In recent years, the idea of serving the bottom of the pyramid has become synonymous with social entrepreneurship. The central theme of social entrepreneurs is to create access to essential services and products for underserved communities — rural or urban, below or above the poverty line, young or old, men or women or people with disabilities.
Access enables equal opportunity, which is the platform for inclusive growth. The rise of the Indian middle class was a result of the transformational power of access. The Green Revolution, deregulation, and subsequent pro-growth policies in the 90s opened up markets and opportunities for millions of families, enabling them to emerge as the new resurgent Indian middle class. The job is, however, far from done. We still have an astounding 400 million people who need to feel secure about their future.
As member, Planning Commission of India, Arun Maira recently said, "In India, it's not only the pace of growth that will impress people, but also the pace of their inclusion in it." Those who are being left behind, including tribals, don't want to be mere passive beneficiaries of state handouts and corporate philanthropy. They want to be respected, earning their own incomes and growing their own wealth."
Increasing the pace of inclusive growth will require increased access to underserved communities to participate in the market, either as entrepreneurs, consumers or employees. No one wants to be a passive recipient of aid anymore. The good news is that access is being created in India everyday, for millions of people, by social entrepreneurs across the country. Ranging from organisations providing access to education(Hole in the Wall, Pratham, Teach for India), to small loans (DhanaX), to markets (ITC e-chaupal, Under the Mango Tree), to clothing (Goonj), to maternal healthcare (Lifespring Hospitals) to identity (Aajeevika Bureau), to employment (Mirakle Couriers, Net Systems (Nsyst), Babajob.com, RuralShores). Some of them are established and have national footprints, some are start-ups, while others have impressive regional or local presence.
Not only is the sheer number and diversity of social enterprises that have emerged in the last decade encouraging, but the fact that several among them are led by young social entrepreneurs also gives us hope for India's future. The recently-launched National Social Enterprise Forum is one such initiative that engages, identifies and encourages social entrepreneurs in university campuses across the country to become change-makers.
Building and sustaining a social enterprise, however, remains a challenge. Access to capital, human resources, and the lack of a broader ecosystem to support growth are the biggest deterrents that social entrepreneurs face. The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship offers a solution by connecting social entrepreneurs to an international ecosystem and giving them global platforms to scale.
As an enabler and policy maker, the government can play a key role in stimulating inclusive growth by supporting social enterprises. The time is ripe for an 'Office of Social Entrepreneurship' in the government along the lines of American President Barack Obama's Office for Social Innovation and English Prime Minister David Cameron's proposed 'Big Society' to encourage, facilitate and fund social enterprises. The OSE can connect, fund and facilitate thousands of social enterprises and can help codify elements of success that could be transferred from one enterprise to another.
A vibrant community of young social entrepreneurs with their innovative ideas and exuberant spirit with proactive support from the government is required for inclusive and sustainable growth. Many say that India is a 'limited access country'. With a new breed of social entrepreneurs, now is the time to transform ourselves into an 'infinite opportunities nation'.
Ashwin Naik is co-founder of Vaatsalya Healthcare Solutions. The views expressed by the author are personal.