The central issue we need to understand here is whether our business was started to help society move ahead or to simply enrich ourselves and our shareholders.
This is a strange way to start an article that discusses business and the people who lead these businesses here and globally. Imagine the day you are being laid on a pile of wood to be cremated at Aryaghat along the Bagmati River. You have the special power to listen in on the conversation that is happening around you. What will people who came to your funeral be telling each other about you? Even better, what do you want them to say things about you as the fire begins to consume your mortal remains? The question becomes even more relevant because none of us know how much time we have left to influence what people will say about us. This can be depressing for some but has motivated many people throughout history.
Mark Twain’s two phrases will help us to understand why you may want to continue to read this article. He famously said, “There are two important days in a person’s life. The day you were born; and the day you find out why.” Celebrating the day we were born is a commonplace event. We used to do it by lighting the oil or butter lamps, but as we “developed” we do it by blowing out some candles on a cake.
Celebrating the day you found out why you were born is a bit more complicated and not yet commonplace. It could become good business if we found a way to help people celebrate this key day in one’s life. It needs to be recognized as a very important day in a person’s life and celebrated accordingly. The Buddha celebrated the day at the age of thirty-five.
Buy low and sell high
Everyone understands profit and the basic principle behind the concept. One just needs to buy at a lower price and sell at a higher price. It is quite simple. Across Nepal, people are buying low and selling high and making a profit. Outsourcing also often has the same meaning where you win a contract to perform a piece of work and then find someone who can do the work at a lower price and make a profit. Running a proper business and making a profit at the end of each fiscal year is a bit more complicated. What we are discussing here is the concept of tackling society’s toughest problem with business tools and measuring the impact that we have created. In the process, we need to generate a positive revenue stream so that the business idea can be replicated and go to scale.
Impact and Profit
The central issue we need to understand here is whether our business was started to help society move ahead or to simply enrich ourselves and our shareholders who expect a dividend. What processes were used in the supply chain, how is the product designed and produced, what are the distribution channels, and what happens to the people who consume, and the most important question today is what happens to the waste generated. Impact needs to be understood in this broad sense and is clearly much more than simple profit. Are we making choices to ensure that our carbon footprint is being reduced? Do we care about resource depletion, pollution and the needs of future generations? What form of energy do we use and is our manufacturing process efficient?
Leveraging Past Investments
Nepal is fortunate to have the birthplace of the Buddha at Lumbini and the brand new international airport near the site. The million-dollar idea here is to figure out how one can leverage these two assets to end poverty in this part of the Terai region. In a recent dialogue with local governments, many came up with good reasons why this will never happen. Social entrepreneurs are the ones who take the first few steps to attain this goal. Every society and the whole world is out looking to invest in these special people. Not everyone can do it, let alone succeed. These people need to be rooted in strong values, and will not stop when challenges come up in the process. Are you one of them?
Did Everyone Arrive?
We live in a competitive world where the only thing that matters is the race and the classification of winners and losers. Societies and the history of conflicts teach us that no one likes to lose, at least not all the time. The losers may pick up the gun and come after the rest. Wars and long drawn conflicts make everyone pay over the long run. Migration and refugees are often the results, and as history has taught us, war can begin when we want, but no one can predict when it will end. When we leave behind the people who did not “win”, they come back at a huge cost to all of us. Drug addicts, the sick, the mentally challenged, the homeless, landless, all become a bigger cost to society over time. Nepal has learned this lesson the hard way and we have determined that we must ensure an inclusive system. Some have already forgotten.
Base of the pyramid markets
The reason why Bangladesh is doing economically better than many of its neighbors could be because of the work done by people like Mohammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank he created. Dr. Yunus is fond of telling us that he realized that the poor were bankable when a group of women he invested in showed their ability to pay back. Grameen Energy, telecom and so many other initiatives followed that have helped create a market for people who lived at the base of the economic pyramid. The base of the pyramid has more people and hence more clients and consumers. Many markets choose only to serve those at the top. The social entrepreneur recognizes this unique opportunity and initiates the design and rollout of products and services for this market segment. This unserved market is where the real growth is and it will continue to grow rapidly.
Price the Poor In
Many products can be made expensive or affordable. Many services can be designed so that more people can and will use them. For example, energy can be priced differently depending on how much the meter readings show you consumed. This allows poorer households and people to pay a much lower rate than say a commercial or industrial complex. There is a price you can charge if people want to own a product and a lower price if they only want to use it. There are peak time prices and off-peak times when things can be made cheaper. The economy of scale can be leveraged to reduce the per unit price of any product or service. Fruits and vegetables can also be priced differently depending on the seasons. The social entrepreneur knows that these strategies can make products and services affordable to people who were previously not reached or not served. It is much more complicated than simply buying low and selling high.
Only One Planet
In the last 30 years, Nepal has been able to increase its forest cover to nearly half of its land and substantially increased the wildlife population, and prevented their extinction. The whole world admires these achievements, but we need to move ahead. The number of tigers increasing is only a part of the story and the challenges we face. Waste management, air pollution, traffic congestion, food security, and many more challenges loom before us. The government thinks many of these problems can be regulated. It may not be that simple. We will require many new ideas, innovations, and social entrepreneurs to protect Nepal’s environment and help eight billion people to live a good life on our only planet along with all other beings.
Green Energy-powered Nepal
Nepal has just announced that it produces more green energy than it consumes. This is a great opportunity to become a world leader and de-carbonize the economy. The west became rich by burning too much carbon and causing climate change. Nepal can show the world how to decarbonize agriculture, cooking, transportation, and industrial production. We have set 2045 as the target year to achieve this goal. This is so different from making a profit with no regard to our climate and the wellbeing of all forms of life on earth as we know it. We shall also have to adapt to change in the short term. All this will require very special people, their ideas and their entrepreneurial attributes. There is a very exciting world out there for those who feel they have what it takes.
Chitrakar is a social entrepreneur, environmentalist and author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org