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Reaching The Unreached In India: Ideas Matter But Vision More So

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By Vikas Nath:

In mid-April 2013, over a thousand participants from India and abroad gathered in Mumbai. The venue was the high-energy Sankalp Forum organised by Intellecap – a pioneer in providing business solutions to help profitable social enterprises scale up, in partnership with Villgro. The Sankalp Forum is an annual affair which attracts social entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, leaders, youths and wannabe entrepreneurs.


It brings together people who are not found to be working in average day jobs. Most would not want to work in one. They belong to the perpetually unsatisfied class of people, and they are looking for problems, but with a difference. They have come up with some smart ideas to solve these problems be it in the area of health, education, environment or energy, and are trying to puts those ideas to practice. A few have succeeded, others are working their way through, and many have failed but are starting again with renewed enthusiasm. There cannot be a more unconventional set of people and we need more of them to bring newer imagination, resources and approaches to solve the development challenges facing the global South.

It comes as no surprise that the Forum this year was branded as the Sankalp Unconvention Summit, and the theme was “Looking beyond Impact: Seeking transformational change”. Several panel discussions and parallel forums were organised which focused on where social entrepreneurship and impact investing is headed, and what difference it is making in the lives of people. Given that social enterprise sector in India took off less than ten years ago this openness to reflect and rethink strategies is refreshing. Several points emerged, including the need for different actors (entrepreneurs, investors and governments) to come together and create an ecosystem which incubates innovative ideas, builds capacities, and funds risks. This calls for new and innovative financing mechanisms to fund the high-risk social enterprises, and do so at a large scale. The approach to investing has to shift to impact investing, namely investing in a portfolio of companies, organisations and funds, which generate measurable social and environmental impacts alongside a financial return.

Social enterprises need capital right from seeding to scaling up. As was expected, some of the most energetic discussions were on how to mobilise capital for impact investing and the ability of social enterprises to come up with solutions which serve the needs of poor people as well as generate returns for investors. While a high proportion of capital is raised through foreign investment funds and grants, the share of domestic capital is gradually increasing but more needs to be done to unlock the capital available locally and make it available to local social enterprises.

Amidst all the discussions, a single word which was absent was “free”. None of the entrepreneurs talked about providing their products and services for free, and for the right reasons. They wanted to engage with the unreached and the poor in a relationship which is equal and business-like instead of a donor and recipient one where services are generally provided free. This new generation of entrepreneurs represented at the Forum did not find it incongruous to talk about creating business solutions which work for the poor and generating profits in the same sentence. They are focused as much on creating income inflows from year one of their enterprises as they are on wanting their enterprises to reach the unreached and benefit people with low incomes.

This new mindset of social entrepreneurs is changing the long established terminologies and approaches associated with development. Words such as aid, subsidies, donors and recipients, free are “out” and investment, solutions, customers, terms of services and pricing are “in”. And this change will benefit everyone.

When a user pays for a service, he or she can negotiate the price and terms of service and can hold the seller accountable if the service is sub-par. A donor-recipient relationship is an asymmetric one. It does not allow recipients to negotiate and strips the ability of recipients to raise questions on the effectiveness of free services. By setting an affordable price, social entrepreneurs are bringing dignity to poor people – treating them as customers instead of profiting from merchandising their sufferings. Social entrepreneurs have to work hard to gain trust of users and be accountable to them, as without it, they will not be able to mainstream their solutions.

This is all the more remarkable when we consider that these entrepreneurs are trying to create profitable enterprises in sectors where most of the services are often provided free or heavily subsidised by governments and non-government organisations alike. Conventional wisdom goes against asking for payments in a sector dominated by free services. This being the Unconvention, it was represented by entrepreneurs who are daring to think and act differently. The failure of governments in reaching all places and providing quality services to the poor means that these entrepreneurs perceived vast opportunities and set up successful and profitable enterprises. And many of them saw aid and grants as perverse subsidies which distort the commercial model and do not provide a level playing field to other enterprises.

One such entrepreneur was Dr. Ashwin Naik who co-founded the Vaatsalya chain of hospitals. While more than 70% of the Indian population lives in villages and small towns, 80% of the hospitals are located in metros and large towns. This leaves a huge unmet demand for primary and secondary health care services in semi-urban and rural India and this forms the client base of Vaatsalya. Vaatsalya offers low-cost specialised services in the area of gynaecology, paediatrics, general surgery and general medicine, and allows them to fulfill about 70% of the needs of the local community and stay profitable while doing so. On an average, Vaatsalya earns about 15% to 18% in earnings before tax. One of the early impact investors for Vaatsalya was Aavishkaar India, whose chief executive officer (CEO) Mr. Vineet Rai is also the co-founder of the Sankalp Forum. This shows how daring entrepreneurs and visionary investors within a country can come together and create social enterprises which provide quality health care services for its citizens at a lower cost.

And the process has only begun. The Sankalp Emerging Businesses Awards brought together 21 finalists. They pitched before the audience to get support for their social enterprises in the area of agriculture, technology, education, health and technology. Many of these enterprises with proper mentorship and investments have the potential to become Vaatsalyas of tomorrow or go beyond national boundaries and set up operations in other countries.

India is emerging as the cradle of home-grown social entrepreneurship. A large number of youths in India are attracted to it and investment and support by government and domestic angel investors are going up. The social enterprises which are emerging are innovative, low-cost and aimed at needs and challenges facing India. A more conducive ecosystem which fosters entrepreneurship is also emerging which explains the dramatic take off of this sector. India is now in a position where it can share some of its indigenous experiences and experimentations on social enterprises with other countries in the global South.

As if on a cue, there was a panel in the Forum on South-South collaboration on impact investing and how other countries could learn from India’s experience. The panel shared interesting examples of how India, in spite of its enormous development challenges, all of which are competing for capital but is able to encourage and expand social entrepreneurship. Many of the home-grown enterprises have made a big impact globally in the area of health and technology.

To sum up, Sankalp Forum is emerging as the locus of new ideas and discourses, and a crossing point for people who are shaping and driving the social enterprises sector, not just in India but globally. The contribution of the Forum in mainstreaming the growth of the social enterprise sector is an important one but what is even more significant is that it dares to ask, are we making a difference.

Vikas Nath is an international development expert and an entrepreneur:
He can be contacted at or

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

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Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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