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Meet the Incubator Gentlemen Midwifing Entrepreneurs from Rural India

Meet Kunal Kapoor and Tanmay Mukherji, nudging rural India to discover her wealth and entrepreneurial possibilities.

How do you respond to a room full of 80 men and women in their vibrant twenties raising their hands in unison to the question “How many of you are poor?” Do you squirm and let the jagged ‘urban savior complex’ nerves kick in or do you step back and ask fundamental questions about who decides who is poor?

Few weeks ago, I was in one such room, listening to the heartfelt aspirations of young men and women who had gathered from the villages of Kendrapara, Jagatsinghpur, Kahdhamal, Ganjam, and Gajapati in the beautiful coastal state of Odisha.

The air was electric with young men and women, full of colorful clothes and pizzazz, eager to share what was happening in their lives with us.

Anshu Gupta, the founder of Goonj, who has been pioneering the concept of Gram Swabhiman [Self Respect and Self Dignity of the Village] kicked off the conversation with a simple question, “What do you need?”.

When someone from urban India asks this question to rural India, it automatically triggers the context of an asymmetric relationship between the giver (funder) and the recipient. And so, naturally, the answers were predictable.

“What are your strengths, your assets?

Nobody saw the follow-up question coming.

Much like nobody addresses urban India as a ‘ particularly vulnerable’ modern group of people, surviving in densely populated regions with poor air quality, and extreme water scarcity risks, living DINKOD (Double Income, No Kids, Only a Dog) lives, nobody addresses rural India as a tighter knit of people with a unique set of strengths, living superior quality lives than their urban counterparts, albeit with material poverty constraints.

Insights from Household Consumption Expenditure Survey 2022-23. Visualizations courtesy Dharmesh BA ‘The India Notes’

It took a while for the kids to warm up to the question.

“We have the best Angul mangoes”, “We have the best fishes” “We have incredible artisans and so on. Anshu then asked the question that dragged the elephant to the center of the room. “How many of you are poor”.

The entire room raised their hands!

Can you imagine the extent of conditioning for this to transpire with the same group that talked of their strengths a minute ago?

Addressing this irony is the pivotal challenge we are grappling with, when we try to solve the wicked problem of poverty in rural India. Addressing this challenge animates Kunal and Tanmay, the incubator gentlemen who joined me for this podcast conversation a few weeks ago.

Both of their career trajectories have uncanny parallels.

Both started their journey miles away from agriculture, development and the social sector. Both discovered a powerful moment of epiphany that transformed their lives and switched careers to manifest the vision they set out for themselves.

Tanmay started his journey as an industrial engineer, moved on to Infosys, and later joined his family business, working in the composite business with the leaders of the automotive industry. When his friend passed away during the pandemic, he did a solo trip for 11 days and ended up working with the famous Sonam Wangchuk in Ladakh who invited him to convert his innovations into businesses. He discovered his calling for incubating social businesses and joined Udhyam Learning Foundation as Director- New Solutions.

Kunal started his journey as a User Experience Architect and grew up the ladder in MakeMyTrip to become the Country Head for Accenture. When he turned 30, he was giving interviews, a year away from his Ph.D. at Clemson University. He discovered his calling to come back to India with a bellyful of dreams to build an IDEO equivalent in India. He later joined the corporate sector in India and started traveling the length and breadth of the country. He met Organic farming leaders like Deepak Suchde and started his journey to become a proud ‘50% farmer’. Today, he runs a rural incubator inside a natural reserve in the hinterlands of Madha Pradesh, exploring, in Kunal’s words, ‘Natural Resource Management, Energy Systems, Agriculture, Health Care, Eco-Tourism, Education & Learning, eGovernance, & the Self’.

In this conversation, we talk of

  • The turning point which led these gentlemen’s careers on a completely new trajectory;

  • How India is a country of small businesses, with 95 % of the country doing micro-entrepreneurship; Why everything is supplemental income in India? The Missing Middle when it comes to building businesses.

  • Unlearning that required to approach the incubation of rural entrepreneurship. [Kunal shared a beautiful anecdote about a farmer when Kunal told him that his house was in shambles]

  • The irony of material poverty and the poverty of the mind; Why rural India is losing out on young, vibrant talent. How to address the question of aspiration when it comes to abundance? [Tanmay shares a beautiful anecdote of his interaction with a young bloke who wants to run a call center. The importance of incremental action.]

  • Why is branding for Rural India 360 degrees different from Branding as we know it in Urban India?

  • Tanmay’s work at Udhyam. Building business plans and 4 Ps of marketing for Rural India. Why it is so fascinating to watch how Rural India is playing with YouTube.

  • The limitations in current imaginations of Incubators for Urban and Rural India. China’s experiments in revitalizing Rural India. Experiments conducted by Dhirubai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology

  • How to approach rural entrepreneurship from first principles. What Colonialism did to India and how Urban India is willy-nilly repeating the same story, colonizing rural India, and exploiting its natural resources. What we can learn from AMUL and Lijjat Papads? What can we learn from the Jagriti Movement?

I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did:)

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Agribusiness Matters
Agribusiness Matters
Conversations with food and agribusiness leaders bravely building the future of food and agriculture in an age of runaway Climate Change