From Heirloom to Sustainability: My Lessons for Scaling Social Enterprises

From Heirloom to Sustainability: My Lessons for Scaling Social Enterprises

January 24, 2020 | Author: Dr. BP Agrawal, CNN Hero and Social Entrepreneur

In 2003, I embarked on a journey to perfect self-sustaining enterprises — Aakash Ganga to bring water to communities with no access to safe drinking water — and Arogya, to deliver primary healthcare at the doorstep of rural families. At that time, sustainability was just an in-vogue buzzword to me.  I recall inviting several friends over for dinner to chart out a plan for using our prodigious skills and resources to help the neediest back home in India. One of them thumped the table and asked: “What difference will it make if we were to give $100 million to India?” Silence ruled the moment. Meaning, none. If not money, what will make a difference?

In search of an answer, I wandered in Rajasthan’s villages, mingled with the villagers, interacted with government officials, and met with non-government bodies. Soon, I discovered that rainwater harvesting was an heirloom, passed from one generation to the next. It was for me to steward it. I decided to use my life experience to find a lasting solution to India’s water and healthcare woes and set up my non-profit, Sustainable Innovations (


Socially Equitable Distribution: Part of the rainwater is channeled into the community reservoir (Gram Tanka) for the poor. Essential for social harmony. The other part is channeled into home reservoirs (Griha Tanka) for the sole use of homeowners


Arogya – Primary healthcare delivered at the doorstep of rural villages

In a nutshell, here are some of the challenges I faced in stewardship and scaling up my social enterprises:

  1. Trust deficit: In villages, people view individuals, government bodies, private institutions, and community-based organizations with suspicion. I went to see the Chief Secretary of Rajasthan — every government employee’s ultimate boss — to win his support for Aakash Ganga. Pointing to his office door, he lamented, “When an individual enters my room, my first thought is that he won’t tell me the truth and want me to circumvent the law. And he, in turn, thinks I am going to give him the run-around. Under such a trust deficit between the government and an NGO, how can community-based programs flourish?” My own experience is that government officers will go out of their way to help you. But one must earn their trust first.
  2. Culture of Entitlement: People expect the government to provide free running water. When asked to contribute for water, they’d say: “We are poor, we don’t have money.” Water is the ultimate charity.
  3. Ubiquitous segregation: Segregation is a way of life in India. It can be on skin color, language, religion, caste, socioeconomic station and much more. An upper caste person will neither take from nor give water to a lower caste family!
  4. Gender Inequality: It is a woman’s job to fetch water for her family. In one village, I asked how scarce water was, and an elderly woman responded: “Just count the number of bachelors.” It took me a few seconds to comprehend. More bachelors meant deeper scarcity. Why? Because no father wants his daughter to marry into this village, only to spend the rest of her life fetching water for her new family.

What did it take to overcome these barriers? I will be sharing my solutions through it-can-be-that-simple stories at two free upcoming events in the Bay Area:

Will you join me?


Dr. BP Agrawal perfected social enterprises for access to safe drinking water and delivery of health care at the doorstep of the rural poor. His model grew to thrive amid a lack of trust for community programs; an entitled mindset that expected the government to provide services free of cost; ingrained segregation based on gender, caste, class and language among a host of others, and ubiquitous gender inequality where women are not considered at par with men.

Dr Agrawal is the recipient of CNN Hero recognition, Lemelson-MIT Sustainability Award, Energy Globe World Award, Purpose Prize, Drucker Award Finalist for Innovations, World Bank Sustainable Social Enterprises Award (2006 and 2007), USF Distinguished Alumni Award and BITS Pilani Distinguished Alumni Award.