Thursday, February 16, 2017

My Speech to the Council of Social Entrepreneurs at The University of the Pacific, California, USA


My name is Eisha Sarkar and I am a writer, educator, peacebuilder and designer based in Gujarat, India. I thank Asef (Majidi) and the Social Entrepreneurship Council at The University of the Pacific for inviting me to share my stories.

I became interested in the idea of social entrepreneurship after reading Jacqueline Novogratz's book, The Blue Sweater. Some of you may be familiar with her work and Acumen, a non-profit global venture fund, she founded, which helps build financially sustainable organizations that deliver affordable goods and services and in turn, improve the lives of the poor. The organization is headquartered in New York and has offices in India, Pakistan, Kenya and Ghana. In the early 1990s, she founded the first microfinance institution in Rwanda called Duterimbere.

In Kigali, Jaqueline found a group of 20 unwed mothers who were in a baking project and undertook sewing orders. They hardly baked or sewed and the women earned fifty cents a day. The charity that was supporting them was losing $650 a month. They would have trebled the women's incomes by just handing them the money instead of 'giving the poor women something nice to do till all the money ran out'. Jacqueline proposed the idea that they run the organization like a business and not charity. They all agreed and The Blue Bakery was established. Within eight months, the women were earning $2 a day, much more than most women in Kigali earned and sometimes they even earned more than $3. For the first time in their lives, their incomes allowed them to decide when to say yes and when to say no. Money gave them confidence and choice and in turn, dignity.

About two years ago, I met an enterprising couple – Shyam and Swati Bedekar – in Vadodara, India. They run an organization called Vatsalya Foundation, which helps set up sanitary napkin-manufacturing units in rural homes. Swati, a teacher by profession, noticed how girls in tribal areas skipped school at the time of their menses. Within homes, they were forced into isolation for those five days a month. They had no access to sanitary napkins (the ones in the market were too expensive) and used old rags, newspapers, ash, mud, etc, during their periods. Naturally, the incidence of infection was very high. It took years of research for Swati and Shyam to come up with a viable solution: a low-cost eco-friendly sanitary pad that could be incinerated without creating any hazardous by-products.

While initially they started sourcing and distributing the pads, the couple realized the only way they could keep costs down is by creating manufacturing set-ups in people's homes. Shyam made a machine that would be easy to operate in a small room. Thus started Sakhi, an organization run by women that creates low-cost eco-friendly sanitary napkins. Rural women, many of them illiterate, run it like a business. I have met some of them. A few years ago, they would not even utter a word in front of their husbands. Today, they are comfortable walking up to a manager to open a bank account. A single unit in a village makes a lot of difference. Watching their mothers make the pads, encourages the girls to use them and makes them more hygiene-conscious. The women are able to financially support their husbands and girls no longer drop out of school citing menstruation as the reason.

Sakhi has been written about in various newspapers in India and abroad. On one occasion when I was with Swati, I was introduced to Amy Grace Peake from UK, who was so moved by the plight of 40000 Syrian women refugees in the Zataari refugee camp in Jordan, that she chose to do something about bringing them dignity and jobs. Amy managed to cut the red tape and get the UN sanction to create a small unit at the refugee camp where Sakhi's machines were installed to manufacture sanitary napkins and incontinence pads. The enterprise is run by women refugees. This is an example of people from different parts of the world coming together to solve a social and health issue in another part of the world. It's about collective social responsibility.

We look at enterprise in terms of income generation and jobs, but it's also about building capacities and skills and creating an employable taskforce. I volunteer for a one-to-one peacebuilding initiative called Pax Populi. It is a Latin phrase and means peace of the people. In 2007, Robert McNulty, a professor of ethics and Bentley University in Massachusetts, founded the non-profit, Applied Ethics, Inc, with the goal to support peacemaking through education and economic development. Pax Populi Academy is an online school, where students in Afghanistan are connected with English and Math tutors from around the world. Four decades of war have destroyed the country and ruined its education system. Since English is the global language for business communication, we try to build bridges between countries and cultures through our English tutoring programs. Pax Populi members are from Afghanistan, USA, Canada, UK, France, Greece, India and South Korea. I joined this initiative as a tutor to understand and learn about the very rich Afghan culture. I have taught students in two Afghan cities – Herat and Kabul. As Pax Populi's Social Media Manager, I interact with hundreds of Afghan students who dream of making their country safe and prosperous again. I always had tremendous respect for Afghan peoples and their literature and my respect for them has grown immensely since I joined this organization. I have made friends even outside the program and one such is Asef, who is one of the most hardworking people I know.

Education, health, poverty alleviation and peace rank among the UN Sustainable Development Goals that we seek to achieve over the next 15 years to make the world a better place. I believe cross-cultural, multi-platform social enterprises will become the driving forces to attain these goals.

Thank you.

To listen to me talk, please click here

No comments: