The end of one year and the beginning of another is a good time to take stock of the time gone by. But where does one begin in a year that has upended nearly every aspect of our lives? 2020 was at once a reality check and a time of reckoning. It confronted us with problems we had never imagined and taught us lessons to last a lifetime.
Covid-19 laid bare the vulnerability of several sections of our population which were disproportionately affected on economic and health fronts. Most of these people are from the bottom 60 per cent of India's income distribution, the lower and lower middle-income segments, which we refer to as the 'Next Half Billion.'
The pandemic tested the health of our public infrastructure - healthcare provision, ration distribution chains and digital platforms for connecting to government services faced strains that were never experienced before. Most significantly, it brought our collective attention to critical areas which have the greatest bearing on our communities, and which are crucial building blocks of a meaningful life, such as health, education, livelihood, property rights and strong and responsive institutions.
Yet, while disturbances were rife, the pandemic also brought to the surface some qualities of our society that filled me with hope. First and foremost, the visible increase in public consciousness reinforced our fundamental belief at ON India that people are inherently good. Newspapers brought us stories of families providing free meals to the thousands of migrant workers on the move. Retail donations raised for Covid relief on platforms such as GiveIndia, one of our investee organisations, supported nearly four million people during the height of the pandemic.
Secondly, the pandemic showcased the tremendous resilience of our entrepreneurial and non-profit ecosystems. Even as the first news of a nation-wide lockdown trickled in, many non-profits and social entrepreneurs were already at the frontline, rising to the occasion to help the country in this time of need. When we launched our Rapid Response Funding Initiative to support organisations with scalable models that could support those most in need during Covid-19, we received an overwhelming response from the community and were fortunate to partner with organisations working on a range of solutions, including contact tracing, ICU capacity augmentation, telemedicine, community mobilisation, enhancing testing capabilities and telemedicine, among others.
Empathy, Trust and Boldness
The evolution of this global crisis forced us to keep reflecting on our organisation's cultural attributes of 'empathy', 'boldness' and 'trust' and appreciate these in a new light. Over the course of the year, we learnt some valuable lessons about these qualities which will undoubtedly inform our work in the years to come.
Organisations must put themselves in the shoes of the people they serve in order to be able to truly add value to their lives. And one of the most important aspects of being empathetic is 'listening'. As an investor focused on social impact, we strive to have our 'ear to the ground'. When the pandemic struck, we found that one of the reasons we were able to react quickly was timely feedback from our investees and the broader impact ecosystem. We are increasing the depth of engagement with our investees and the people they serve, and encouraging our investees to form more robust feedback collection loops within their own organisations as well.
Some of the most valuable lessons were on importance of building trust and working in partnership with the broader social impact ecosystem. At ON India, we are convinced that the 'whole is greater than the sum of the parts'. In the same vein, I believe that building consensus and collaboration within our wider business ecosystems is an essential component of success. It requires businesses in the same industry to think of each other as companions, rather than just competitors. In our response to the pandemic, we engaged in a series of collaborative efforts initiated by the ecosystem of venture capitalists, philanthropies and impact investors. These ranged from participating in funding coalitions to supporting innovative collaboratives such as the Action Covid Team Grants and REVIVE Alliance.
Finally, one of the key learnings for us has been the importance of remaining bold and committed in the face of adversities. An important decision we took at the beginning of the pandemic was to be a decisive mover. As a first step, we moved quickly to focus on health, safety and well-being of our own team, and continuity of our operations. By prioritising this, we were able to significantly step up our responsiveness to our investees - similar to securing one's own 'oxygen mask' before helping others. As a next step, we reached out to every investee to discuss the health and safety of their teams, revisit business plans where needed, and worked with them to strengthen their financial health and governance. We also signalled flexibility on timelines and deliverables. In parallel, we took an 'active' stance and launched several new funding initiatives aimed at supporting Indians in the light of Covid.
Even as the news of potential vaccines provides an optimistic note for the year to end on, it is clear that the effects of the pandemic are far from over and we need to be prepared for a marathon with many continuing uncertainties. Some of these effects are in the form of permanent shifts in our business and social landscapes, while others are accelerations of various pre-pandemic trends.
I expect my own industry, impact investing, to become significantly more mainstream globally. This is in some ways part of a growing trend among businesses, not just those professedly in the social impact sector but also traditional corporates, to think about their social footprint more consciously. While this trend has undoubtedly been accelerated by the pandemic, some of its fundamental drivers have been apparent for a while. These include the stark inequalities in most of the world, especially developing countries like India, various looming crises such as climate change and water wars, as well as the noticeable attitude shift among millennials who care deeply about their impact on society and environment.
Terms such as Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance and Socially Responsible investing have become more popular in recent years, although these are somewhat different from impact investing. From an impact investing perspective, it is encouraging to see many mainstream venture capital funds expanding beyond upper- and upper middle-income segments and funding entrepreneurs who serve lower- and lower middle-income segments. Apart from merely the quantum of capital invested in these segments increasing, I also expect impact measurement to become much more sophisticated and deliberate.
Finally, from the Indian perspective, the coming year, and indeed the next few years, have now assumed a new kind of significance. I consider this a critical period for our country, and specifically for the 'Next Half Billion.' It is one of both uncertainty and optimism. Several hard policy choices have to be made to get individuals and businesses back on their feet. A deep understanding of the digital journey of the 'Next Half Billion' is an important pre-requisite in our quest to meaningfully impact their lives. This section of the population is demanding better avenues of employment, access to aspirational services and individual agency; and for the first time, technology provides us a tool through which to substantially realise their aspirations.
Over the next few years, I expect many new start-ups to come up to capitalise on the opportunity created by the 'Next Half Billion' coming online. The pandemic has made people more comfortable using technology - one of the potentially permanent behavioural shifts it has caused. Technology also has the potential to make it easier to secure many basic rights for our citizens such as access to justice, property rights and effective governance. As investors, our task is to support these myriad changemakers understand their audience better and scale up innovative solutions, while also responsibly addressing concerns of inclusion and privacy. The next few years promise to be a defining period in this quest.
(The author is MD, Omidyar Network India Advisors)
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