I was speaking with a colleague of mine about some of the more misguided enterprises that “social entrepreneurs” have pursued in Hyderabad. We, both within our company and within the microfinance industry, tend to view ourselves as pragmatists seeking to have the most immediate, demonstrated impact. I think there are benefits and downsides to this. For me, the right area of focus is addressing fundamental challenges that support an increasing quality of life and standard of living, thus enabling people to meet additional needs.

Other folks might choose to pursue more exotic ideas. Some demonstrate a surprising amount of creativity and create a novel path towards poverty reduction. Most are largely tangential to the immediate needs of the poor. One example of mis-adventurism was of a person who came to intern at an MFI in Hyderabad. They quickly attempted to reorient their internship towards a rather hilarious idea. They had decided that the most important area of focus, for them, was in starting a trash collection program to harvest recyclable materials to create school backpacks for students.

At face value, one would certainly want to ensure that kids have the right tools for learning. But, this misses two issues. First, backpacks are cheap and easy to purchase. By my thinking, don’t spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up a trash recycling effort, design a bag, and create a manufacturing process, just buy the bags outright (you could buy millions of bags with that money and get them to children more quickly). Second, many people in Hyderabad (and throughout the world) make their livelihood, however meager, on the type of high value materials that would need to be collected to make the bags, which would be given away for free, so you could not empower, nor pay the trash pickers. All over the city, you see hundreds of people trudging through the streets carrying bulging sacks of materials culled from the waste bins throughout the city. It would seem that there is hardly a gram of usable waste that is not collected.

And so, a brief presentation on the trash collection industry as witnessed at the end of my street:

When I come home in the evening, these bins are completely full. By morning (and throughout the previous day), these have been completely picked through and the rest is cleared out by the “GHMC” – Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation.

And then there are the reinforcements we call in when we need extra (fillintheblank)power:

For the past few evenings, I have strolled home to find this horse helping with our trash collection needs. I have yet to meet the owner, but I suspect he is saving quite a bit of money on horse feed.

Finally, some groups have taken a different approach when it comes to helping the people involved in this industry. And, most significantly, some trash pickers have started to organize themselves to increase their strength, power, and training. It seems to me that this is the type of model that we should be pursuing for addressing, first, the needs of the people who feel compelled to make their livelihood in this manner, due to a lack of other options. After this, we can address issues of recycling.


Aarush’s Birthday and the Art of Motorcycle Construction – 08.19.08

Our team over at Business Development is rather close knit, whether due to personal affinities for one another or the fact that four to six of us share a desk. Regardless of the cause, we had a wonderful evening celebrating Rajeev’s son birthday. Aarush put on an impressive show of mild manners and complacency.

The whole birthday experience was wonderful, as was seeing their family come together for the celebration. I am learning more about the nuclear family structure in India and the closeness of each generation. I don’t think this observation is unique or surprising, as similar family patterns exist in the US, as I have witnessed in the Philippines, China, and elsewhere.

When it came to getting the family involved, there was no shortage of family available to help Aarush cut the cake and it took a few extra hands to get the cake eaten.

Following the wonderfully thoughtful lead of Nitin, the BD team conspired to challenge ourselves in the construction of a playskool toy and try to construct our present for him.

It might have taken an hour and five members of our team, but these few pieces of plastic eventually managed to come together, though, to our dismay, Aarush was absolutely nonplussed. One can imagine his frustration after watching five hours of collective effort and being unimpressed by the flames on the side.

We closed down the party and both dad and son were pleased.

Let me first apologize for the formatting of this photo set. I am just learning WordPress and their hosted platform offers little flexibility in dealing with images and customizing photo galleries. I’ll hopefully learn a bit more about how to manage this over the next few days. In the meantime, when you click on an image, it will take you to a “full-size” shot.

Bits of Bombay, in a few pictures:

Bombay has grown to envelop its airport (Chhatrapati Shivaji Intrl). Consequently, there are all sorts of specialized businesses that have grown to take advantage of the flow of goods from the airport. This man was running the most efficient, one-person logistics company around.

On a separate note, and to get a bit into the weeds, the aviation industry in India is fascinating. Public-Private partnerships have been introduced to help execute an epic game of infrastructure catch up. In the case of Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport, GVK (this is an Indian national company that has focused on hospitality and manufacturing) has come in to fund its revitalization and run operations. While I was at BVP, I learned quite a bit about the buzz around infrastructure catchup in India. This is an example of where private sector motivations and public needs have dovetailed nicely. The government has neither the funds, nor the experience to execute this on their own.

The disruption that low-cost carriers introduced into the US has hit India hard. Old stalwarts, like Air India and Deccan, are crumbling, by new, nimble airlines like Indigo (I think they owe JetBlue a dollar or two for ripping off their entire branding and design strategy), SpiceJet, and Kingfisher. If you have to fly, Indigo and Kingfisher are my go-to airlines, with Kingfisher being the best. Kingfisher is another interesting study. The founder of the Airline, Vijay Mallya, is the Richard Branson of India. He’s built a conglomerate from his father’s industrial company, which has come to encompass an airline, brewery group (read the title of the page. Mallya has quite the zeal for self-promotion. Incidentally, his McDowell’s rum is pretty good), Formula 1 racing team, among other businesses.

If you have a few dollars to spend on your hotel, the Taj Palace is your place. Whereas there is no sense of history in the areas of Hyderabad where I work, we spent a lot of time right at the center of historic Bombay and the Taj Palace is the most visually arresting building in this area (which is called Colaba).

Bombay beaches have a decidedly different look and feel to what we are used to in the US. I think the best comparison would be to call this a sand-based boardwalk. You will see very few people actually “dressed for the beach.” Instead, people head to the beaches to walk around, socialize, and take advantage of the local goods:

PEANUTS! I’ve never seen a man more distressed by an order (open the enlarged photo and look at his eyes). You would expect he had heard it all by now, but apparently we threw him a variable he was not ready to handle.

Flying Monkey Balloons. Superfluous, you say? Certainly not. Your beach strolling experience wouldn’t be complete without one.

Sorry for the heavy-handed visual metaphor, but… “New India” is growing on top of “Old India” in visually arresting ways. You see this intersection of development (modernity) and the historical components of Bombay that make it so charming all over the city. Unfortunately, the need for growth and the heavy-handed intervention of government bureaucracy and regulations conspire to ensure that zoning regulations are either not created or not enforced. The positive aspect of bureaucracy is that it also means you will fight for years to get a permit to tear down a historic building.

The Gateway of India is akin to our Ellis Island. Though much of it was covered in scaffolding, the Gate is quite arresting, particularly as it sits out on a miniature peninsula and, unlike most structures, doesn’t need to compete for visual space with other buildings.

As we were walking to the Churchgate train station (see below), we encountered beautiful examples of public sculpture and monuments. Unfortunately, as you can see here, resources are not being allocated to protect and maintain these treasures (there are more pressing needs, obviously). Consequently, this fountain structure has seen a few thefts of body parts and is covered in soot and mildew.

Churchgate Station. When you visit Bombay, go there. Get on a train. Ride the line that takes you to Bandra. We did it mid-day, so we didn’t have to jump on with 6,000 of our closest friends packed into 8-10 cars. I will go during rush hour at some point and hopefully get a video of the insanity. In the meantime, check out the videos I linked to above. All I’m saying is this – the Metro-North / 6 train, Metra (Chicago), PATH, etc now seem rather spacious.

Mount Mary Church (The Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount, to be correct). The Jesuits were busy in India (though this is a Dominican church). Bandra is one of the ritzier neighborhoods in Bombay with great views of the Sea. It is also the heavily Catholic neighborhood of Bombay. Mount Mary is a beautiful example of the melding of European and Indian architectural and artistic elements. I’d suggest a visit, though your rickshaw might not make it up to the top of the hill. Those motorbikes apparently were not built for three large guys.

Arresting. This reinforces the pain of the Cruxificion.

This is an example (though the focus is poor, as I didn’t want to use a flash inside) of some of the wonderful colors of the interior paintings.

Like many other buildings in Bombay, areas of the church compound displayed some improvised construction / troubleshooting techniques.

Sisyphus ain’t got nothing on efforts to clean the public spaces of Bombay. After I saw the 20th man peeing on the side of the road and piles of garbage streaking past my cab’s windows, I knew that this exhortation just wasn’t going to work. On that note though, I am going to try and keep a catalog of interesting public service signs throughout my travels. I love the phrasing of this sign. Let’s keep Mumbai clean, but let’s make sure to do it using awkward language. Anyway, pick up your trash.

There are a lot of young folks without supervision. Where are the nuns of St. Francis (my grade school) when you need them? This boy was having lunch under an underpass near the airport with rickshaws (seen on the right of the frame) racing past within a foot’s distance to him.

If you know Alp, you miss him. I was thrilled to find out that he opened a rival to Acapulco’s Palladium in Bombay. It’s a modest restaurant now, but I suspect he already has his expansion strategy laid out.

Sweet kicks, right? Kanye, watch out. Thanks, GVK and Kingfisher, for making my flying experience efficient. I hope that WiFi and a CoffeeDay (India’s Starbucks equivalent, though CoffeeDay currently carries the cache that Starbucks has lost) are next in line for the renovation.

Bombay, by cab window

When I arrived in Hyderabad, I didn’t realize that a huge holiday (Independence Day, August 15th 1947) and festival (Raksha Bandhan, August 17th, which is an interesting festival where the men of a family commit themselves to protect their sisters and female cousins. This is symbolized by the women tying a bracelet onto their male relatives.) were right around the corner. I quickly scrambled to make plans for the long weekend. My friend, Ab Gupta, offered me a place to stay in Bombay and we kicked off my stay in India with some late nights in Bombay.

Some photos of Bombay and my first week are forthcoming…

With the help of some exceedingly kind new friends, I’ve been able to meet two great roommates and move into a wonderful apartment with expansive views of Hyderabad; dive head first into my work with SKS; visit a few good friends, who have started their own adventures in Bombay (Mumbai); and start crawling towards a rudimentary understanding of Hindi (though Paul and Amee, two colleagues, are enjoying my utter tone deafness), in two frenetic weeks.

In the process of transitioning to life in India, I realized that I was already sliding off the radar, as my life and work here has subsumed me. I’m hoping that I can translate the emails I am sending to friends and family to something comprehensible to my friends with the hope that this blog presents a few thoughts on life in India, in Hyderabad, and the fascinating people with whom I spend my days.

Additionally, the work that we are doing at SKS is cutting-edge poverty reduction and alleviation work. In particular, we are trying to offer new ways for our clients to lift themselves out of poverty. I want to offer a few insights into the opportunities that we are pursuing, the potential impacts these will have on our clients, and the debates that rage within the development community about the value of what we are doing. Hyderabad is at the center of a phenomenal amount of innovation and SKS is leading the charge. Hopefully, I will be able to convey why all of this is exciting and important.

I’m looking forward to sharing with you all and I hope you will keep me up to date on what is keeping you busy and causing you to celebrate.

Finally, any advice on how I can improve my writing and/or make the topics on which I am writing more interesting will be warmly received.


PS – the image at the top of this blog will change as soon as I get a less visually aggressive image. Until then, Mom, I hope this shows you that I have made friends with the right folks and that I’m well protected.