During recent visits to Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan; it was impossible to not notice the growing interest of their youth in entrepreneurship. Be it an inadequacy of office jobs to match the demand, or the lure of the start-up culture, this interest has taken a definite hold. India has had an experience with start-ups and has learnt lessons on what should be done, and what should not be done. Its incubators have become institutionalised. Our eastern neighbours are now travelling up that learning curve. In light of this, the question is whether there is an opportunity for India to strike South Asian co-operation with start-ups. While our western neighbours are going through a similar phase, even focusing only on our eastern neighbours can be a definite start.
How can India strike South Asian co-operation with its start-ups? A South Asian incubator to help regional start-ups while utilising India’s resources is one option. It will leverage India’s experience with incubation facilities to help regional start-ups scale up. Incubation is a collaborative support system to help start-ups through the best practices, mentoring by experts, access to seed funding, benchmarking with global standards, sharing of past experiences, networking, technology access, training inputs, and help with office services outsourcing. The basic idea is to help the start-ups succeed by providing them with support services. This is important because every person with a business idea may not be a ‘born entrepreneur’.
Traditionally, incubation has been provided by the industry, by experienced domain experts who understand new ideas. Academic institutions have also worked towards incubation. However, there is a difference between launching start-ups and creating sustainable, profitable businesses. That is the reason why start-ups turn to incubation for support. Incubation relationships for most South Asian nations are now with the west, but such western-oriented relationships may not be accessible to every entrepreneur. Not everyone may have mutual connections. Also, it may be expensive.
A South Asian incubation platform can leverage India’s experience in start-ups to help regional entrepreneurs. Most regional entrepreneurs, who, until now, were unable to tap west-based incubation due to costs and lack of connections, may be able to make it if support comes from within the region. Even travel within this region may be more affordable than to the west, as the governments’ efforts are towards improving connectivity. Regional entrepreneurs may find peers in India who have made a mark in similar sectors/industries, and that domain experience through incubators can be valuable. Some may find that they have mutual connections in the industrial bodies of this region, rather than in the non-resident or western communities.
A South Asian incubation platform can help take those regional entrepreneurs to the next level. If more and more regional start-ups are able to scale up and deliver sustainable profitability, not only will they employ more resources, create more jobs, and pay more taxes; they can also aid in improving India’s standing. Not only does it help our neighbours, it also opens up new commercial opportunities for Indian incubators.
It is critical that India strikes this hot-iron fast, instead of toddling along at a slow pace. Gone are the days when our neighbours waited patiently till we moved our files. If our relations with them have to be productive, quick action and fast results are the two requirements. Otherwise, there are other countries for them to indulge in. China is making inroads into all our neighbours, and it is imperative for India to show how valuable its initiatives can be.
It is an opportune time for start-ups in South Asia. Job creation is a critical policy challenge in most South Asian countries. This is mainly because the private sector is highly inadequate and the public sector faces its own financial challenges. Considering this, entrepreneurship can open up new businesses and create new jobs. Since the social acceptability of entrepreneurship as a career is low in South Asia, incubation can help alter this perception as it addresses many risk factors in the ‘start-up journey’. However, if India has to leverage this economic opportunity with its neighbours, it has to act now.
A version of this article was originally published in the Indian Economist.