For the past two days I have worked on a team with Adam and Mike learning and researching the Aswhini Program, which provides urban quality education in rural areas through information and communication technology. Four key types of services – primary and high school tutoring; life skills for women (e.g. embroidery, painting, incense-making, etc); computer literacy and job training; and internet use – are delivered via Aswhini centers located in 20 villages. These centers are usually the only venue other than a high school or college where computers and internet access are available.
In reflecting on my interaction with Aswhini leaders, employees, clients and potential customers, I am blown away by the impact this program can have on peoples’ lives, and how great a challenge it is for a social enterprise to balance the dual objective of financial sustainability while achieving its social mission. What activities are generating revenue, and which ones are most important to the social mission? Which ones provide the most revenue for the lowest cost? Which activities have the greatest impact of promoting the core set of products and services? These are some of the key questions I have found myself asking, and the experience of teasing them out and delving into primary research to explore the answers has been an exciting challenge. One key learning I’ve made is that subsidized or promotional gifting of life skills training severely reduces the willingness to pay for those services later.
With Week One of the Social Enterprise India program drawing to a close, so too is our time in the town of Bhimavaram. It has been an epic experience of streets and markets bustling with citizens both human and non-human, and having the honor to be hosted by the Byrraju Foundation.
Today I learned that it is part of India culture to treat your guests as gods, and all I can say is the gods are lucky if they are treated with the warmth, respect and generosity that our hosts have shown to us. As we gear up to move out on the evening train back to Hyderabad, I take a piece of their reverence and their hopes for the communities they serve with me, and hope I can give back a fraction of what they have given me.