In 2007, B. P. Agrawal left his longtime career in the telecommunications industry to launch a U.S.-based NGO that would address the shortages of clean drinking water and healthcare in rural parts of India, his native country. The goal was to develop local, self-sustaining solutions. But, he told students, “I had no clue what sustainability meant at the time.”
Agrawal, the executive director of Sustainable Innovations, spoke at Yale SOM as a guest of the Net Impact club on February 18. His organization, he said, has organized rainwater harvest programs in six villages and low-cost healthcare delivery programs in 50 villages, home to 100,000 people. He is working to expand to 100 villages, he said, “to demonstrate systemic sustainability of social enterprises beyond doubt.” But making such enterprises truly self-sustaining requires an approach that takes into account multiple dimensions of sustainability:
Technological: Technological systems, including materials and operational capacity, must be feasible on site. Sustainable Innovations’ rainwater harvest program required the construction of a village-wide system of rooftop rainwater collection basins on homes, as well as larger, community basins.
Cultural: Proposed projects must appeal to and respect cultural norms. The rainwater harvest system, for example, relied largely on buy-in from women, who are primarily responsible for water collection in villages.
Environmental: Every effort must be made to protect natural resources and to work within their limits. Rainwater collection was the obvious solution in regions of India where the groundwater was inaccessible or tainted.
Economic: Sustainable Innovations enterprises are public/private/community partnerships. About 80% of funding for the rainwater harvest systems comes from government sources. The remaining 20% comes from private organizations and citizens. Financial commitments must be secured from all parties to assure ongoing success.
“Our goal is to have a socially equitable distribution of water,” Agrawal said. “We need to have everybody involved.”