This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani in conversation with Prashanth Prakash 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.
Over the 16 years since I have been working on water and the environment, I have experienced a sharp learning curve. I’ve realised how critical it is to scale this kind of work and ensure the maximum impact. We cannot have just a few handful of people who are only working on this because of their passion and commitment. The sector must expand and it needs innovation and efficiency that people from the markets bring into things. If we look at the four major sectors within this – air quality, water, waste, and land – they present a huge untapped area, both for the market sector and for social entrepreneurs. Although there is a lot of traditional knowledge there, we need to infuse it with new knowledge as well, so that both can meet to create new, India-specific sustainable models to scale. I think we’re seeing a rise in interest now, as people are beginning to realise that ecology is the foundation of life on this planet. Unless we can fix the ecology, we will have continual long-term, short-term, and medium-term risks in any economic activity that we do. If we’re hoping to lift people out of poverty and imagining sustainable prosperity for all, all eyes have to be on the ecology and the environment.
India is one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world. We are one-third the size of the US but have four times its population and multiple times its biodiversity. Of course, that is partly because of the geography of our location, however it’s interesting that we have so many people in our country and at the same time, so much biodiversity. We can’t afford to forget that people understand the sacred relationship of human life and nature. We are so deeply connected that we cannot just treat nature with contempt or hubris.
Overcoming Barriers to Knowledge Bases
India is blessed with hundreds of civil society organisations that are passionate, knowledgeable, and committed to this space. As a philanthropist, I look for good ideas, institutions, and individuals that have vested in the space of environment. And there are plenty of good organisations working on a variety of issues, in the context of their local environments. My team and I try to identify these organisations and we start out with a basis of trust because they are the experts here. We start by working with them to co-create programs and as our relationship grows, we find more opportunities to invest and work. It’s been a thorough delight travelling with these people all over the country – from Sikkim, down to the Andamans, to Tamil Nadu and Kutch. We get to see the kind of work that these organisations undertake, under different and challenging conditions, and constantly add to all of our natural capital base.
However, there are several barriers to building these knowledge bases. Policy barriers present one kind of challenge, and that’s always an ongoing political and advocacy discourse which has to be undertaken by all of us. But the lack of long-term patient capital invested in this space is also another real barrier for organisations to be effective. For example, sometimes people who invest, whether it is philanthropically or whether it’s in the market space, want high returns that are quick and visible. Unfortunately, sometimes the damage to the ecology can be slow and invisible, so it requires patience in terms of resourcing the institutes that are doing the observational analysis of the biodiversity loss or degradation of the land, etc. So there is a lack of patient capital. There’s also a lack of trust between financing institutions such as philanthropists or governments, and the civil society organisations working on the ground. We need to build more bridges of trust and discovery between these sectors so that we are not all working in silos. There’s so much wonderful work being done, but how do we learn to make it more discoverable, transparent, and accountable on both sides of the equation?
I believe that technology has a role to play in overcoming some of these barriers. Although I’m not a techie myself, after years of learning from Nandan I have realised that you can really amplify the power of good intent by using technology. And in the environment sector, data is crucial and you can use technology as a backbone to collect data from different points, to democratise it, and to ensure that it’s accessible to all. We need citizen-based science, data collection, analysis, and the ability to use this data to improve and restore the ecology. There have been several attempts at this, from the India Water Portal to the Biodiversity Portal, and other existing government frameworks. But we need more and we need them to be democratic, functioning well both from bottom-up and top-down perspectives. All the data should not simply flow upwards to where the power is, it needs to flow out and democratise access to knowledge.
The second way technology can be used is for capacity building. For example, when we started out working in water, we realised that there was no cadre like there is in education with teachers or public health with the ANMs and ASHA workers. In water, it goes from one program to another and all that knowledge is just dissipated. In lieu of this, we started thinking about how to 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 proof of their knowledge level. So it’s a common program after which they would be able to say, ““I am a water practitioner, I learned A, B, C through courses D-E-F, and I am available for work.” At Arghyam we have undertaken this, working with Meghalaya and other government programs to implement this. In this way, we need to start thinking of technology as a potential enabler of capacity and livelihoods in areas such as land, water, waste, and air.
I have met many ambitious young entrepreneurs who have come up with technology innovations, but I personally don’t have the setup to be able to support and invest in them. If ACT can do that and make access to capital for such innovators more discoverable, adequate, and timely, this would be crucial for the future of sustainability. This capital must be high risk and patient capital because many times only one out of 10 ideas will succeed. But this is a great time to invest philanthropic risk capital for local innovation since this is a big year internationally, for the Paris Accord COP26.
Creating an Ecosystem of Innovators
Hopefully, more technologies will flow between countries but we can’t wait around for that. We need to build on what we have had before and what we have now, which is the very new spirit of entrepreneurship combined with the idea of sustainability. And we need young entrepreneurs to innovate their way out of the mess that our generation has left them. They’re thinking about sustainability from get-go and in the design of their technology ambitions, and we have to support that. We should build a solid, healthy ecosystem of innovative entrepreneurs, both in and beyond the markets. We have nine more years, but if we don’t manage to make substantial changes in this decade, I dread to think what’s going to happen in the 2030s.
In order to change our world for the better, one of the first things we all have to acknowledge is that all of us are in this together. We must think of ourselves as citizens of this planet, as human beings first. 2020 has taught us how wrong we have been about the way we treat nature and wildlife. We cannot afford another pandemic caused by our own carelessness. We need to remind ourselves at every moment that we are inextricably connected with nature. We have to understand how deep those and complex those interconnections are, and rewrite human history starting from today. We have no other choice.
Secondly, if you are investing in something, invest in an area that you care about and that you have researched. You need basic knowledge when you invest in an area. Arm yourself first with passion and then with knowledge. Thirdly, start your relationships with trust. After you do your basic due diligence, let trust run the game because that’s how you and your partners get the best out of each other. Lastly, this work requires patience and usual market sense. If we try to push for outcome data before the time is right, we will only add perverse incentives into the game. So we must have the right incentives in place and co-create the metrics with our partners. And some of your portfolio must be reserved for developing 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 we need to reconnect them to the possibility of living differently.
This is a good time to understand the relationship we have with land, water, air, or even those who produce our food. Agriculture is one of the worst drivers of ecological damage, destroying the soil, water, and air. So we need to think about reforming the way agriculture is practised, not just in India but all over the world. How can we use this opportunity to figure out how to use agriculture to improve our land, soil, and 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 producing more crop per drop? Perhaps with more funds like ACT supporting innovation and working with small farmers, we will see a shift towards a more sustainable future.