Social Innovators Vs COVID-19

Tired of Covid related articles? Can’t absorb any more negative news? Many of us are, understandably, experiencing a similar sentiment.

Amidst the pain and extreme hardship of the pandemic playing out in its tragic multiplicity – the virus itself, ensuing lockdowns, loss of livelihoods, isolation, mental health issues – the list is endless, overturning our worlds in a matter of a few months. Amidst all of this how can NGOs make a difference?  

The impact of their efforts may well be reflected in their willingness and ability to:

  1. Identify, prioritise and adapt to dynamic needs:

The needs of organizations’ focus groups are constantly evolving now. No matter what their core program was pre-Covid, the first three months of the lockdown were necessarily devoted to ensuring survival of the marginalised population. The social sector, along with governments and civil society stepped up and set-up immediate relief with community kitchens, distribution of ration and hygiene kits whilst ensuring safety and distancing to the extent possible. 

Vocational training swiftly adapted to the need of the hour Picture Credits: Sri Arunodayam Trust

With the awareness that the wearing of facial masks are now going to be mandatory, Sri Arunodayam Charitable Trust, a loving home to more than a hundred differently abled, destitute children & young adults in Chennai, nimbly converted a section of their vocational training unit to switch from candle making to creating simple cloth masks for their in-house use as well as distributing to the daily wage earner communities living near their home. This effectively engaged their beneficiaries while addressing the need of the hour.

The need for distancing and thus the absence of personal interaction, which was integral to Yein Udaan’s delivery of their education and holistic development program for economically challenged children, made the founder Vedika Agarwal, think of some ‘novel’ ways of keeping the children gainfully occupied. Zoom sessions involving the parents and siblings too, awareness programmes, fun with art and craft, and regularly checking in on the children’s well-being was quickly organised.

The challenge was the digital divide. Some homes did not have the hardware or had patchy internet connectivity. Vedika requested the families where the parents worked to take printouts of the activities with the instruction sheets and follow through – everyone was more than happy to do their bit and the issue was resolved as best possible under the circumstances.

  1. Collaborate and share best practises:

Most NGOs are looking at a serious resource crunch in the coming year as donors – corporate and individual – are themselves facing a financial crisis and salary cuts. Simultaneously the needs of the beneficiaries have gone up significantly. NGOs may benefit by resource sharing and collaborating as it will reduce efforts in launching initiatives that may have already been tried and tested. It may also enable smaller organisations to rely on the support and expertise of large-scale mobilisers.

The government has announced several relief packages which require some understanding as well as basic documentation. YUVA, a Mumbai based NGO is committed to helping vulnerable groups as well as help their NGO partners gain access to welfare schemes (registration and job cards under MNREGS), entitlements (such as ration cards) and basic services (access to clean water).


Distribution of ration and hygiene kits to those in need Picture Credits : YUVA – Youth for unity and voluntary action

  1. Keep track of emerging challenges:

The extended lockdown, loss of employment and inability to access alcohol has led to a disturbingly steep rise in domestic violence. The Maharashtra State Govt. in partnership with TISS (The Tata Institute of Social Sciences) launched a helpline to assist victims of domestic violence on the 1st of April – Mala Bolaicha Hai (I want to speak), and have received more than 46,000 calls from multiple vulnerable individuals on issues including but not limited to depression, abuse and violence.

Art expression of life during lockdown Picture Credits : Yein Udaan

Mental health issues are significantly on the rise. In the absence of visitors and donors to NGO premises, caregivers and staff are increasingly lacking motivation.

With no external recognition for a tough job well done, and the fear factor of contracting the virus, they are likely to burn out. Organising online sessions for them – yoga, motivational resource speakers, interactive awareness sessions on Covid related concerns with medical experts could potentially help mitigate some of these issues.

Policy guidelines, medical protocols, SOP’s are constantly evolving. Each day brings new learning. NGOs, while strengthening their core focus areas and finding innovative channels of delivery, will have to be flexible and sensitive to change.

“And miles to go before we sleep” – this journey is into uncharted territories, but with every stakeholder putting their best foot forward, we will get there.

SMEs: Surviving a Pandemic

Small and medium-sized businesses have been hardest hit in the current crisis. According to the World Bank, SMEs represent about 90% of businesses and more than 50% of employment worldwide. They are responsible for upto 40% of GDP in emerging economies & significantly contribute to the economic growth and social development of communities they thrive in.

But unfortunately, a post Covid -19 world is presenting its own share of challenges for owners of small businesses. This crisis is particularly hard on them as these organisations do not have enough cash flow to sustain themselves through the coming months with no more than 30% making it longer than 3 months.

In many instances, small units and factories have been forced to close their doors to business during the lockdown, their supply chains have been adversely affected with owners along the value chain struggling to procure raw materials. In cases where the supply chains have been innovative to source product, the need for these products have fallen, driving a wedge between what is being provided for and what is in demand by consumers.

But all is not lost. Measures can be taken as a community to help SMEs ride this wave. A crisis is difficult, yet predictable. Expect cash flow to reduce, leading to layoffs. At this stage, it is critical to help those most vulnerable in the workforce. For instance, when leadership teams take a pay cut for a short time period, it lends predictablity and job security to those that are working within the organisation at a minimum wage. For one things is clear, good talent and a strong workforce are critical ingredients for ensuring organisations rebuild for a post COVID world.

Governments have a vital role to play here too – with a cash-strapped economy and with SMEs most in need of a revenue runway, access to cash flow, relaxing of credit terms for debt financing especially for smaller firms allows businesses to weather this storm. SME’s for their part, can pivot around their product and solution strategy to address market needs that are relevant both in the pandemic as well as after. For example, alcohol manufacturers are re-calibrating their ingredients to provide industrial-grade hand sanitisers for hospitals. Clothing retail stores are repurposing their delivery fleets for getting medicines and supplies to those that need it the most.

As a community, we have a vital role to play. Buying local and from independently owned businesses, help generate much needed revenue during this crisis. If we can’t support small businesses, promote favourite local brands on social media. According to Andrei Vasilescu, a digital marketing expert “Today, customer reviews influence more than 95 percent of online customers before they decide to purchase a product”. Instagram for instance, has recently launched a new sticker that gives users the opportunity to help support small businesses on their platform. If communites step up in supporting these creative initiatives, and invest in local SMEs through their buying behaviour, there is a strong chance that SMEs stand a better chance of surviving this pandemic.

Every little helps. It helps our SMEs and in turn, helps build a community that is better prepared to weather this storm.



The $28 Trillion gender diversity problem

22 years of being in industry gives you a reasonable timeline to look back and evaluate how things have changed. Whilst we have made great progress in technical innovations over the past 2 decades, it continues to shock me at the lack of progress we have made in bridging the gender diversity gap. In 2018, the Fortune 500 companies had only 24 female CEOs. That puts the diversity ratios at just under 5% of the Top 500.

Add to this, it has been repeatedly proven that organisations focussed on improving gender parity far outperform those that have a wider gender gap. In the 12-year period between 2002 and 2014, the 80 female CEOs in the Fortune 1000 outperformed the S&P 500 by 226% (Source: Quantopian). This is further corroborated in a study by Catalyst where Fortune 500 companies with the highest percentage of women on the board outperformed those with the least representation by 53%.

Whilst we cannot ignore the serious moral issue surrounding this imbalance, it doesn’t come without considerable economic loss.

Consider this – the 2025 Global GDP is expected to cross a $110 Trillion and it has been growing at about 3.5% YoY since 1961. If we were to bridge the gender gap over the next 6 years, our global economy would grow by 12.5% by 2025. This equates to 4X growth delivered through gender parity and brings an additional $28 Trillion to the global economy or an incremental 25% of global GDP.

That in itself is the single largest contributor to global GDP growth in the last 1000 years.

This issue gets exacerbated due to the gender gap in the tech industry.

Over the past 40 years, the technology industry has come to be known as an enabler of businesses. As we prepare to deliver the 4thindustrial revolution, the tech industry is carrying with it a promise to deliver accelerated and in some cases exponential business growth, thereby ensuring it is the front runner to help shape our collective future.

But, given its current growth trajectory and the resources needed to make a real impact, it is likely to fall short. At its very core lies its biggest weakness – the tech industry has one of the least impressive gender diversity ratios amongst its industry peers.

On one hand, at a global scale, women make up 50% of the world population and correspondingly, are 50% of the global workforce. Yet, according to the PWC Gender Diversity report (2017), only 15% of the working women population are in technology roles. Add to that, women leaders make up only 5% of global tech leadership.

Let’s be honest with ourselves, the challenge that lies ahead of us is immense and perhaps not fully understood. Our planet can hold 3 Billion people at best and we are pushing 12 billion by the end of the century. This maths problem in itself will lend us a multitude of problems that will take generations to solve – from climate change, to feeding a growing population, to keeping the earth from turning into a colossal garbage dump.

These problems are all very real and threaten our very life on earth. They cannot be solved if we are not operating at full strength.

It is time to make hard changes. We need a collective effort to make this work and each of us can do our bit and take small steps. Start with first acknowledging the gap. The subsequent steps should revolve around helping bring more women into industry, engage, enable and train women into tech & STEM roles and finally coach and mentor women into leadership positions.

Coming back to the moral issue I mentioned earlier – we have been blessed with two beautiful children – a boy and a girl. They both are being given equal opportunities and a good education with access to skills that interest them.

However, what keeps me up is that even with all the right opportunities presented today, if we cannot achieve gender parity over this next decade, my daughter and the rest like her have a 5% chance to shape their future.

And just how unfair is that …

Digital Transformation, in a Crisis

Digital Transformation & Covid-19

Covid-19 is currently giving hundreds of digitalisation initiatives a reality check on their progress.

Most companies were forced to enable their workforce to work from home in a matter of weeks and for plenty of them, there was already a level of remote infrastructure in place that served people working from home or even part-time.

With this, many were struggling to answer these key questions:

How do we scale our network so that our employees can work from home, enabling them with the tools and services to work efficiently and all of this without compromising security?

Cloud computing becomes the backbone of this transformation

Without the capacity of cloud providers, the transition to a remote way of life would not have been possible in this short space of time. Public clouds like AWS have been enabling companies for years with the concept of scalable infrastructure and pay-as-you-go options.

But now this concept really comes to fore in the face of this crisis, when there are sudden surges of demand for compute and network infrastructure which traditional datacenters cannot keep pace with.

If you think of the services that you use during a workday, chances are that most of them are running in the cloud on the infrastructure of one of the big three cloud providers.

Take these services for example:

  • Zoom runs on AWS (and soon on Oracle Cloud)
  • G-suite on Google Cloud Platform
  • Teams & Office356 on Azure

These companies providing remote communciation tools rely heavily on cloud providers to be able to provide capacity on demand as user demand spikes across timezones and regions. And with that you have to admire these incredible statistics on just how much remote working is putting a strain on resources:

  • Microsoft saw a 775% increase in Teams’ calling and meeting monthly users in a one month period in Italy
  • Windows Virtual Desktop usage has grown more than 3x.

It’s incredible that this sudden shift was even possible at all.

This crisis has acted as a catalyst for freeing budgets and resources driving digital transformation.

Seizing the opportunity, but with care

Companies that invested in their Digital Transformation prior to the crisis reaped the benefits of being resilient from the very start and will continue to invest in their progression.

On the other hand, companies that were reluctant or slow with their digital transformation, this crisis has acted as a catalyst for freeing budgets and resources driving digital transformation.

It’s key to stay on this path and not fall back into old habits that caught them offguard during this pandemic.

As we look forward, we can expect more such business debilitating scenarios in the coming decades especially as we consider the impact that climate change will have on the economic landscape. As we rebuild for the future and embrace digital transformation, we have the opportunity to sow the right seeds of growth. One that is sustainable, fair and inclusive to society and business at large.

Food Security & the Impact of Covid 19

In March 2020 this year, as lockdowns were announced in various coutries across the world, fear gripped people in ways they hadn’t experienced before. Whilst this has had serious repercussions across every industry, the food industry has been at the forefront of this crisis. In people’s minds, the thought of no access to adequate food and essentials created chaos across economies. The grocery stores were at war – long queues with customers ‘panic buying’ looking to hoard essentials, long life food items, basic necessities was jarring. Long life milk, tinned food, pasta ascended to gold stature in the food chain.

Governments were promising no one would go hungry but inadequate local production, disrupted the supply chain. With the demand & supply of food in imbalance, hoarding of long life food items meant food banks were struggling – which a lot of families depend on, to ensure they have adequate food to feed their families. The poor and underprivileged across the best of economies faced the amplifying wrath of food security.

There is no doubt that Food Security has been greatly impacted by COVID-19. Interestingly, at the 1974 World Food Conference, the term “food security” was defined with an emphasis on supply. The thinking was – food security is the “availability at all times of adequate, nourishing, diverse, balanced and moderate world food supplies of basic foodstuffs to sustain a steady expansion of food consumption and to offset fluctuations in production and prices”. Later definitions added demand and access issues to the definition. The final report of the 1996 World Food Summit states that food security “exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

But, technicalities aside, shouldn’t access to nourishing food be a basic right and yet despite global hunger levels falling, one in nine people worldwide still face hunger. Add to this, most of the 10 hungriest nations are in a single continent – in Africa. This has some very severe economic implications on food security and when you add Covid-19 into the mix, it becomes all the more profound.

Solutions to these problems are far and varied – the digitization of agriculture, improved water supply, better infrastructure, self-reliance on local produce, soil testing, secure supply chain support, crop insurance across poor countries etc. The World Bank is sponsoring 25 plus projects across the poorest countries to help overcome the food security crisis and put sustainable practices in place that create long term solutions.

Sustainable agricultural practices and self-sustenance to overcome food security needs to be a community wide effort. In Malawi for instance, Agricentre works with the rural communities to improve crop yield, educate farmers on new technologies and build resilience against climate change. We have a long way to go before we are able to see any semblance of success, but every long journey starts with a single step. Reach out to us if you are interested in working with organisations making a difference, at grass-roots level. As I mentioned, this is a community effort that can help turn the tide.

Sustainability, for Profit

Since the industrial revolution, two influential groups have been at the heart of driving global social change & sustainability. In one corner we have governments who whilst driving a multitude of agendas, have also contributed immensely towards social uplift over the decades. On the other side, much of the responsibility of changing the world has been shouldered by social innovators – dedicating their work & lives to the improvement of our collective future.

Barring these two influencer groups, there hasn’t been much else in terms of firepower for social betterment – atleast, not until now. In the past few years, we are seeing the winds of change starting to blow in a different direction. They are gradually picking up speed and bring with them a promise of change – one with immense potential & firepower to catalyse social & sustainable progress. This new promise is the private sector (‘for profit’ organisations).

I say ‘new’ not due to the historical timeline of their existence, but because of the attitudinal shift in the way these organisations are beginning to view success. Their previously singular focus on financial yardsticks, is now being complemented by a growing hunger to integrate sustainable outcomes as a measure of overall progress.

But, should we care? Should we bother with the fact that the private sector is waking up to ground realities of a finite world with finite resources? Yes, without a doubt. Without the help of the private sector, we are destined to fail as a global collective.

Here’s why – In today’s world, the money and resource dedicated to social uplift through donations, charities, grants & non-profits is approximately $500 billion a year‣‣. It is a lot of money in absolute terms, but not quite, when you put it into perspective.

Think about this – the total output of products & services created on our planet equate to ~ $85 Trillion (GDP)▹▹, of which ~70% is attributable to the private sector, reflecting nearly ~$60 trillion of economic value created every year through private organisations. In other words, the total impact that these organisations have on the global landscape including job creation, product development, value chains, industrial output, services, solutions etc. reach every corner of the earth and touch every person on our planet.

In parallel, we see an uphill struggle by social entrepreneurs, innovators & change makers to access funds & resources to deliver impact from a bucket that is 1/130th the size of that which private organisations have access to globally. It is literally a drop in the bucket.

Put another way, when you consider sharing
$500 billion across ~7 billion people,
the ‘Impact per person’ is less than 20 cents per day.

That simply isn’t enough to drive change of any magnitude.

There is a way though – thread sustainability into the DNA of every private organisation. From product development to packaging, from sourcing to manufacturing, from supply chains to distribution, from hiring to customer engagements, from source to disposal, from clean waster to food waste. Immersing these values into the bloodstream of organisations starts to deliver incremental change.

Incremental change? Not transformational change? When done correctly & with the precise delivery of small packets of impact, the outcome is in itself, transformational.

Its simply the output of consistently
good input.

At EARTH 51, our goal is to move the needle on sustainable impact by ~5%. We want to help the private sector inject sustainability into their ecosystems, encouraging them to deliver a small percentage of their revenue towards sustainable outcomes. When you extrapolate this, an incremental 5% would equate to the redirection of $3.2 trillion of value creation towards sustainable and social progress.

In summary, a 5% change in sustainability-led initiatives of the private sector would be 600% greater than the sum of all resources & money currently delivering social progress & sustainable impact.

The future depends on what we do today with private sector organisations. The more sustainability becomes an intrinsic part of their growth & strategic future, the more our world will benefit. They have the potential to give us the much needed wind in our sails as we journey to a sustainable future.

UN Sustainable Development Goals

SDGs”, a blueprint for Global Sustainability“

70% of the corporate ecosystem have never heard of SDGs, especially as you move beyond the worlds largest corporations. The acronym expands to ‘Sustainable Development Goals’, framed by the United Nations in 2015.

At the turn of the millenium, the U.N laid out a 15 year strategy called the MDGs (Millenium Development Goals) to address key global issues covering poverty, education, gender equality, health & the environment. This plan was divided into 8 manageable chunks (goals) with 21 assigned targets. However, these goals limited their focus to emerging markets creating an imbalance in global progress. So, whilst strides were being made on one end, the problems of the developed world were not comprehensively addressed.

To set this right, in 2015 the UN put together a 15 year, long-range plan called the SDGs. In short, the MDGs had the responsibliity to get us started in the right direction and the SDGs were designed to finish that job. These goals are all encompassing and far more inclusive in addressing global challenges. To ensure the right level of coverage, they were split into nearly twice as many areas covering 17 goals and a 169 targets, all to be achieved by 2030. The UN enlisted the help of a 193 countries to move as ONE collective – to accelerate progress and solve global issues.

Looking back, achieving the SDGs by 2030 has become somewhat of an inflection point in our living timeline and present a real opportunity to set things right for once. The SDGs cover sustainability in its entirety, across every nation state and all its people. It encourages the private sector to pick up the mantle and support government & non-profits by bringing in investments, technology and solutions to everyday problems. And that’s one side of the coin.

On the other hand, the lack of awareness for this global blueprint has been the single largest stumbling block towards its broad adoption. Too few outside of government, non-profits and select private sector businesses have aligned to this mandate, reducing the odds of succesfuly achieving these goals. In a recent study by the Social Progress Index, given the current pace of adoption, we would hit our targets by 2094, a distant 64 years after they were intended for.

As we start 2020 and pass the 5 year marker since the launch of these goals, we enter the final decade of potential transformation. One of the most decisive areas to influence outcomes will be in the realm of partnerships. Given the lack of collaboration between the private & public sector, SDGs are well placed to change that equation and provide the necessary ingredients to get us all pulling in the same direction for the very first time.

Step 1 was the plan. Step 2 is now. To action it and ‘Deliver a better tomorrow’.

Sustainable Computing

As the world shifts gears from an industry driven engine and embraces a service-based economy, it creates ripples that will be felt in years to come. No argument that digital transformation is truly here to stay and surrounds us in every which way. On the one hand, it is the inflection point in our business life on either side of which companies will rise or fall. But in parallel, it requires us to be accountable for our actions today to ensure a better tomorrow. I’m specifically addressing the need to thread together a strategy for sustainable computing.

It is a given that technology will shape our future. But the question remains – whilst technology will have the strongest influence, what are the repercussions on our finite resource pool. Most organisations I speak to believe this is a classic Catch 22. To solve the challenges ahead, the world needs greater compute. In parallel, this compute is hungry for more horsepower so compute build out and power consumption go hand in glove.

Swedish researcher Anders Andrae claims
datacentres will consume 20% of
global power resources by 2025*

The claim by Anders Andrae is not a comforting thought. The maths is stacked against us but it doesn’t have to be. The choice sits between making computing more efficient or use resources that are replenish-able. The magic wand for greater processing power is on the distant horizon in the shape of quantum computing. It will bring with it unheralded compute at a fraction of the power consumption. But, the roadmap is a decade out and plans to democratise this technology is still a question mark. Whilst we wait for quantum computing to become mainstream, it is time to take stock of what is gradually becoming an environmental problem.

Firstly, every organisation needs to build a sustainable tech strategy to ensure that as they grow their business, they offset the impact on their environment. An increasingly popular trend is the outsourcing of compute needs to hyperscale cloud providers with a carbon neutral footprint.

Case in point is Google Cloud who have a very impressive environmental strategy –

Google has been carbon neutral since 2007 – for the past 11 years. They are the only cloud vendor to go 100% renewable on all global operations. As the largest corporate buyer of renewable energy in the world, their renewable energy bill is 2.6 GW – the sum total of the next 4 hyper-scale providers. They use machine learning to optimise data centres and maximise performance per watt to reduce unnecessary data centre build outs.

And as we can see, small changes go a long way. The appropriate use of building materials such as reclaimed wood for office spaces Vs new wood to reduce on deforestation, harvesting of rainwater from roof-tops for waste water needs or creating strict policy to use only 100% Red list -free materials.

Seeing this approach gives me the confidence that compute and power needn’t be at the expense of one or the other. Not to forget, a sustainable business strategy generates enormous good will in the minds of consumers and enterprise buyers. If moving workloads to a carbon-neutral cloud vendor reduces the global carbon footprint of a large organisation, then all other factors remaining equal, this makes a strong case to invest with them. For example, organisations that have complex supply chains and large manufacturing facilities should be queueing to offset their carbon footprint. If you are one of them, start by demanding your digital infrastructure be powered by renewable and clean sources of electricity.

Add to this, the falling prices of renewable energy is very timely as the cost parity is reinforced by hedging against price rises from fossil fuels. Finally, organisations get to build and showcase a brand that is ecologically conscious and reflects the maturity of a long-term sustainable business.

In short, go digital, but stay sustainable. And ask yourself – how long before your organisation is 100% carbon neutral?

“Research from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory suggests that if all office workers in the United States moved their email and documents to the cloud,
it would reduce IT energy use by up to 85%”

The Case for Eradicating Hunger

Our world today has arrived at a cross-road. Our mornings’ start with news headlines highlighting the impact of climate change and the finiteness of our not too distant future. According to the World Economic Forum 2019 Risk Report, Climate change is the No. 1 problem that threatens our existence and will presumably be the case in the foreseeable future. This is all very true and the focus is very necessary.

At the same time, when you pull back the layers, what reveals itself is an interconnected world with multiple variables playing on each other – one of the consequences being our changing climate.

So what are the others?

Well, take hunger for example which is a case of contrasts. 1 billion people will go to bed hungry today with no access to proper food. In another part of the world, 2 billion people have plentiful to eat & are consequently obese. Contrary to popular belief, there isn’t a need today to engineer more food to feed more mouths, but instead an economic case to ensure nutritious food gets to the right people when & where they need it. Solutions do exists in small packages – take Olio for example. An innovative company that have developed a unique food sharing app that connects neighbours & local businesses with each other so surplus food can be shared. What a novel idea.

However, the problem gets exacerbated with the increasing levels of food wasted every year. According to the FAO (Food & Agricultural Organisation), 30% of all food produced today is either lost or thrown away. The 1.3 billion tonnes of food waste adds an incremental 3.3. billion tonnes of GHG (Green House Gases) to our planet.

That constitutes nearly 9% of global GHG emissions.

To avoid this precise problem, companies such as WhyWaste are helping grocery stores & organised retail eliminate food waste using data insights and analytics. Injecting this sort of innovation into the value chain and developing a circular model to ensure a better use of food is critical to the broader climate change efforts.

Be rest assured, the cure to this problem is in our hands. United Nations research found that if farmers globally fed their livestock on food waste and on agricultural by-products, enough grain would be available to feed an additional 3 billion people – that is more than the projected population of our planet by 2050.

More needs to be done and quickly. If this problem worsens, we fall into a vicious cycle where the effects of climate change start to negatively impact a rise in food prices. This makes whatever food available more difficult to procure for low income communities who are most in need of it.

These are complex challenges and any progress requires the collaborative efforts of all participants – from you the reader, to governments, to public and private partnerships, each can help contribute in their own individual way. It all starts with recognising the problem. If we can each do our bit towards understanding the collective issues that plague our planet and their interdependencies, we can become better influencers today, to help “Deliver a Better Tomorrow”.