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In Conversation With Anand Shah

Ranjani Saigal

Anand is, at heart, a social entrepreneur.  Anand co-founded Sarvajal - a cleantech venture focused on providing clean water to rural India. Anand has incubated various impact-focused business model innovations in his role as the CEO of Piramal Foundation. He is a technology enthusiast and has also been instrumental in setting up several start-ups across the technology and social domains. He helped establish "Teach For India," and has been involved over time in various thought-leadership programs around the world including the tt30 (a young think tank of the Club of Rome), served on the international board of KaosPilots (a European school of creative business design and social innovation), and is a member of the Aspen Institute’s inaugural India Leadership Initiative.  After graduating from Harvard College in 1999, Anand setup the India side of Indicorps, a fellowship program encouraged young Indians around the world to spend a year serving India.

Anand spoke to Lokvani about his motivation to move to India and the wonderful work he is doing to bring clean water to rural communities.

You have graduated from Harvard. What motivated a brilliant student like you who could have taken on a very financially successful career to move to India and work on Social Enterprise?

I'm not sure about the brilliance!  I came to India to setup the India side of Indicorps in 2001.  The motivation has always been simple:  India is poised to rise.   Our diaspora is full of talented people who have helped create some of the greatest technologies, engineering marvels, medical breakthroughs in the world.   The education levels we have attained, the skills we have gained in great organizations, and the values of hard work that can be traced to our roots make us invaluable assets in India's journey towards being a country that offers peace, security, and a productive life for all of its citizens.   Most importantly, so many of us yearn to see India progress.   The only real way to do that is to come to India and get to work.  The more India rises, the more proud we are of the Indian part of being Indian-American.   I felt like I could do something, and so far that continues to ring true.

How prepared were you to take on this very difficult challenge?

Not very prepared at all, but I also came with the conviction that it is possible to affect change, no matter what it takes.  I like challenges - and India is full of challenges that we have seen solutions to around the world - things like good education, clean water, sanitation, excellent health care, transparent governance, etc.  If we believe we can solve problems, their is infinite opportunity to make things happen in India, it really just requires commitment, willingness to persevere, and a healthy ability to deal with unnecessary hurdles.

Why did you decide to join the Piramal Foundation?

The Piramal family is committed to development issues that matter to me:  Education, Health care, and Youth Leadership.   They have a long-term interest in India's growth and inclusive development, and are willing to commit to the types of things that need a lot of time to solve.

Could you tell us about Sarvajal?

In 60 years, despite continued prioritization of clean water and sanitation for rural communities and the poor, we have not been able to ensure that everyone has access to essential services.   There is no greater health intervention than to ensure everyone drinks clean water.   The water sector is a sleepy place: there is little new technology in the past 30 years, top graduates don't think of water as their sector of choice, and those who can afford to buy water or filtration machines don't think of it as a problem (including most people who make decisions like this).    Government subsidies are flawed, they pay people to install water equipment, not to ensure that people get clean water day after day.  

Sarvajal is designed to experiment with solutions to this.   Our solution is market-based, does not rely on subsidies or government influence, and creates jobs in villages.   We are a rural franchiser for drinking water.  We provide a local entrepreneur in a village an opportunity to make a living by getting clean water to their communities.   We install machinery and maintain it (including all service and maintenance), we train entrepreneurs to operate machines and build a business model, and we develop technology that makes it possible to manage a network of distributed machinery.   Our franchises sell drinking water under the "Sarvajal" brand at price fixed by the company (US $0.12 for 5 gallons / 20 liters).   We are also developing Water ATMs that put a clean water point on every corner and allow villagers to buy as much water as they like when the like without concern about its safety.

What is the impact of Sarvajal thus far?

About 75,000 people per day drink water cleaned by Sarvajal, provided by 130 franchisees in Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh.   Doctors drink Sarvajal, rural hospitals use Sarvajal, people who never had a choice other than to drink contaminated ground water now have the option of buying clean water without having to buy expensive equipment or worry about contamination.   There are many anecdotal stories - like a young man in Rajasthan who went to 10 doctors over two years to deal with gastrointestinal issues - no one suggested to change his water source - but 20 days into drinking Sarvajal his problems disappeared.

You are only 34 and already have accomplished so much. What are your ambitions for the future?

I came to India when I was 24, I am now 34!   I'm excited by two things - (1) enabling/building things that have great opportunity to be part of India's inclusive growth story, and (2) helping evangelize timeless values of leadership that encourage young people to commit to becoming leaders known for their character/values/hard work rather than leaders who are known for the positions they hold.   The future changes every day, I'd like to continue to feel like I wake up in the morning and work on things that make a dent in the universe.  

What advice do you have for students considering working in the field of social entrepreneurship?

There is no shortage of opportunity.  Pick something that you care about.  Join someone working on that issue (or start something on your own if you are driven and have access to resources) and learn from the hard work and failures associated with trying to make new things happen.  There is no better education on how to be a social entrepreneur than to dive in with an open mind and work hard for a little while.

What would you consider your greatest accomplishment to date?

By far, I think that is my time with Indicorps.   Ten years ago, people in our diaspora thought it was crazy for their children / peers to go to India and work in India for a year with no pay or obvious career path.  Today, it is a legitimate and prestigious thing to work on issues of critical important in the middle of nowhere in India.  I'd like to think we had some influence in making that happen.

Any message for our readers?

Doing something in India is not as hard as it seems.  There is opportunity across the board - from making loads of money by starting a great company to understanding what it means to truly do service to the people who could use it most, and increasingly opportunities that might let you do both.    You have nothing to lose.

Thank you for you time.

Thank you.

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