After four hours of bumpy drive into the hilly areas near Visakhapatnam, India, we reached our destination – an isolated village which was inaccessible by road until two years ago, and remains disconnected to grid power. Yet, utility poles with LED street lights, together with a solar system, are prominently placed across the village of 12 families. We were warmly invited by the village chief to visit his house. Surrounded by a group of villagers, he switched on the television and started describing the changes this solar energy system brought to the village.
A critical feature of any resilient system, especially in our economies and communities, is a healthy and productive workforce. However, the world today faces a looming burden of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), which directly hampers productivity and claims over 63% of all deaths. Once considered as ‘diseases of affluence’, NCDs are now imposing a hefty burden on developing countries like India. By 2030, NCDs will cost India over US$ 4.6 trillion, posing a threat to economic growth and development.
My journey at Shades of Happiness Foundation (SoH) taught me the true meaning of the Latin phrase, ‘Per Aspera Ad Astra’ – ‘Through Hardship to the Stars’. SoH is a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) in India, with the mission to promote social inclusion by empowering underprivileged children with the knowledge and skills to pull themselves, and their families, out of poverty. The initial years taught me three key lessons. First, talent retention is extremely challenging when you’re working with unpaid volunteers and interns – which affects the organization’s ability to deepen impact. Second, not only is fundraising mystifying (and often terrifying) for NGOs, but relying on donations or grant funding is a highly unsustainable approach to scale impact. Third, without measuring your outcomes, it is virtually impossible to sustain the organization’s impact trajectory. SoH’s overarching vision to change the world to act as a level playing ground for children of all backgrounds seemed remote and unattainable.
“I was done building the next better iPhone – I wanted to solve real problems, and in India – where I grew up and where the real problems are,” Mani Vajipey the founder of Banyan Nation Recycling had said to me in my first conversation with him. Mani and his co-founder Raj Madangopal decided to quit their high-ranking technology jobs in the US and moved back to their native Hyderabad in 2013 to develop innovative solutions to the waste problem in India. They spent a year surveying and understanding the market before starting Banyan Nation in early 2014. Today, they have a material recovery facility in Hyderabad that produces about twenty tons of high quality plastic recyclables per month and works to integrate, formalize, and legitimize hundreds of informal sector waste aggregators (known locally as “kabadiwalas”). IIX is working to help Mani and his team realize their vision to be one of the largest responsible and sustainable plastics recyclers in India.