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Climate Action and Impact: A Decade of Insights

Climate & Biodiversity | Strategic Philanthropy | Mar 4, 2021

Rohini Nilekani and Prashanth Prakash in conversation at the launch of ACT for Environment at the ACT Summit. The ACT Summit brings together India’s leading startup founders, venture capitalists and changemakers to talk about how we can leverage inventive startup assets and ideas to enable social change. In 2021, ACT will scale its resources to drive impact beyond healthcare, focusing on larger societal problems in Education, Environment and Women’s participation in the workforce in India.


0:00:05.3 Speaker 1: Hi, Rohini. Thank you so much for being here. It’s a pleasure and to have somebody who’s such an iconic role model for social entrepreneurship, not just for a decade, but now couple of decades. You have been involved in so many areas, Rohini, but in the last decade, you’ve kind of zeroed in and focused a little bit on the environmental space, and more specifically water and land. What kind of got you to zero in on this space?

0:00:32.8 Speaker 2: I started working on water 16 years ago through Arghyam, and I’ve been about the same time working on the environment, so it’s been a sharp learning curve. And really, honestly, I don’t need to tell all of you just how critical that kind of work is to both scale and make more impactful. So, we cannot have just a few handful of people who are just doing it from their passion and commitment, that sector needs to become so broad, so deep, so wide, and it needs all the skills of innovation and efficiency that all you market people bring into things.

0:01:16.2 S1: In the last decade, have you seen more interest in this area? Is there been more support, both from entrepreneurs who are looking at the space and also other people willing to be more of a collective in solving some of these problems?

0:01:37.0 S2: Yes. I think the four verticals that you all have chosen are perfect because it’s air quality, it’s water, it’s waste, which is a huge untapped area, both for the market sector and for social entrepreneurs. And what did I leave out? Land. These are the four huge sectors on which… There is a lot of… There is a lot of traditional knowledge and there is a need to infuse a lot of new knowledge so that both can meet to create new, really India focused sustainable new models to scale, not just in India but around the world. So, you’ve chosen the right verticals. You, yourselves coming in, tell me that there is a lot more interest in this space now. People are beginning to make the inter-connections that the ecology is the base, the foundation, and the master of everything else and in life on this planet. That the economies of wholly owned subsidiary of the ecology, as they say. And that unless you can fix the ecology, you have continual long-term, short-term, medium-term risks in any economic activity that you do. And if you’re hoping to lift our people, remaining people, we’ve come a long way, remaining people out of poverty and if you’re imagining sustainable prosperity for all, all eyes have to be on the ecology, all eyes have to be on the environment.

0:03:13.7 S1: Yeah, so true. I think and in India, everything gets compounded with the societal pressures and the population pressures that we have here. So, it’s just we need to be a lot more innovative in how we try and solve it specifically for our challenges here.

0:03:31.0 S2: Do you mind if I make a point on that one, Prashanth?

0:03:36.9 S1: Sure, sure.

0:03:38.3 S2: You talk of population pressures, and I agree with you, but I want us to be very careful when we talk about population pressures because we need to also understand that India is one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world, right?

0:03:57.8 S1: Correct.

0:03:57.9 S2: We have one-third the land of the USA, we have four times its population, but we have multiple times its biodiversity, of course, partly because of the geography of our location. But why has that happened? Why are there so many people in our country and yet so much biodiversity? I think we can’t afford to forget that people understand the sacred relationship of human life and nature, that we are so deeply connected that we cannot just treat nature with contempt or with hubris.

0:04:26.2 S1: Good point, Rohini. How did about you approached go-to-market? So, while you started out on this journey, what was your strategy? How did you say, “Okay, this is how I’ll approach the market?”

0:04:40.5 S2: Right, so to be very honest, I am not much of a market investment person because…

0:04:45.0 S1: I meant more market as in just the approach to the space.

0:04:50.3 S2: Okay, okay, okay, fine. So yeah, I do philanthropy, right? So all my investments are grant investments, and I have grants to several organizations [0:05:03.7] ____ of India, many of them in the environment space, working exactly on the issues of land and water, not so much air, and waste is just beginning. And what I do is, because India is blessed, there’s no other word, blessed with hundreds of civil society organizations that are passionate, with high integrity, high knowledge, and high commitment to this space, if you find good ideas, institutions and individuals that have vested of themselves in the space of environment, whether it is to do with pastoral in India, water scarce India, flooded India, where lands are degraded and have to be restored, you name it, there is a good organization working in context in their local environment and they are hoping to scale. So identifying those organizations is what I and my team have been doing for years, and once we start out…

0:05:57.8 S2: We try to start out with a basis of trust because I always say that if you end up with trust, you have to begin with trust, so you work with these organizations, co-create some program, but you rely on them because they are the experts. And little by little by little, you find more and more and more opportunities to invest and work. And it’s been a thorough delight travelling with these people to as far as Sikkim, down to the Andamans or in Tamilnadu, Valparai to Kutch or Uttarakhand as I said and everywhere to see the kind of work that these people undertake, under what kind of conditions, and constantly add to all of our natural capital base. So that’s the approach I have taken and I hope it works.

0:06:45.9 S1: You’re saying that there are certain barriers, that there’s a lack of credible knowledge bases, enough research being done to build these knowledge bases, have there been other challenges and barriers that you’ve encountered that still kind of keep you awake and keep this as relevant today as when you started a decade ago?

0:07:08.2 S2: So I think, yeah, there are several barriers, there are several policy barriers of course still, and that’s always an ongoing political and advocacy discourse which has to be undertaken by all of us. But there is also, I think, a barrier of enough long-term patient capital that is invested in this space. For example, sometimes people who invest, even whether it is philanthropically or whether it is in the purely market space, we all want quick returns and high returns, and they have to be visible returns. But unfortunately, sometimes the damage to the ecology can be slow and invisible, so it requires patience, both in terms of resourcing the institutes that are doing the observational analysis of what’s actually happening to the biodiversity loss, what’s happening to the degradation of the land. So lack of patient capital, I would say.

0:08:02.4 S2: And thirdly, I would say, you know there is a lack of trust between a financing institutions, such as philanthropists, such as government, and the civil society organizations working on the ground. We need to build more bridges of trust and discovery between these sectors so that all the work which is being done in silos can sort of become much… You know come together much better than it is now. There’s so much wonderful work being done, but how do we learn to make it much more discoverable, much more transparent, accountable on both sides of the equation. These are some of the barriers I can think of.

0:08:49.5 S1: This last one you spoke about, Rohini, is one of the areas that we want to see if we can bring that more collective collaborative ecosystem because we are envisioning this really open platform that not only brings together entrepreneurs and funders, but also… Including yours to really now come together on the this. So, have to think…

[overlapping conversation]

0:09:18.0 S2: No, I think the time is right to act now, for sure.

0:09:25.0 S1: Yeah, right now. I know that technology, I mean, of course, being part of a family that is so deeply involved in being part of a technology journey in our country, you’ve seen the power of technology in how technology can be leveraged to scale some of what you have done. And that is, again, a key underpinning of what we’ll do in ACT, right? So, see the role of technology in solving some of these challenges more disruptively. In a couple of examples that you’ve been able to achieve in this area, I know for Arghyam and your some of your other initiatives, the technology foundation and backbone has been key.

0:10:04.9 S2: Yes, thank you. And I do hope ACT with… I hope because you will have a diverse set of people with extremely successful entrepreneurial careers, with a great knowledge of technology. I think that’s a huge, going to be a huge addition to the sector, so I am very glad you all are playing in this space. There’s very little good use of information technology in the environment sector, unfortunately, and it’s a ripe opportunity waiting to be plucked. So, I’m not a techie myself, but osmosis from Nandan…

0:10:35.2 S1: Yes, yes, yes.

0:10:38.1 S2: For several years, has made me realize that you can really amplify the power of good intent by using technology. And in the environment, obviously data, using a technology backbone to collect data, to democratize data, to collect it from different points, to make sure data flows like water everywhere and finds its own level, that’s very important in the environment sector, right? You need citizen based science, you need data collection, analysis, and then using the data to improve the ecology, to restore the ecology in a way which other people can see, learn, share knowledge about, is critical. It’s not there. Not enough of it.

0:11:17.4 S2: There are some… There have been several attempts, the India Water Portal is there, the Biodiversity Portal is there, there are other places where data resources have been there, government has its own, but we need much more. And we need them to be democratic, we need it to be both bottom-up and top-down. And that should meet somewhere. It should not… It’s not that all data should flow upwards to where the power is. It needs to flow out and democratize access to knowledge. The second thing I think is using technology for capacity building. So, in Arghyam we have undertaken a simple thing, working with the states of Meghalaya and other governments, to say that… See because unfortunately in water, Prashanthm, there is no cadre. In education, we have a whole cadre of teachers etcetera.

0:12:02.6 S1: Right, right.

0:12:03.0 S2: In public health, we have the ANMs and you have the ASHA workers. In water, unfortunately, it goes from one program to one program. And in between all that knowledge is just dissipated, we don’t have a water cadre in this country. So, in lieu of that, how can we use technology to bring all training content into a common platform where people can use technology to get atomised learning content and be able to show other people that they have learned something. So, it’s learning and discovery of that learning to be able to say, “I am a water practitioner, I learned A, B, C through courses D-E-F, and this is what I have done, and I am available for work.” So that kind of thing, working within government program. Thinking of technology as a huge enabler of capacity and livelihoods in the areas that are chosen land, water, waste, air is another big need in technology.

0:13:03.5 S1: So, maybe the third area of technology that I’ve… Just my early read, is indigenous technologies for, whether it’s for air purification or water treatment. We’re still so dependent on stuff from Japan and Germany and some of these areas. Are these areas that you think are really of high importance? You know the whole “Aatmanirbhar” thing, you can’t have these technologies imported and be cost effectively deployed democratically across our country, right? So, do you think this is a space that ACT should kind of see it and encourage?

0:13:47.0 S2: Yeah, no, definitely. I keep meeting ambitious young entrepreneurs who have come up with some technology innovation, but I don’t have the setup to be able to sort of whet that and invest, but if ACT can do that, if you can have that, we’ve… And make access to capital for such innovators much more discoverable and adequate and on time. And this should be high risk patient capital, otherwise what’s the point? And you all know that if something… Only one out of 10 things is going to succeed. But I think this is a great time to invest philanthropic risk capital for local innovation because this is a big year internationally for the Paris Accord COP26, the biodiversity things that are happening, so hopefully, more technologies will flow between countries, but we can’t be waiting around for that. We really need to build on what we have had before and what we have now, which is the very new spirit of entrepreneurship mixed, combined with the idea of sustainability, right? The young entrepreneurs… Especially the young ones, Prashanth, you and I, our generation has really left a mess behind them.

0:14:57.7 S1: Right, right.

0:14:58.8 S2: They have to innovate their way out of this mess. So you can see that they’re thinking sustainability from get-go in the design of their technology ambition also, so certainly people like… We have to support that, we have to. You have to build a solid, healthy ecosystem of innovative entrepreneurs, both in the market and beyond the market, who will come up with old plus new knowledge, because this is the decade. If we don’t do stuff in this decade, I dread to think what’s going to happen in the 2030s. But we have nine more years, plenty of time.

0:15:35.6 S1: Yes. So, Rohini, did you ever think of doing a fund, a social capital fund, or more a fund that either is early stage or seed, or in any of these areas, did you ever thought of doing a fund?

0:15:54.9 S2: I don’t think of funds myself, that’s not how my mind goes, but I’m happy to join something. And we do have many collaboratives like, for example, in the research community through ATREE, there are many collaboratives in the academic and research sector as far as the environment is concerned that we are a part of, but there is also the India Climate Collaborative. So while it’s not a fund-fund, like you are saying, there is a lot of move towards getting a lot of actors who are interested in this space together, and ACT being a real fund where you can pitch… You are pooling in resources, you have a clear mandate to where those resources will go, was highly needed, and we are very happy that it is set up now in this space.

0:16:38.7 S1: So finally, Rohini, the learnings, this decade of learnings and how there could be some takeaways for ACT either in terms of how do you built the organization. Capacity building, we already discussed, I think this is an area we will try to ensure that there is a small contribution from our side to build capacity. Any other learnings in terms of lacunae in the space that we should be aware of that as ACT?

0:17:07.5 S2: Yeah. One thing I would say is, you know, the first thing we all have to acknowledge is all of us are in this together, okay? And we must start as citizens of this planet, as human beings, and you have to begin from there, you have to say this last 2020, how much has it taught us about how wrong we have been on the way we treat nature, the way we treat wildlife, it has bounced back horribly on us. We cannot afford another pandemic that comes out of our own carelessness. So, first, starting from the point of deeply and mindfully understanding that we are all linked, that nature is interlinked. I don’t think we should even have a single, even if it is a business conference, we should not forget to say this. We all have to reconnect to nature, to the wild. We have to understand from our minds and our hearts how deep those and complex those interconnections are, and we have to really rewrite human history starting from today. There’s no choice. So first, I want to say that, and it must be said at every conference that has anything to do with anything in the world, actually. So we start from that.

0:18:20.4 S2: The second thing is, when you invest, invest in an area that you care about, so that you have done a bit of research. You need basic knowledge when you invest in an area, whether land, water, whatever it is. Get some information, there’s plenty of information. Arm yourself with first, the passion, then the knowledge. Third, I would again reiterate, start with relationships of trust. After you do your basic due diligence, let trust run the game because that’s how you get the best out of each other, your partners from you and and you from your partners. And fourthly, this requires patience, okay? It requires patience and your usual market sense, oh, we need quarter se quarter tak kind of… That won’t work because it will skew the outcome, if we try to push for outcome data before the time is right, you will get… You will put in perverse incentives into the game. So have the right incentives in place, co-create the metrics with your investees, and I think that will be the best result. And some of your portfolio must be reserved for developing more and more and more awareness among citizens, especially urban citizens who have been deracinated from the wild. Our cities are a nightmare, in terms of air, land, water and waste. So to reconnect them to the possibility of living differently, so some of the portfolio should be assigned towards that.

0:19:53.9 S1: Thank you, Rohini. Maybe there’s so much of talk around agriculture, and so I probably… I want to pick that up as maybe the last topic. Do you see this conflict in our country between urban prosperity and agriculture-based economy is left far behind in some, maybe in a very philosophical sense, they all feel that they’re in a different world? And the people are colliding and there’s… So what’s… I mean, is this an area that you have, you think there’s policy engagement? Of course, like you said, there’s policy challenges everywhere, but is there a role that you think you know as a… I mean that either yourself or people like us in ACT can play to kind of smoothen this out over time?

0:20:48.1 S2: Yeah. Of course, right now, the battle is really on, so it may not be the best. But this is maybe a good time to understand a few relationships of humanity, between us and those who produce our food. We have to reinforce that. But it’s also a huge opportunity. Look, agriculture is one of the worst drivers of so many bad things, of destroying the soil, destroying the water, again, destroying the air. So we need a lot of reforming the way agriculture is practiced, not just in India because in that sense we are very low carbon, low impact agriculture and low productivity because of that as well, but even the way the West… My God, the way the West practices industrialist agriculture must change, and we cannot afford to fall into those traps. So how do we use this opportunity? We have many small farmer holdings. How do we figure out how to actually use agriculture to feed us, but also to improve our land, improve our soil, improve the way we use water? How do we move towards a low water economy in agriculture and industry? How do we therefore keep our air better? How do we improve our biodiversity while we produce more crop per drop? This is the opportunity, and it’s not, people know about this, but perhaps a fund like ACT could support some innovation around some of these things working with small farmers. I see that as an opportunity.

0:22:20.8 S1: So, Rohini, thank you for taking time and being here at the ACT Summit. This has been an amazing 15-20 minutes of exchange and in all your two decades of learning, learnings kind of capsuled into these few minutes. Thank you.

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