SPAN Nov/Dec 2019

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the Start-Up


Reader Survey Banking for Everyone Engineering Pure Air

Fashioning Sustainability

Photographs courtesy LIFAFFA


Top: Kanika Ahuja (center) at the Lakmé Fashion Week 2019, where she presented LIFAFFA’s collection at the Circular Design Challenge for sustainability in fashion. Above: Upcycled products created by LIFAFFA from plastic waste.

November/December 2019

V O LU M E L X N U M B E R 6

Courtesy RoadBounce


12 

Fashioning Sustainability



A Friend in Need



Engineering Pure Air


Banking for Everyone


The Road to Innovation


Driving Change


Bridging the Distribution Gap


Assessing Learning


Anytime Water


Tech to Work


Putting Knowledge to Work



Helping Hand for Farmers

18 Editor in Chief Conrad W. Turner

Reviewing Editor Karl M. Adam

Editor Deepanjali Kakati Associate Editor Suparna Mukherji Hindi Editor Giriraj Agarwal Urdu Editor Syed Sulaiman Akhtar Copy Editor Shah Md. Tahsin Usmani

Art Director/ Production Chief Hemant Bhatnagar Deputy Art Directors / Production Assistants Qasim Raza, Shah Faisal Khan

Cultural Entrepreneurship SPAN Reader Survey

Recipe for Entrepreneurship Courtesy U.S. Consulate General Kolkata

Courtesy Hydrotec Solutions

Nexus-trained LIFAFFA partners with ragpickers to convert plastic waste into a leather-like material and create upcycled products.


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40 Front cover: Nexus-trained Kanika Ahuja’s start-up LIFAFFA partners with ragpickers to convert plastic waste into a leather-like material and create upcycled products. Photographs courtesy LIFAFFA and graphics © Getty Images. Collage by Hemant Bhatnagar.

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Each sheet uses up to 150 grams of waste plastic bags, using much less energy than traditional recycling methods and releasing no toxic fumes.



Photographs courtesy LIFAFFA

Conserve India

Nexus Incubator

empower even the lowest-income entrepreneurs through extensive training in product development and business fundamentals. When Conserve India started working with the ragpicker communities, it realized the means to a sustainable business for them would be to utilize the only resource that they had freely and abundantly available to them— plastic waste. “This kind of plastic waste continues to be a low-value item even for today’s recyclers and is not collected or treated once it reaches the landfill site,” says Ahuja. “We developed a patented technology that could convert this low-value plastic into a thicker, vibrant and durable fabric, which we could use to design high-value products.” Conserve India trains groups of ragpickers in collection and processing. “Many groups have organized themselves into self-helpgroups and run their own profitable upcycling businesses supplying to Conserve and many other organizations,” says Ahuja. Ragpickers collect, sort, clean and dry thin plastic bags. They are then layered to generate patterns and designs when they are compressed into sheets. Each sheet uses up to 150 grams of waste plastic bags, using much less energy than traditional recycling methods and releasing no toxic fumes. No dyes or chemicals are needed. “At Conserve, we have cataloged over 5,000 designs that can be created using different layering techniques,” says Ahuja. The method can be applied to many sources of plastic waste, including household waste, industrial waste and ocean waste. LIFAFFA received training at the Nexus Incubator start-up hub at the American Center New Delhi. “Being a part of Nexus has been fantastic,” says Ahuja. “The accelerator program took us through many essentials of running a start-up, reevaluating our strategies and learning to play to our strengths, while

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New Delhi-based enterprise is helping ragpickers in India move from rags to riches. LIFAFFA partners with them to create stylish handbags and other products from plastic waste using an innovative production process. “LIFAFFA was started with the aim to combat the twin problems of poverty and waste,” says founder Kanika Ahuja. “We aimed to create livelihoods for one of the most exploited classes of Indian society—the ragpickers. We realized that waste was the only available resource for them; plastics being the biggest problem at landfill sites.” Ahuja decided to find a way that would give ragpickers, migrants and refugees a step up—increase their income by about 150 percent and address the growing issue of nonbiodegradable plastics in landfills. “We developed proprietary technologies to convert plastic waste like plastic bags, wrappers, chips packets and plastic packaging into a type of vegan leather,” says Ahuja. The resulting fabric is called Handmade Recycled Plastic (HRP). “We use our material to create fashion accessories like handbags, backpacks, pouches, laptop sleeves and jewelry,” she says. “But the material can be used across industries to create furnishings, housing tiles, wallpaper, blinds, footwear, home décor, etc.” The resulting sales make the project self-sustaining. LIFAFFA is the fashion brand of Conserve India, a nongovernmental organization founded by Ahuja’s parents to help combat pollution by efficient waste management and to empower the ragpicker community. Her work is bringing Conserve India into the social media era. Conserve India originally used a concept similar to LIFAFFA to develop different types of products. As the world began to focus more on sustainability, Ahuja saw an opportunity to create an enterprise out of it that would


Above left and above far left: LIFAFFA trains groups of ragpickers in collection and processing of plastic waste from landfills. Far left: LIFAFFA bags made from discarded plastic waste.

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Photographs courtesy Lakmé Fashion Week

The material can be used across industries to create furnishings, housing tiles, wallpaper, blinds, footwear, home décor, etc.

Above: Kanika Ahuja (right), presents a collection of fashion accessories incorporating vegan leather and traditional Afghani embroideries (above right) at Lakmé Fashion Week’s Circular Design Challenge.


the mentors worked with us one-on-one to strengthen our weaknesses.” Nexus also provided them access to strong networks and support organizations. “Being a part of Nexus goes beyond the scope of the program, and I’m truly happy to be a part of the Nexus family,” she adds. Ahuja sees many opportunities in the future to take the company’s idea to the next level. “Moving forward, we have exciting things lined up,” she says. “We are keen on licensing our patented technology to interested organizations, to create HRP fabric. We also have another patent in process for new and improved versions of upcycled fabrics.” But the product itself is just one aspect of Ahuja’s plans. “I have the groundwork ready, have some partnerships in place, have a very successful, demonstrated pilot and have technologies that the world needs now more than ever,” she says. “I look forward to taking this from a small successful pilot to a global standard in upcycling waste.” Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.


Right: Gitanjali Banerjee, founder of Femtech Fertility Dost, at Nexus Incubator’s graduation ceremony for start-ups.

Courtesy Gitanjali Banerjee

Nexus-trained Gitanjali Banerjee’s start-up, Femtech Fertility Dost, provides women and couples a platform to talk about fertility-related problems and preventive solutions.

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A Friend in Need


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itanjali Banerjee is a content manager by profession and an entrepreneur by passion. She discovered her true calling when she founded Femtech Fertility Dost, to help women with fertility problems. up offers Map My Fertility, an algorithmThe start-u based technological solution to help women predict, assess and manage their reproductive health by computing parameters of fertility marker tests, psychometric tests and other physical attributes. Based on the results of this algorithm, users are guided by counselors through a personalized program toward an improved reproductive health journey. Banerjee received training at the Nexus Incubator start-u up hub at the American Center New Delhi and also participated in the 2018 TechCamp South Asia, a public diplomacy program by the U.S. Department of State. At the TechCamp, she worked on improving the technology behind her product as well as its marketing. Excerpts from an interview with Banerjee about her start-u up, and her experiences with the Nexus Incubator and at the TechCamp.


What inspired you to start Fertility Dost? While working in the corporate sector, I was going through fertility treatments. During my personal health journey, I observed issues like societal apathy, taboos and condescending behavior of the corporate sector. The seeds of Fertility Dost were sown. “Dost” means friend in Hindi. My vision is to enable and inform women, to be their friend and tell them that “You are not alone” and, most importantly, to bring fertility into the preventive segment. There are several fertility-oriented programs in India. What is the unique selling point of your start-up? Most of the women and wellnessspecific health apps or platforms have fertility as a small subset. But we specialize in fertility counseling, peer support, query resolution, education, curated fertility wellness programs and, most importantly, an online fertility screening tool. Map My Fertility combines results from 11 fertility marker tests, behavioral patterns and lifestyle parameters to provide a fertility health evaluation report of the user on the dashboard. This is our proprietary algorithm. This information, along with our holistic platform, enables

The strengths of the program are that it is accessible from home; saves cost and time otherwise spent on consultations and tests; and alerts the patient at the preventive stage.

How many people have you reached till now? We have reached about 50,000 women and couples through our online and offline presence. Our users are mostly from metro cities; the maximum being from DelhiNCR in the North and Bengaluru in South India. However, engagement is also increasing from non-metro cities.

Nexus Incubator

TechCamp South Asia

Ranjita Biswas is a Kolkata-based journalist. She also translates fiction and writes short stories.

Courtesy Gitanjali Banerjee

How effective is the Fertility Dost program? In the current scenario, a woman delays going for a fertility consultation owing to social taboos and lack of information. This often leads to escalation into a chronic problem, where they are left with no choice. Early intervention ensures better management and can save the cost and emotional complications of IVF treatment. About 70 percent of fertility issues can be easily managed by lifestyle changes, hormone management and fertility diet.

Fertility Dost

How have you gained from the Nexus Incubator training and participation in the 2018 TechCamp South Asia? The TechCamp offered new perspectives on how we can leverage technology and collaboration to enhance start-up growth. I was fortunate to get selected for two project grants—to build my core website and to collaborate with two women health entrepreneurs from Pakistan to create content for awareness building. Nexus provided me with structured training to strengthen the core of our business model. Through deep diving into market segmentation, understanding the unit economics and networking with the who’s who of the ecosystem, Nexus gave Fertility Dost the right direction. Personally, it encouraged me to take the start-up to the next level. We organized a fertility health awareness event, as part of the collaborative project, at American Center New Delhi. Attended by women and couples, it had two panel discussions on how to manage fertility health holistically and how technology can be leveraged to help women manage their health. Combined with music, art therapy and booth display, it was an exciting, engaging and educative event.

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women to make smart decisions about their reproductive health. The strengths of the program are that it is accessible from home; saves cost and time otherwise spent on consultations and tests; and alerts the patient at the preventive stage, thereby saving the cost and complications of IVF [in vitro fertilization] treatment.

Left: Gitanjali Banerjee (second row from front; center) at a Fertility Dost meet in Gurugram.

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Pure Air


Nexus-trained Schillings Air offers products and services to eliminate air pollutants, reduce cost and help monitor clean air.


Presentation of an innovation is as important as the




ood indoor air quality is fundamental to our well-being. Thus, in today’s world, air purifiers are increasingly becoming essential for ensuring healthier indoor conditions. However, research shows that many off-the-shelf purifiers don’t target all the factors affecting air quality. Schillings Air, a New Delhi-based start-up that offers custom air purification, air filtering and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) solutions, focuses on eliminating different kinds of airborne pollutants. Excerpts from an interview with Ashutosh Ranjan Thakur, cofounder of Schillings Air and Nexus Incubator program alumnus, about launching a start-up in the public health sector. How did Schillings Air begin? After returning to New Delhi from a work assignment in Sikkim, I had great difficulty breathing and talking for more than three months. I was suffering from acute bronchitis, and medicine was only of so much help. I did some research on the Internet, and learned more about India’s air pollution problem and its effects.

This turned out to be life-changing because, with a few other co-founders, I launched one of India’s most affordable air purifiers, backed with sufficient data and proof to confirm that the solution worked. Schillings Air was launched in November 2018. After doing sales of more than $1 million in India, we targeted a new air purification solution for large commercial spaces. We designed a system that, when installed in the central cooling area of a building, provides World Health Organization (WHO)-level purification to the entire space. This design also requires zero annual maintenance, offers 50 percent reduced overall cost and needs only one annual filter replacement. On top of that, all components are completely made in India. What broad future goals do you have for Schillings Air? Schillings Air is on the path to develop and deliver more affordable, easily maintained, innovative and essential products related to air purification. Every day, doing something that has never been done before is a challenge, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Recently, we have been selected by NASSCOM (National Association of Software and Services Companies) for incubation. What were some of your biggest takeaways from working with the Nexus Incubator start-up hub at the American Center New Delhi?

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Schillings Air

One of my takeaways was the realization that innovation brings its own arrogance— the feeling that we’re owed gratitude for developing something so helpful. However, we owe to society for providing us the platform to innovate and develop products to bridge the gaps. During the Nexus program, it became clear that presentation of an innovation is as important as the product itself. If people don’t understand it, they’ll never put their faith in it. It is the duty of innovators and founders to impart clear and precise knowledge to customers about their products. The job is not complete at the engineering table.

Ashutosh Ranjan Thakur at Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, where his startup has installed a HVAC system.

Do you have any advice for those who want to launch entrepreneurial ventures in the public health sector? India has over a billion people, and the role of public welfare shouldn’t be left only to the government. There are various gaps at multiple levels in the public health space that are waiting to be filled. However, the diversity in the population and geography isn’t going to make that job easy. Without being disheartened, we should learn from the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies that are able to take their products to every nook and corner of this country. And, be unafraid to use business skills to overcome the challenges. Jason Chiang is a freelance writer based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.

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The Road to


RoadBounce uses cutting-e edge analytics to improve public safety and infrastructure, all through smartphones.


martphones can do more than just help you upload selfies, connect with friends and find locations—they can help fix roads and save lives. This is the aim of RoadBounce, a new technology created by Pune-based Definitics Software Solutions. “When you’re in your car on the road, you expect to have a smooth, safe, pothole-free ride. But this expectation is not met in many places in the world,” says founder Ranjeet Deshmukh. “On the other hand, road authorities always struggle to collect the data they need to find and fix dangerous road conditions.” “We developed RoadBounce to bridge this gap,” he says.


Once installed, RoadBounce monitors how phones vibrate while resting inside a moving vehicle, using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to record the precise locations where major vibrations—caused by potholes and damaged roads—occur. Then, RoadBounce analyzes data from multiple users, pinpointing the most dangerous areas and sharing that information with its customers. Its customers currently include municipal corporations, authorities in smart cities, national highway and road departments in India, and road contractors from Texas and elsewhere in the world. As a result, authorities know exactly where to send their repair crews, helping them maintain roads more effectively,

Photographs courtesy RoadBounce

Photographs courtesy RoadBounce milosradinovic/iStock/Getty Images

Above left: The National Highways Authority of India uses vehicles equipped with RoadBounce to help make roads safer. Above: When RoadBounce is used in a device inside a moving vehicle, it can automatically pinpoint potholes and dangerous road deterioration.

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Nexus Incubator

efficiently and affordably. Fixing the geo-tagged potholes or rough patches can save governments and road contractors up to 50 percent on maintenance costs, claims the company. And, better roads help improve the safety of drivers and pedestrians alike, and reduce car damage and insurance claims related to accidents. An experienced software developer and start-up executive, Deshmukh was first inspired to create RoadBounce as a way to help people. “India’s road network is the second largest in the world. But there are frequent concerns about road quality, especially during the monsoon season,” he says. “Given that many people die in India in accidents every year, and that riding quality directly impacts the safety of ambulances, school buses, hazmat vehicles and more, I thought that if we could innovate in this space, it could have an impact on many lives.” Deshmukh also saw a significant business opportunity. “It’s a great data play, because data about road conditions can enrich other businesses,” he says. “Industries such as logistics, transport, insurance, tire and auto can all immensely benefit if the data from RoadBounce is available to them at a large scale.” Starting in 2016, Deshmukh and his team spent nine months researching, developing and calibrating software, testing with local road authorities, and filing for patents. The hard work paid off; RoadBounce soon had its first paying customer, and was well on its way to increasing road safety across India. Like many tech-minded entrepreneurs, though, Deshmukh faced the challenge of not just creating a great invention, but also building a sustainable business around it. This is why he applied to be a part of the Nexus Incubator start-up hub at the American

Center New Delhi. “Nexus incubated us for a good amount of time, helped us better understand our business—and not just our technology—and gave us an understanding of how we can commercialize RoadBounce,” says Deshmukh. He adds that the training program helped push his team to get “out of the research lab and onto the street,” giving them valuable tools to jumpstart the sale of their product. RoadBounce also gained business strength from the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) 2019, hosted by the governments of the United States and the Netherlands. “GES 2019 was an excellent opportunity to present and pitch our start-up on a global stage,” says Deshmukh. “It was a gathering of very smart individuals, government representatives and decision makers who are helping to advance ties between countries through innovation.” Among other positive results, he says that he was approached by a leading U.S. automaker about a potential partnership, opening the door for “a whole new dimension for this business.” In the future, Deshmukh hopes to create more partnerships in the United States and beyond, expand his company’s offerings and, eventually, see RoadBounce in every vehicle on the road. Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.

Photographs courtesy RoadBounce


Top: Ranjeet Deshmukh and other members of the RoadBounce team (above) work to perfect their software for commercial use.

Left: Jayant Rao, co-founder of RoadBounce.

Photographs courtesy Essmart

Bridging the

Distribution Gap By HILLARY HOPPOCK

Essmart, co-founded in Tamil Nadu by American FulbrightNehru researcher Diana Jue-Rajasingh, delivers lifeimproving technologies by developing distribution channels within existing local networks. Above: Essmart co-founders Jackie Stenson (left) and Diana Jue-Rajasingh (second from right), with Prashanth Venkataramana (right) and Poonacha Kalengada (second from left) at a partner kirana shop. Top right: Essmart offers warrantied products, with aftersales support and product replacement services.

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Photographs courtesy Essmart

Above: Demonstration of Essmart’s products at a district-wide farmers meeting. Top right: A shop owner reads an Essmart catalog of socially impactful products, which the company ensures are thoroughly tested. Above right: A shop owner displays Essmart products.



t’s said a journey begins with a single step but, sometimes, the last mile proves to be the most challenging. Jackie Stenson and Diana Jue-Rajasingh found this to be true as they traveled through sub-Saharan Africa and southern India while they were graduate students at the University of Cambridge and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, respectively. Tracing the journey of lifeimproving technologies like solar lamps, water filters and efficient cookstoves to those in remote locations, Stenson and JueRajasingh discovered that villagers, for whom the products were intended, had no access to or even knowledge of these products. This was mainly because the distribution channels were broken. In 2012, Stenson and Jue-Rajasingh confronted this “last mile problem of the developing world” by co-founding the distribution company, Essmart, in southern

India. Jue-Rajasingh was then selected for a Fulbright-Nehru Research Fellowship in Bengaluru, after which she spent three years as Essmart’s chief operating officer and building up the local team, along with Prashanth Venkataramana and Poonacha Kalengada. Essmart is registered as a corporation in the United States and a private limited company in India. “We couldn’t find any organization purely dedicated to last-mile distribution, which leveraged the local infrastructure,” says Stenson, Essmart’s chief executive officer. “Existing distributors, for instance, either imported cheap electronic lighting products, which developed unrepairable problems within weeks, or charged exorbitant premiums from rural shopkeepers due to transport costs, with no after-sales service.” Essmart started in Pollachi in Tamil Nadu, utilizing existing “kirana” retail shops,

We are moving key data up the supply chain to close the gap between designers and


improving potential if they are properly delivered, adopted and serviced over time.” “Over the past seven years,” says Venkataramana, “Essmart has managed to reach over 80,000 customers through a network of over 1,400 local retail shops, with 14 distribution centers across Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Each center covers a radius of 60 kilometers from rural to remote villages. And 20 distribution centers are planned for 2020.” Stenson says that an important part of Essmart’s mission is to ensure that lifeimproving technologies are not designed in vain. “We are building a foundational, lastmile distribution network that can move innovative, durable, socially impactful products out to the communities that they were intended to help. At the same time, we are moving key data up the supply chain to close the gap between designers and end-users.” Jue-Rajasingh is currently focusing her research on the developing world as a Ph.D. candidate in strategy and sociology at the University of Michigan. “My day-to-day work at Essmart as well as my experience as a Fulbright-Nehru researcher,” she says, “exposed me to some of the most intractable problems facing underserved communities in emerging economies.” As an academic, she hopes to ask questions like, “How can the international development community ensure that the markets are being developed by entrepreneurs in an equitable, just way?” and “How can businesses most effectively work in underserved communities, in ways that address their customers’ needs and also sustain profits?”

Essmart www.essmart

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which majority of rural households rely upon for their consumer needs. “Essmart chose to work with small mom-and-pop-style stores as they are the best entrepreneurs in a rural setting,” says Venkataramana, Essmart’s India operations director. “They not only help us disseminate information about our products, but also help the customers get products repaired or replaced.” Essmart sources over 200 socially impactful products from manufacturers. Before adding new items like agricultural sprayers or cookware appliances to their catalog, the company ensures these are thoroughly tested. But, perhaps, the most important benefit to local shop owners is Essmart’s assurance of warrantied products, with after-sales support and product replacement services. According to Kalengada, Essmart’s director of field operations, the company invests a lot of time supporting the kirana shops in their distribution network. “Each shop owner is given a demo and technical training by an Essmart sales executive before he stocks the products. This ensures the owner and his customers know the benefits of products that were largely unknown to them previously.” He shares the success story of how the use of solar lamps has helped local businesses stay open after dark, without losing out on sales due to lack of access to electricity. “Partnerships with kirana stores as lastmile agents are a win-win,” says Shanina Mercedia van Gent, Essmart’s project manager. “While there are many companies developing products to meet essential needs, there are few entities working in the space between tech developers and end-users. Technologies and products like solar lights and clean cookstoves only have life-

Hillary Hoppock is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Orinda, California. NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2019 17



n ATM for drinking water? Sounds a bit odd? But that’s what entrepreneurs Navin Gupta and Rituparna Das’ company, Hydrotec Solutions, has developed to bring the much-needed purified water within easy reach of different communities. Gupta has a Bachelor of Technology degree in civil engineering and an MBA from Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, while Das is a software engineer. How did they think of the water ATM? “We first experienced issues related to drinking water while staying in a hostel in college,” says Gupta. “Few years later, while I was working with a water treatment company, I got the opportunity to set up a community drinking water project in a village in Karnataka. I realized how severe the drinking water crisis in rural India is. We, in cities, hardly value the abundant water available to us.” Gupta also came to know that these types of community drinking water projects fail within a short time due to lack of trained caretakers. Frequent power cuts also affect the operation of the units. He decided to do something about this issue. Connecting with his college friends and sharing his thoughts resulted in the formation of the Kolkata-based Hydrotec

Nexus-trained Hydrotec Solutions’ solar-powered water purification system provides communities with 24/7 safe drinking water on a pay-per-use basis. 18 NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2019



Above and above right: Hydrotec Solutions’ Arosia solar-powered water purification kiosks. Right: Rituparna Das (second from left) and Navin Gupta (fourth from right) at the inauguration of the Arosia water ATM at Eco Tourism Park in New Town, Kolkata.

Photographs courtesy Hydrotec Solutions

Hydrotec Solutions https://hydrotec

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Solutions. “In another 10 months, we were able to develop a prototype system,” says Gupta. “We named it Arosia, inspired by ‘ambrosia,’ which means food of the gods.” Arosia water purification kiosks have some unique features compared to the available conventional community drinking water solutions. “The plug and play device can be installed anywhere,” says Das, “and can purify water from any existing source, like ponds, wells, submersible borewells, etc.” In India, many of the traditional water sources are dying due to negligence and shortsighted policies, experts say. “Today, the groundwater level in most areas has gone down significantly. So, the probability of chemical contamination, like from arsenic and fluoride, increases,” says Das. “While installing and operating our machines in rural areas, we also impart water conservation training to locals, so that they start protecting resources.” Another advantage of Arosia is that it can run on solar power. Its lithium ion battery works as a backup during power shortage. This reduces the operation anxiety of the system. It’s a fully automatic, lowmaintenance device, and does not require any caretaker to manage the system, say the co-founders. “Today, electricity is still not available in all villages and, if available, there are frequent power cuts,” says Gupta. “An essential item like drinking water should not be dependent on such a source of power supply.”

Moreover, electricity contributes to about 60 percent of the cost of water purification. “By going solar, we are reducing the cost of purification of water considerably,” he adds. The co-founders insist that the solar power system, in a way, reduces the carbon footprint of the water ATM’s and makes them more environmentally sustainable. “The compact and fast-charging batteries, once charged, can run up to 48 hours, even if there is no sunshine. This helps us achieve 24/7 drinking water supply in rural areas,” they say. The automatic prepaid card-based dispensing system provides quick and easy access to purified drinking water, on a pay-per-use basis. Hydrotec Solutions has received training from Nexus Incubator start-up hub at the American Center New Delhi. “Although we have been in the business for some years now, Nexus was our first incubation program,” says Gupta. “The systematic program helped us identify our strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. We were able to connect with relevant industry bodies, mentors and organizations, and benefitted from their experience and knowledge. We were also able to identify and add new features to our product.” At the moment, the Arosia ATM has been installed at different locations and schools in states like West Bengal, Uttarakhand and Tripura. Das says that they want to work further in rural India under the corporate social responsibility initiatives of various companies.

We also impart water conservation training to locals, so that they start protecting resources.

Ranjita Biswas is a Kolkata-based journalist. She also translates fiction and writes short stories.

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Putting Knowledge to Work



Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellow Abhilasha Purwar is using data and artificial intelligence to fight against air pollution. 20 NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2019

or Abhilasha Purwar, learning simply for learning’s sake is a noble, worthwhile goal. “I’m a very nerdy person and I have always believed in the pursuit of knowledge for no other thing. Not for a high salary or a job, but just for the pursuit of knowledge in its pure form,” she says. And, Purwar’s education and career journey so far exemplify the saying, “Knowledge is power.” Purwar is the founder and chief executive officer of Blue Sky Analytics, a Gurugrambased geospatial data intelligence start-up. She began her post-secondary education with a B.Tech in applied chemistry from the Indian Institute of Technology (Banaras Hindu University), Varanasi, and an integrated master of technology. She passed up high-paying jobs to become a consultant on air pollution policies to Government of India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, and central and state pollution control boards. For Purwar, though, “grad school was always part of the plan.” She stumbled upon the Fulbright-Nehru program and applied for a Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellowship, which enabled her to go to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, from 2015 to 2017. She went to study environmental policies, but she also explored her other educational interests. Purwar ended up focusing a lot on macroeconomics and capital markets “because they sort of run the world,” she says. Purwar returned to India in 2018, keen to

do something of her own. She brought with her the understanding that “data has the capacity to change an entire ecosystem,” and a desire to do something about the air pollution in India. “We realized there was data on pollution everywhere, but not a soul to analyze it,” says Purwar. “We’re building machinery that can analyze what’s out there and do it in a very automated fashion.” Blue Sky Analytics combines data from satellite resources and ground sensors to create an artificial intelligence (AI)-driven geospatial data refinery. The start-up offers BreeZo, an air quality data app, which aims to raise awareness and help users minimize their air pollution exposure. It is a freemium app— available for free for regular users and at a subscription-based pricing model for power users like enterprises, researchers and regulators. “We launched the beta version of BreeZo last year, which got more than 5,000 users with $0 spent in marketing,” says Purwar. She and her team are currently revamping the design and improving the codebase to relaunch it as a vernacular air quality data app. Blue Sky Analytics is also developing Zuri, an AI-enabled platform to allow users, like compliance authorities, to monitor and regulate farm and forest fires. “In five years, we are confident that Blue Sky will be a global geospatial data intelligence company,” says Purwar, “and we would be one of the leading providers of environmental data on air

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Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellowship

Yale University

Photographs courtesy Abhilasha Purwar

Above left: Abhilasha Purwar (front row, second from right) with the Blue Sky Analytics team. Far left: Blue Sky Analytics’ BreeZo air quality index (AQI) visualizer application for mobile devices. Left: BreeZo City Annual Pollution Fingerprint, providing air pollution data for Kolkata.

Data has the capacity to change an entire ecosystem. and water quality and source pollution.” Blue Sky Analytics has two goals, says Purwar. First, to hold entities accountable for India’s air pollution by using analysis of satellite data to reveal who exactly are polluting and how much pollution they’re generating. Second, to enable the residents of polluted cities and regions to take precautions. To know, for example, that on a day when pollution is high, they need to keep children inside, next to an air purifier, and not take them outside to play. To achieve these goals, Purwar says, she wants Blue Sky Analytics to take a different approach than some nongovernmental and research organizations that try to tackle the air pollution problem by stopping industry. She sees air pollution as a “system design problem,” which needs to be addressed

through more efficient technology. Purwar feels that her commitment to investing her time and resources in fighting air pollution comes directly from the investments people made in her—through her Fulbright-Nehru fellowship in particular— that let her gain the knowledge and confidence she needed to come this far. “There’s a sense of responsibility that comes from it, that’s like, ‘Wait, so many people have trusted me to solve problems, somebody paid for my education at Yale, every month that I was studying I got a check to live, and that’s a very big privilege,’ ” she says. “People trusted in me, and now it’s my time” to pay it forward. Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York Citybased freelance writer.

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Helping Hand for Farmers By PAROMITA PAIN


griculture is one of the most important sectors of the Indian economy. According to the Economic Survey 2017-18 by the Government of India, the agriculture sector employs more than 50 percent of the total workforce in India and contributes around 17 to 18 percent to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Powered by the belief that technology can help Indian farmers make better use of resources, Patna-based Farms and Farmers (FnF) Foundation works with them to increase their income from agricultural activities by improving profitability from their land. Founded in 2010, FnF’s programs provide farmers cost-effective ways, using basic technology, to learn and understand more


about crop patterns and their marketing. Cofounder Shashank Kumar’s rural background and his work with a management consulting firm after graduation showed him the problems leading fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies like PepsiCo and Britannia faced while procuring materials from farmers. Kumar is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi. He wanted to reduce this gap between buyers and farmers, and ensure that farmers grew crops that were best suited for the available soil and made healthy profits too. With his friend, Manish Kumar, and 13 farmers, he launched the project in Chakdharia village in Bihar’s Vaishali district to educate farmers about soil

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Patna-based Farms and Farmers Foundation offers mobile phone apps and other services to help farmers increase their income from agricultural activities.

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Millennium Alliance

Currently, we are serving over 160,000 farmers through a network of 302 DeHaat coordinators and our mobilebased technology in Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh.

Photographs courtesy Shashank Kumar

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Farms and Farmers

Above: Farms and Farmers co-founder Shashank Kumar (front, center) with DeHaat (right) team members.


Encouraging microenterprise

the DeHaat centers located in villages and are the bridge between FnF and the farmers. The main source of revenue for the coordinators, who are young people from the communities they engage with, is the commissions earned through facilitating the sale of the crops and from a portion of the input cost paid by farmers. This involvement of local people, as not just beneficiaries but also as enablers of the program, has ensured sustainability of the DeHaat model. “Currently, we are serving over 160,000 farmers through a network of 302 DeHaat coordinators and our mobilebased technology in Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh,” says Kumar. “We have plans to expand to Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in 2021. FnF is also facilitating 12 farmer producer organizations in Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha.” FnF trained several microentrepreneurs on “agribusiness, agricultural technology and ICT [information and communication technology] modules, and supported them to provide end-to-end farmers’ services related to agri-input, crop advisory and market linkage,” as part of its Millennium Alliance project. Millennium Alliance is a consortium of partners including the Government of India, the United States Agency for International Development, Facebook and others. The program provides funding, capacity building and business development support to Indian social enterprises. The key benefit of the DeHaat centers for farmers is that they can buy inputs and sell outputs in their villages itself. “Our vision is to provide better access to agricultural inputs, advisory services, credit and market linkage of farm produce to farmers at just a click of a button using the DeHaat app or calling on the DeHaat toll-free number 1800-1036-110,” says Kumar. “Any synergy or collaboration in this direction is more than welcome.”

Another important aspect of the model is the creation of microentrepreneurs to take up the role of DeHaat coordinators. They manage

Paromita Pain is an assistant professor of Global Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Services to farmers FnF’s services are made available to farmers through a model called DeHaat. It covers different elements of the agriculture value chain, including farm preparation, input supply, advisory services and market linkage. The advisory services, provided both offline and online, are at the core of the model and are customized to suit the needs of every farmer. “Our aim is to bring 360 degree agricultural services to Indian small landholders,” says Kumar. Through the offline mechanism, in-house agricultural experts visit the farmers and provide real-time solutions to their queries. This also encourages direct interaction between the farmers and the experts. Alternatively, farmers can send their queries through the DeHaat mobile app or through the interactive voice response (IVR) system. Solutions are provided within 48 hours of registering the queries. This advisory system enables farmers to make effective input- and output-related decisions and, thereby, reduce costs.

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quality, crop selection and marketing of their products. It was not easy to get the farmers on board, but they formed a team with advisers from IIT Kharagpur, Bihar Agricultural University, Krishi Vigyan Kendras and other institutions to help them reach their audience more effectively. Based on the soil conditions, they convinced the farmers to grow more remunerative crops like rajma (kidney beans) instead of the staple wheat, and this helped them make a 100 percent profit. Soon after, a founding team was formed with other professionals like Amrendra Singh, Shyam Sundar Singh, Adarsh Srivastava and Abhishek Dokania.


Photographs courtesy Priya Krishnamoorthy

Cul t ural Entrepreneurship


riya Krishnamoorthy has over 14 years of experience spanning diverse areas in the creative industries, including journalism, broadcasting, the arts and social enterprises. As an arts manager, she is committed to creating value by driving ideas rooted in innovation, sustainability, social impact and education. These interests have been further honed by the Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellowship at Boston University’s arts administration program. Excerpts from an interview with Krishnamoorthy about her experience of the Fulbright-Nehru program and her work in India. Could you please elaborate a little on the field of arts management? The arts have a unique quality that cannot be framed and quantified the same way as other disciplines. Their value in our lives cannot be


measured the same way as, say, a bar of soap or an Uber ride. Therefore, its management is also different. It draws from diverse disciplines like business, education, community building and social impact to offer relevant tools for management, fundraising, marketing, etc., which can help build bridges between the arts, artists, patrons and audiences. You could call it an MBA for the arts. You don’t have to be an artist to become an arts manager, but it’s important that you are deeply passionate about the arts. Why did you decide to specialize in arts management? As an arts manager, I felt ill-equipped to contextualize and understand the gaps in the arts and culture ecosystems that I was experiencing in India. I wanted to explore the same within the

Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellow Priya Krishnamoorthy works to support the entrepreneurial ecosystems for arts and creative workers in India to drive sustainable development.

It has been extremely exciting to be a part of the Fulbright community. I have connected with and learned from scholars and students from across the world. At Boston University, I realized the challenges facing the arts in the United States might appear different, but are quite similar to what we face in South Asia. World over, one of the greatest challenges facing the field today is the lack of innovative business models as well as resources— financial and human. The key need, in India and the United States, is to find new ways to understand and articulate value for the arts and culture. My time in the United States greatly helped me value many worldviews as well as the systems that are already in place in India. I consciously sought out interdisciplinary experiences during my time in Boston. My internship at Boston University’s Summer Accelerator Program introduced me to business incubation and mentorship systems required for supporting social and creative enterprises. This further helped me initiate and lead the first-ever on-campus event for the Hult Prize, a global challenge that aims to mobilize student changemakers to rethink the future of business and innovation. Because of my interest in sustainability models, I ended up conceptualizing and leading a three-day event, called the Green Your Wardrobe weekend, as part of the annual Fashion Revolution Week in April 2018. I also acted as the coordinator for the Global Bazaar, a curated showcase of artisan goods from immigrant communities, organized as part of the Global Music Festival 2018.

rigors of academia. I was managing a social enterprise that worked with artisans in India when I applied for the Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellowship. One of my primary goals was to acquire the relevant tools that would help me lead and support entrepreneurial ecosystems in India for arts and creative workers. The coursework introduced me to skills in fundraising for nonprofits, financial management as well as research and evaluation. It also helped me acquire a strong theoretical footing in the language of social and cultural entrepreneurship. I am currently in my post-degree academic training period with the partnerships team at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Solve, a global marketplace for social impact ideas.

How do you plan to use this experience back in India? My time in Boston has made me realize that world over, the creative and cultural industries continue to remain an untapped start-up economy. India can take the lead in supporting a new generation of creative and cultural entrepreneurs to not only create jobs, but also drive sustainable development. My current training at MIT Solve offers an incredible opportunity to learn the ropes of creating transformational partnerships. I have already initiated my goal to facilitate conversations and build lasting networks with a world-renowned institution committed to innovation.

In what ways is the Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship an extension of your interest?

Ranjita Biswas is a Kolkata-based journalist. She also translates fiction and writes short stories.

Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellowship

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Left: Priya Krishnamoorthy (right) at Boston University’s graduation ceremony. Far left: Krishnamoorthy (center) at the 2018 Green Your Wardrobe weekend, organized at the university. Below far left: Krishnamoorthy (front row, third from left) at a Fulbright meetup over food event.

Hult Prize

World over, the creative and cultural industries continue to remain an untapped start-up economy.

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Banking for Everyone By PAROMITA PAIN

FIA Technology, a Haryana-based Millennium Alliance awardee, works on financial inclusion by taking banking services to the doorsteps of customers from underserved sections.

Photographs courtesy FIA Technology

Right: Seema Prem’s (below) FIA Technology helps people from underserved sections set up bank accounts as well as access government schemes and other products.



or Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan Fellow Seema Prem, working in the social sector has always been a passion. “At MIT, we crystallized the idea of how we could bring more people, especially from rural and other underserved areas, into the banking system. And that’s where the idea of FIA was born,” says the co-founder of Haryana-based FIA Technology Services Private Ltd. In India, while mobile phones may have become ubiquitous, many low-income households are yet to get connected to the banking grid and often don’t have access to savings accounts or the different government schemes for families below a certain income level. FIA seeks to close the gaps between these individuals and financial institutions by reaching out to communities, educating them about

basic banking procedures like opening an account, and ensuring that they understand how such institutions can provide various benefits. Prem and her team drew inspiration for FIA from models like Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. “Our analysis showed that while the Grameen Bank model in Bangladesh was a phenomenal idea, people still did not have basic bank accounts because this was purely credit-based. The Indian government policy was geared more toward meaningful financial inclusion by helping people set up bank accounts, social security schemes and credit plans.” FIA decided to partner with private and public sector banks and offer their products to customers. The company works in all states across 625 districts in India. It handles about 200,000 transactions a day and works with

Courtesy FIA Technology

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A State Bank of India customer service point, managed by FIA Technology, in a rural area in Assam.

FIA Technology

MIT Sloan Fellowship

Millennium Alliance www.millennium

over 30 financial institutions. FIA sets up centers in different suburban and rural areas, where FIA Mitras or friends, usually local micro-entrepreneurs, are trained to help people access financial services and products. A large number of these centers are run by women. “Opening a bank account requires basic documentation, like address and identity proofs and two references, which people often find difficult to put together,” explains Prem. “Banks in these areas often have very few staff members. Also, these transaction amounts do not usually exceed Rs. 5,000, which does not make it a profitable venture sustainable for the bank.” The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has policies that relax these requirements, while keeping risks low. The RBI sets these policies and the banks design their products accordingly. FIA acts as the implementing agency; disseminating information about the products and helping customers access them. Initially, it was not easy to convince customers to trust a financial intermediary. But, as Prem says, “The government has been very good about the communication around no-frills banking.” FIA held community meetings with

bank managers, the Gram Panchayats and local block development officers to explain the benefits of banks and financial institutions to people. Account opening camps were also organized. Gradually, as people experienced the benefits for themselves and saw that the bank account passbooks reflected the amounts deposited, trust in FIA’s services grew. Financial literacy is an important component of the marketing campaign around the establishment of FIA centers. FIA has also recently started mobilizing loans at reasonable interest rates to help small entrepreneurs start new commercial ventures. “These are customers who are credit invisible,” says Prem. “We have new ways of ascertaining the credit worthiness of individual loan applicants.” FIA is a recent Millennium Alliance awardee. The alliance is a consortium of partners including the Government of India, the United States Agency for International Development, Facebook and others. “FIA’s award-winning model for financial inclusion combines a stateof-the-art mobility-based platform and a multilevel distribution network to bridge the huge demand-supply gap for banking in underserved geographies,” states the Millennium Alliance website. It adds that FIA’s target segment mainly comprises marginal farmers, landless laborers, self-employed and unorganized sector enterprises, tribals, urban slum dwellers, migrants, ethnic minorities, socially excluded groups, senior citizens and women. “The grant helped us focus on some of the poorest areas of the country,” says Prem. There have been many wonderful moments in the past seven years. A bank account for 92-yearold Pyarelal in Choulhada village in the Baghpat district of Uttar Pradesh was among the first accounts opened. “At the Uttarakhand-Nepal border, there was a 100-year-old lady who was bedridden. A FIA Mitra was able to get her old age pension delivered right to her doorstep, through biometric transactions,” says Prem. “Young people who have been with us from the start have also grown in confidence, as they work to take these products to people who need them, like the elderly and the marginalized.” Paromita Pain is an assistant professor of Global Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.

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Cab Dost

Professional Fellows Program

Global Entrepreneurship Summits

Driving Change By BURTON BOLLAG

U.S. State Department exchange program alumna Yamuna Sastry’s Bengaluru-based start-up, Cab Dost, helps taxi drivers secure their future by providing them different financial services.


amuna Sastry is working to improve the lives of cab drivers in India, including those who work for digital ride-hailing services like Uber and Ola. In 2016, she co-founded Cab Dost, with the aim of helping cab drivers take advantage of financial services like bank accounts, insurance and pension plans. One of the key areas of focus for the start-up is providing tax filing assistance to cab drivers which, Sastry says, is a necessary step to access financial services and benefits. Without a tax declaration, she adds, “It’s hard for them to get loans. They


fall prey to money lenders, who charge much higher interest rates,” as compared to banks and other lending institutions. The cab companies often deduct a part of drivers’ earnings as TDS (tax deducted at source). When their income tax is calculated, many drivers are owed refunds from the government. But, they can only receive these refunds if they file income tax returns—something that many drivers have never done. “We start from scratch,” says Sastry. “Filing an individual tax return may take 20 minutes. But we also create email

Above: Yamuna Sastry, co-founder of Cab Dost, at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2019. Right: Sastry (left) at the Taxi Drivers’ Awareness Programme 2018 at Kempegowda International Airport Bengaluru.

car rental business at the time. Sastry was invited to participate in the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in 2017 in Hyderabad. The event, co-hosted by the governments of the United States and India, provided mentoring and networking opportunities for emerging entrepreneurs. Sastry was invited again to the 2019 GES, which took place in The Hague, co-hosted by the governments of the United States and the Netherlands. Sastry says the guidance provided at the summits as well as contacts with entrepreneurs from other countries have been invaluable for her work at Cab Dost. In 2018, Sastry participated in the U.S. State Department’s Professional Fellows Program, during which she spent five weeks in the United States, mainly in Oklahoma. There she was placed at Goodwill Industries of Tulsa and Tulsa Area United Way’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, where she learned about management practices and their free tax filing service. She also attended leadership classes at the University of Oklahoma. The exchange visit was Sastry’s first trip to the United States. “I learned about people management, compliance and how, in the United States, they put people first,” she says. The leadership classes taught her how to focus on her core mission as a business founder, and “how to declutter,” she adds. She also credits what she learned during her fellowship with helping her find better work-life balance. The experience changed her life, says Sastry. And it helped crystallize her goals for Cab Dost: “To build a business that makes profit, but with a purpose—to give back to society.”

Photographs courtesy Cab Dost

addresses for them and make sure their names and dates of birth are the same on all their documents. And, we call up the drivers when the tax credit arrives.” Cab Dost, which currently has 24 employees, has organized a dozen Tax Mela campaigns, during which free tax filing assistance is offered to drivers at airports, railway stations and outdoor locations. Sastry says that since 2016, the company has provided free tax filing assistance to over 7,000 drivers. In addition, it has provided the service for a fee of Rs. 500 to a slightly larger number of drivers. During these campaigns, Cab Dost also helps raise awareness among drivers about other important issues like health and wellness, substance abuse, sanitation, women’s safety and financial planning. All this may be public service, but Sastry says, it is also good business. The company is already profitable. As it grows, it plans to increase earnings by providing other paid services to drivers, like company registration and bookkeeping, as well as by selling them products like health and life insurance plans and small loans. The company has also started providing training to drivers in spoken English, tour guiding, behavior and etiquette, and road safety. The training sessions are paid for by tour companies. Sastry graduated in 2011 from Jain University in Bengaluru, with a master’s degree in commerce, and then worked for three years, doing risk analysis, for the Indian branch of the international accounting firm, KPMG. She then spent the next year and a half interviewing 3,000 cab drivers to learn about their financial problems, before creating Cab Dost with her partner, Shafeeque Thazhatheri, who owned a small

Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C. From top: Cab Dost offers services like tax filing, legal registrations and financial statement preparation for cab drivers; Yamuna Sastry (right) at a financial inclusion drive, organized at Kempegowda International Airport Bengaluru, to help cab drivers file their income tax returns; Sastry (center) at a driver development dialogue; and Sastry (left) receives a Women Transforming India Award 2018 from M. Venkaiah Naidu, Vice President of India (right).

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Assessing Learning By BURTON BOLLAG

Photographs courtesy CSSL

Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow Vyjayanthi Sankar’s Centre for Science of Student Learning aims to build capacity for high-quality assessments and research.




he education system in India, like in many other countries, lays a lot of importance on the number of students who pass school examinations and their scores. In the process, some schools focus less on what and how well the students learn. And, training for educational assessments and research into the science of how children learn is not widely available. There is a need for greater capacity to carry out the assessments that could shed light, in meaningful detail, on the gaps and misunderstandings in students’ knowledge. Even in the cases where sophisticated assessments are done, it is a challenge to analyze and use the results to improve the system of education and learning. Vyjayanthi Sankar is working to change this scenario. She is the founder and executive director of the Centre for Science of Student Learning (CSSL). Founded in 2015 and based in New Delhi, the center tests students to help state governments and

Left: A student participant in a Centre for Science of Student Learning (CSSL) assessment. Far left: Vyjayanthi Sankar, founder and executive director of CSSL.

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State governments use the results to provide training programs to improve teaching, and determine where students need remedial help.

Above: Centre for Science of Student Learning (CSSL)’s test development workshop for key government resource personnel in Rajasthan. Below left: Vyjayanthi Sankar conducts a lecture for a CSSL assessment cell, as part of its coursework. It sets up these cells in state institutions for administering large-scale assessments. Below: CSSL carries out a large-scale assessment in a government school in Rajasthan. Below right: CSSL assessment cell members during a classroom session.

funders of education projects determine what students are learning and what difference various educational interventions are making. Part of the reason why children are not performing better, says Sankar, is the emphasis on rote learning. It teaches children to memorize, but not necessarily to understand or be in a position to innovate and create. Most school tests capture only what has been memorized. “Teachers are never taught how to build a good test—not for what they taught, but for what was learned by the


students,” she says. Sankar’s center has been working with seven state governments in India, carrying out student learning assessments and providing assistance on how to use the results. CSSL also provides short-term training for the states’ education officials to strengthen their capacity in this field. It is in talks with many other states, and is also considering extending its services to other developing countries. At the same time, the center has created a master’s-level study program to train state government officials to run their own educational assessment initiatives and use the results to improve teaching. Currently, 11 education officials from Andhra Pradesh are enrolled in the three-year, practice-heavy program. They spend 60 percent of their time studying and 40 percent at their work, applying what they have learned. Hoi K. Suen, a retired professor from Pennsylvania State University, where Sankar spent a year as a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow

Photographs courtesy CSSL

Below: Centre for Science of Student Learning (CSSL)’s workshop on dissemination of Andhra Pradesh State Learning Achievement Survey results. Below right: Vyjayanthi Sankar (front row, center) with CSSL faculty and Andhra Pradesh assessment cell members.

understand each other’s perspectives,” she says. Besides carrying out assessments and training state education officials, CSSL carries out research into the science of learning. The goal here is to better understand how educators can support both academic and soft skills, like concentration, memory, self-image, emotional intelligence and communication— all of which can play a role in how well students learn. In 2018, CSSL undertook a broad baseline assessment of grade-school student learning and common learning problems. The study was funded by the World Bank and commissioned by NITI Aayog, the Government of India’s policy think tank. “State governments use the results to provide training programs [to teachers] to improve teaching,” says Sankar, “and determine where students need remedial help.”

Centre for Science of Student Learning

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in 2013-14, advises and oversees the master’s program. Sankar credits her 10-month Humphrey fellowship with giving her the knowledge and confidence she needed to create CSSL. Sponsored by the U.S. State Department, the fellowship is an exchange program for young and mid-career professionals. The fellowship allowed Sankar to deepen her understanding of learning assessment. It also gave her a more global understanding of professional, social and geo-political challenges. About 150 Humphrey fellowships are awarded annually, and they are hosted by 13 major U.S. universities. At Pennsylvania State University, for example, Sankar met several fellows from other countries. “We got to

Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.


Tech to Work


TechCamp South Asia participant Chandra Vadhana R. works to provide digital employability skills to enhance the career prospects of women. 38 NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2019

Left: Chandra Vadhana R., CEO of Prayaana and 4tune Factory. Above: Kerala-based Asimov Robotics’ Sayabot service robot at Prayaana’s Career Queen Summit 2019.


handra Vadhana R. is the chief executive officer (CEO) of two start-ups, working at the intersection of innovation, gender and entrepreneurship. Through Prayaana and 4tune Factory, she helps empower Indian women by providing them guidance and mentorship for better employability. Prayaana focuses on young women, as well as on women who had taken career breaks, to prepare them for employment. Since its launch in 2017, it has impacted the lives of more than 20,000 girls and women, according to Vadhana. 4tune Factory is a human resources (HR) company that helps corporations with recruitment and training. At the 2018 TechCamp South Asia in Dubai, a public diplomacy program hosted by the U.S. Department of State, Vadhana created an e-learning module on using technology tools for better employability as part of her Techshakthi project. Excerpts from an interview. How does your work help Indian women with employability? I have been working on employability of

women, as a professional and academician, for some time now. In 2017, my friend Ms. Keziah and I trained a small group of young women from a remote town in Kerala. We were able to influence and make a change in their lives by helping them enhance their skills. On the drive back, we decided that we should work more in this field. In the next few months, I researched more about the challenges women face in building their careers, and came up with an exclusive curriculum and model for promoting their careers. This framework evolved into the Prayaana Fellowship program and the startup Prayaana Labs. We work with female students, as well as women who had taken career breaks, and support them in increasing their employability or help them with their startups. We have recently launched a leadership enrichment program for women in the corporate sector. Our efforts are also focused on fighting the underlying causes of unemployment among women who had taken career breaks. We strive to provide empowerment initiatives to qualified but

Photographs courtesy Chandra Vadhana R.

unemployed, as well as under-employed women, to build up their careers effectively. The C2C [Comeback 2 Career] Mission by Prayaana is an attempt to awaken the desire in women to take up a career again after a break. Prayaana has conducted seven editions of C2C meets at Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Dubai, Pune and Kozhikode and has reached over 500 women in 2018 alone.

What are Prayaana Hubs? Prayaana Hubs are established at various educational institutions, where most of our outreach activities take place. Each hub is led by a campus ambassador and an executive committee that conducts monthly events exclusively for women. Entrepreneurs and women leaders from various fields go as speakers and trainers to these hubs and

What is the Career Queen Summit and what makes it special? I envisaged the Career Queen Summit as an annual conclave where we celebrate women leaders. This is a different kind of pageant, in which we identify talented young women and crown them as Miss Prayaana for the year. The event aims to identify and promote the leadership potential of women. You are also the CEO of 4tune Factory. How is this company different from Prayaana? 4Tune Factory was started as an HR company to help corporates with recruitment and training. It provides specialized training, e-learning and media solutions, whereas Prayaana focuses on women’s employability and related issues. What are your future plans? I have just completed my Ph.D. from Cochin University of Science and Technology. I wish to pursue more research work in the field of innovation, gender and entrepreneurship. I will focus on my latest start-up, the PraCol project, through which I wish to showcase products and services of 10,000 women entrepreneurs. I am also writing a self-help book for women. I have set a goal of empowering one million lives by 2030. Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.


4tune Factory http://4tune

TechCamp South Asia

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Could you tell us about the 2018 TechCamp South Asia and your project Techshakthi? The TechCamp South Asia held in Dubai was a great experience. I got a chance to learn and network with like-minded women, and connected with many of them. During the camp, I learned how technology can be better utilized in social enterprises. I also proposed a project named Techshakthi, a mobile application with curated learning content to help with employability of women. After the camp, I was motivated to work more on addressing specific issues faced by women. I have now launched, a speaker listing site for women, and I’m developing (Prayaana Collective), an e-commerce platform to sell women-made products.

mentor young women in their careers. These hubs also act as locations for starting up and running small businesses. So far, we have established more than 10 hubs and have more than 60 campus ambassadors.

Our efforts are also focused on fighting the underlying causes of unemployment among women who had taken career breaks. xVMFt

To share articles go to NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2019 39

Recipe for Entrepreneurs

I Photographs courtesy U.S. Consulate General Kolkata


n May 2019, a small group of South Asians and Americans traveled to Kolkata to build networks —not through treaties or trade deals, but through the universal language of delicious food. The U.S. Consulate General Kolkata welcomed 22 culinary entrepreneurs—chefs, restaurant owners and other creative individuals involved in the food industry—for “Food Diplomacy: A Recipe for Entrepreneurship.” Participants in the comprehensive, multi-day program hailed from India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and the workshops were led by two American chefs, Tiffany Derry and Jay Ducote. The program involved a variety of presentations, panel discussions and mentorship sessions, all intended to help its culinary entrepreneur participants grow their businesses and make their food-related dreams come true. It also aimed to strengthen the regional network of food business entrepreneurs to harness the economic power of food. The program culminated in a memorable event: Participants joined industry experts, financial specialists, investors and representatives of the U.S. Trade Association and other such organizations for a massive food expo at JW Marriott Hotel Kolkata. From networking to fundraising, innovation to team-building, many topics were discussed throughout the program. One key area of focus was sustainability and what culinary entrepreneurs around the world can do to help. “All participants took a pledge to adopt and move toward more sustainable methods in our individual establishments, and the industry as a whole,” says program participant Varun Gazder. “Some examples are switching from plastic to paper straws, banning plastic cutlery and carry bags, reusing materials wherever possible,


wasting less food and using solar energy.” Gazder owns and runs Café Regal in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand. He first learned about the program from a food blogger friend and was eager to apply. “The program was tailor-made for like-minded individuals. I was excited to meet new people belonging to my profession and expand my horizons through shared experiences,” he says. Chef Joel Basumatari, creator of the Saucy Joe’s line of food products and a leader of the “slow food” sustainability movement in Nagaland, was another participant. Although he was already a seasoned culinary entrepreneur before he joined the program, he felt honored to be selected, to represent Nagaland and to take advantage of this learning opportunity. “Being a first-generation entrepreneur, I wanted to learn, share the knowledge attained from the program and use the training in my daily life,” he says. “It was a new learning experience and really helped me understand the importance of hard work and networking. It also helped me to be better in planning and organizing, and to be strong in networking and market research.” Gazder describes the program’s sessions as highly interactive in nature, featuring extensive dialogue and opportunities to learn and share. “We got to exchange notes on genuine issues and shop-floor scenarios,” he says, “and come up with and share solutions. Learning from established people and exchanging ideas with peers gave a whole new dimension to day-to-day café management.” Basumatari also affirms the unique value of participant dialogue. “The exchange of knowledge with other entrepreneurs is really important in helping one another with business

hip Above: The universal language of food brought together 22 culinary entrepreneurs for the “Food Diplomacy: A Recipe for Entrepreneurship� program in Kolkata.

International culinary entrepreneurs cook, learn and build bridges of collaboration and friendship. To share articles go to NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2019 41

Photographs courtesy U.S. Consulate General Kolkata

Right: Varun Gazder (second from left) and Joel Basumatari (third from left) at the “Food Diplomacy: A Recipe for Entrepreneurship” program. Far right: Basumatari with his Saucy Joe’s line of food products. Below: Participants and mentors of the comprehensive, multi-day program. Below right: One of the program’s many panel discussions, intended to help its culinary entrepreneur participants grow their businesses. Below far right: American chefs Tiffany Derry (left) and Jay Ducote, who led the program workshops.

and ethics,” he says. Gazder describes the concept of culinary diplomacy—the theoretical foundation of the program—as a type of cultural diplomacy that brings people together over the shared love of food. “Its basic premise is that ‘the easiest way to win hearts and minds is through the stomach,’ ” he says. “It is important because it uses food and cuisine as instruments to create crosscultural understanding, in the hope of improving interactions and cooperation.” The participants learned about various aspects of culinary entrepreneurship. “Jay taught us about different styles of barbecuing, environmental impacts and innovation, and Tiffany spoke about elevator pitches and different ways to increase and expand [our] business,” says Gazder. The learning was both ways. “We saw, time and time again, that the things we feel are the hot topics in America right now, they’re the hot topics here [in India], too,” said Ducote in a conversation with Jay Treloar, then-American Center Kolkata deputy director. “They’re the same things that people are trying to figure out here as well, whether it’s sustainable fisheries or really trying to support your local really does prove that food is a universal language.” If this program is any indication, promotion of entre42 NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2019

preneurship through culinary diplomacy is more than a promising theory; it creates real-world results. Gazder and Basumatari, for instance, are currently working together to promote products created by Basumatari and produced locally by Nagaland villagers. Gazder says that Basumatari will visit his city soon to promote cuisine from Northeast India. And that’s just the beginning. For aspiring culinary entrepreneurs, Basumatari offers this advice: “With consistency, hard work and determination, anything is possible. I would also like to say that any work you do has to be a passion, driven with sincerity. If you chase money, you will be chasing it your whole life. And you should not have jealousy and ego if you wish to succeed.” Gazder adds that growing a culinary business or being a successful chef can be highly rewarding, but it is not a “glamorous” job. “It entails long hours and hard work,” he says. “Your team becomes your family. Like in any other industry, there are ups and downs. You have to be patient and resilient, and learn from every new challenge you encounter.” Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.


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Food Diplomacy: A Recipe For Entrepreneurship


Photographs courtesy U.S. Consulate General Kolkata

Left: American chefs Tiffany Derry (right) and Jay Ducote (below left) led the workshops at the “Food Diplomacy: A Recipe for Entrepreneurship� program in Kolkata. While Ducote taught topics like innovation and sustainability, Derry covered elevator pitches and culinary business expansion.

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The exchange of knowledge with other entrepreneurs is really important in helping one another with business and ethics.

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