup (not beef brothy-enough), the tenderloin (very tender), and the pork chops (covered with pesto sauce — good for me, not good for Josh). The highlight was the decor and also the white guy playing a violin. We made a reservation that evening, so we got to sit indoors (with air conditioning) instead of outdoors (with mosquito coils).
Actually, I really don’t like the use of the term “the poor,” since it’s quite demeaning. But that’s the title of the article that I’m responding to today — an article published on Yale School of Management’s Insights in March this year.
By discussing with three different practitioners, Professor Mushfiq Mobarak came up with three different obstacles that prevent low-income customers from adopting (or, really, purchasing) new technologies. These are information failure, cost, and risk aversion.
Of course, these are true, but I find the categorization to be a bit, well, heavy-handed.
Information-failure is definitely an obstacle; customers don’t know about offerings because they’re all innovative and new to their geographies, and sellers don’t know what customers need. That bi-directional flow is required to figure out what products people demand and at what cost.
Cost is a loaded term, and I think that, more than the cost of the product being the obstacle, it’s more about both affordability. Financing is mostly required for most durable purchases, which are investments. C.K. Prahalad noted that products like shampoo can be put into small packets and sold on the cheap to customers whose cash flows are limited. However, this process doesn’t work for a solar lantern, since no one wants to buy a piece of a solar lantern. Financing or purchasing on credit in some markets is difficult to manage, with the lack of cashless payments in rural areas.
Then, there’s the notion of value. Through my experiences with Essmart, I’ve found that customers who purchase Essmart’s offerings don’t just value the product but also the after-sales service that Essmart provides, the reputation of Essmart and the company that makes the product, and the societal signals that the product give off after its purchase. Customers in low-income markets are of course not homogenous; some will self-identify as willing to pay more for products of higher quality and a seller they can trust. Honestly, sometimes I wonder if we’re catering to a niche market of emerging market customers who value these ideas.
Finally, there’s risk-aversion. From my experiences, I wouldn’t call low-income customers “risk-averse.” They’re just being rational, especially when the offering is new to them and they have to choose where to invest their limited incomes. Additionally, you have to keep the customer’s past experiences in mind — there are many fly-by-night sellers who take advantage of low-income customers, dumping cheap, low-quality products into an area and leaving within a month, before those products break and cause customer complaints. There’s no customer protection in rural areas, and the mentality is more “buyer-beware”. No one looks out for the little man, and a seller’s foreignness can be more of a turn-off than an appeal.
I sometimes think about the market for solar lanterns like the market for “lemons” — you know, the used care market. There are good solar lanterns and there are bad solar lanterns. Customers can’t tell which one is which just by looking at the product, and sellers are all going to say that the lanterns are good. Customers won’t risk paying more for a “peach” solar lantern if he thinks there’s a possibility of it being a lemon solar lantern, and sellers won’t go down on price for peach solar lanterns, so the market for peach solar lanterns is actually really small. (At least, this is how I explain Essmart’s bad months.)
Getting a customer to believe that you have a peach solar lantern involves what I wrote about earlier: signaling to customers that, beyond the product itself, you as a seller are trustworthy and reliable. You’re a used car salesperson who has repeat customers because they didn’t get screwed over on their first purchase. You’re here for the long-run! You have a local presence, you won’t run when angry customers run after you, and you’re kind of guaranteeing your sale with your reputation. You’re increasing the value of your offering so that customers can make that rational decision to buy the product (and your promise to them).
So, information-failure is a real obstacle, but practitioners need to consider affordability and value over cost. Cheaper/lower-cost obviously isn’t always better. Also, customers aren’t risk-averse as much as they’re being smart, so sellers need to demonstrate that they understand customers’ needs and provide that guarantee.
After nearly four years of living and working in India, I’ll be heading back to the US (along with my husband) to start a new chapter as a PhD student at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Although I’ve been living the social enterprise start-up life, it has honestly been taking a toll. I have a lot to unpack from my experiences on the ground, but I require the space to do this in an analytical and unbiased way. Being an entrepreneur provides very little space to question the work that we do (because I’m perpetually projecting “We are awesome, give us money!”), but my research-oriented mind tends to be more critical. Of course, I still believe in Essmart’s mission and its operations, and I’ll still be involved to some degree and through research, but I need the renewed perspective and refreshment of taking a step back.
My husband and I have about two more months left in Bangalore. I’m already starting the countdown to our departure. One of my Echoing Green chaplains said that instead of sprinting to the finish line, I should consider taking a “cool down” instead. Honestly, that term just justifies what I’ve been feeling already. By the time I leave, all of my responsibilities have to be handed off to other people, and I should effectively be doing nothing.
Additionally, the chaplain mentioned that I should be intentional about honoring the years that I’ve spent here, which have been life-changing for me. The Lord has been incredibly faithful, providing an excellent home-away-from-home through a new family (through my husband and his), a church family, and my Essmart family. I’ve learned a ridiculous amount — how to lead in a style that suits me in professional and faith/church-related settings, how to open my life and home to more people in a way that’s sustainable, how to think more about business, how to cook a number of foods from scratch, and so much more. There is so much to honor, and there are so many people to honor. I cannot easily leave this place, and for this I am thankful.
For many Fulbrighters, one of the biggest question marks about making the move to India was around money — the best way to bring dollars into the country without paying exorbitant fees, whether or not to open an Indian bank account (and whether this is possible), the use of credit cards and debit cards, etc.
I was fortunate enough to get a few tips before I left the US for India, and after living abroad here for over 1.5 years, I’ve picked up a few more tips. Here goes:
- The Debit Card : Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking Account. With a $0 minimum, a $0 monthly service fee, and unlimited worldwide ATM fee rebates, this checking account / debit card serves as the quickest way for me to bring cash into India from a US account directly through ATMs, which are easily found in urban India. I also learned that wires received into Schwab’s brokerage account, which is linked to the checking account, aren’t charged and can be moved over freely into the checking account. This was great for receiving a Fulbright stipend. Beat that, BofA.
- The Credit Card: CapitalOne Venture. Most fine dining establishments and retailers will take American credit cards. This particular card is for the traveler because it does not charge foreign transaction fees. The first annual fee of $59 is waived. You earn 2 points for every dollar on all purchases, and these points can be used to erase past travel purchases (and it’s super easy to get these rebates, too). However, some folks might appreciate a card that’s linked directly to an airline for the perks (as in the Chase United MileagePlus Explorer Card), such as a large number of points gained from signing up for the card and access to travel lounges.
- A Local Bank Account: Do it — it’s worth the hassle and the paperwork. If you come as a Fulbrighter, you’ll have to register as a foreigner because of your Research visa. With that proof of residency (or even just a lease agreement), you’ll be able to open a bank account. You’ll want an Indian bank account to make online purchases and to transfer money between individuals. American credit cards won’t work on sites like redbus.in (for the buses) or IRCTC (for the trains) or any of the mobile phone recharging sites. When picking a bank, go for a private bank that has a lot of branches, such as Axis or HDFC. I opened my account at an Axis Bank branch that was located near a university with a large foreign student population. The staff was accustomed to handling foreigners, so it was fairly easy for me to get the account opened.
- Transferring Money Between US and Indian Accounts: ICICI Money2India. I actually just signed up for this service, but I’ve heard great things about it. When I initiate a transfer from a US bank to an Indian bank, I’m generally charged $30/transaction (again, thanks BofA). However, this service will charge me a lot less — around $2/transaction (or so I’ve been told — I’ve yet to try it!). Regarding the exchange rate: what you see when you initiate the transfer is what you get, which is important because the rupee fluctuates a lot.
- Traveler’s Checks: Don’t do it. Do people still actually use these things?
- Bringing USD for Exchange on Arrival: Don’t do it. Most companies, especially those at the airports where people typically make exchanges, will rip you off. The bank fees aren’t terrible, so use an ATM. It’s cheaper and more convenient, too.
Hopefully you’ll find these money tips useful! And for those who are wondering where my research is — that should be coming at some point soon.
A note from Diana: Although this is my Fulbright blog, it receives many hits from people who are interested in my work with Essmart. As is such, this is a blog post about my motivations for Essmart: the huge social injustice it addresses, my research and lessons from the field, and how far the social enterprise has come. Enjoy.
When I was an undergraduate student at MIT, I thought that technology would change the world. My friends talked incessantly about their latest research and design projects. One upperclassmen friend designed assistive learning devices for people with disabilities. Another friend was a material scientist who was printing solar cells on paper, thus addressing the worldwide energy crisis.
I found my home in the social sciences, and my primary interest was international community economic development. Given that I was at an engineering school, my particular niche grew around technologies that were designed to improve the lives of people living in low income, rural areas around the world.
To nurture my interest, I participated in MIT’s D-Lab, which is a group of classes geared toward engineering students who wanted to apply their skills to global problems. D-Lab produced a number of inventions with societal impact, including a bicycle-powered mobile phone charger and a solar cooker. What was unique about these inventions was that they were designed with the end user. Thus, the technology was easy to understand, use, and repair, affordable, and appropriate for local conditions.
At the time, I guess you could say that I optimistically “drank the Kool-Aid.” I believed so much in the potential of these inventions to change the world.
But then I spent time in rural China and India to learn about how these technologies were being used. I discovered that, on the whole, they weren’t. I never once stumbled upon anyone using one of these inventions. Few people knew that these technologies existed. Even if they did, they didn’t know where to get them. And if someone received a product from a nongovernmental organization, she didn’t know what to do when the product broke.
For example, when I was in a Tibetan village, I learned that most people didn’t know about the solar cookers that were being offered by a small community-based organization. One household that owned a solar cooker was scared to use it, since the solar cooker accidentally set fire to someone’s clothes. In southern India, I saw a pile of smoke-reducing biomass cooking stoves locked in a storeroom, gathering dust. The organizing distributing the stoves hadn’t hit on the correct strategies to commercialize them.
From these experiences, I saw that despite the efforts put forth by well-meaning engineers, life-improving technologies weren’t having the impact that they were intended to have. This is because there was no local ecosystem for the education/marketing, distribution, and after-sales service.
In these areas of the world, there isn’t just a technology divide. There’s a huge global supply chain problem. People in low income or rural areas of emerging economies don’t have access to technology for a number of reasons: governments promise but don’t have the capacity deliver, large multinational companies find it too costly to enter these regions and stick with selling to richer urban areas, and nonprofit organizations are too financially constrained to bring technology to people at scale in a sustainable fashion. This is an injustice that few people are talking about.
Then what is needed to address this huge, unjust gap in the global supply chain?
First, more of the right technologies are needed. There are a number of organizations in developed and emerging economies that are working on this. Engineers are working with communities to create with products that improve lives.
Second, and more importantly, a local ecosystem that focuses on education/marketing, distribution, and after-sales service for these technologies needs to be built in low-income and rural areas. This ecosystem must consist of local entrepreneurs – small businesses that are financially incentivized to sell these products. There is no need for the government or nongovernmental organizations to be involved, since there is buying power at the Bottom of the Pyramid. Entrepreneurs with the right products and selling strategies can tap it.
With these ideas in mind, I co-founded Essmart, a for-profit social enterprise that is dedicated to solving the global supply chain problem for life-improving technologies. For about a year, we’ve been working in southern India. We’re currently selling 25 different types of technologies through a growing network of 100 mom-and-pop rural retail stores. To date, Essmart has brought technology to over 1,200 end user households and small businesses.
If you’re interested, watch the videos below to learn more about our mission, work, and progress. Follow our blog and our Facebook page as well. With your support, we can together ensure that technology will actually change the world.