The power of one
With the BOLD MOVES campaign we celebrate people that dare to question the status quo and break new ground. Our Bold Moves Campaigner Monica Cipelletti had the chance to talk to Sriram Bharatam, a serial social entrepreneur and Founder of Kuza One. In this interview he talks about his personal journey and specifically invites us in the world of Kuza One.
Sri, you are a serial entrepreneur. You have helped millions of people and have created hundreds of thousands of jobs. Can you tell us more about this very impactful journey you have taken so far?
My entrepreneurial journey started because of a “divine intervention”. It was Oct 1999. I lost my passport and had to fly back to my hometown in India to get a duplicate passport and had to wait. That day a huge cyclone struck India. I woke up at 4:00 a.m. and realized that 13 million people had lost their livelihoods and a million people their lives. I couldn’t sleep anymore, thinking, “is there anything I could do about this?”. I woke up my wife and told her, “if each Indian can contribute 1 cent, we can raise enough money to support this cause”. So in 24 hours, we kicked off a campaign called “Cause an Effect”, and within 45 days, we managed to mobilize 18 million people from around 70 countries and raised 1.5 million US dollars.. This was in 1999 when there was almost no internet. We were sitting in a cyber cafe and making it happen. I was 27 at that time, and that’s when my wife and I started our social entrepreneurial journey. Since the beginning, we have believed in “the power of one”: if a single person is inspired and takes action to help their community, we can change the world. And that’s how we directly worked with 18 million people in 45 days. We realized the power of creating communities with a common purpose, and we started using digital technologies to solve some social problems.
As you know, with the bold move campaign, we want to celebrate people like you, associations, companies and institutions that dare to question the status quo. You have done many brave things in your life. Which is your most significant bold move so far?
I think this divine intervention in 1999 is when the magic happened in my life. The “Cause an Effect” campaign is an extremely important milestone. And after that, it’s just every other step I make. Every day we make some bold decisions. Every day we are doing things, but fundamentally, it’s like getting into the water, believing that you can change the world. And although you are just one individual out there, believing in yourself and doing it is the first step. Once you’re in the water, no matter what, things will happen.
Which further challenges did you take as a digital entrepreneur?
In 2010, a second “divine intervention” happened. I was traveling to Africa for the first time, I missed my connecting flight to Nigeria, and I ended up spending a day in Nairobi. Within that one day, I moved around, met so many interesting people, and got excited about the M-Pesa, the mobile phone-based money transfer and financing service. As a digital entrepreneur, when I saw that the common man could use mobile services and do a very small transaction of 10 cents with M-Pesa… I found it very empowering. That’s why I decided with my wife to make a bold move and move to Africa to live a new social entrepreneurial life. We worked with a lot of large enterprises and international NGOs, helping them use digital solutions as a means to solve problems. And we shifted our focus to the “bottom billion people” in Africa. They have no voice, don’t have a say in the decision-making, and nobody hears them or listens to them. How could we engage them to make a meaningful difference? That’s how our journey started and why Kuza Biashara was born.
Thinking boldly without constraints is, for us, a mindset. Just take one step at a time, one inch at a time, start moving, and you’ll get there.
Please tell us more about Kuza Biashara and how you started a revolution in agriculture in Kenya.
Kuza in Swahili means grow. Biashara means business. We believe most small business owners “don’t know what they don’t know”. With Kuza we are creating opportunities for young women and men and small business owners to learn, connect and grow through entrepreneurship. We believe entrepreneurship is at the core of any change you can imagine can happen and that we have to do it at scale. Within agriculture, an average Kenyan farmer is 63 years old, and an average Kenyan is 19. Young people don’t see agriculture as a possible career. And the old farmers, well, nobody knows them; they don’t get extension services from the government. They don’t get access to inputs, credit and markets. And there’s no way this is going to change. With Kuza we are revolutionizing agriculture in Kenya because we involve young people. Rural young people don’t have many opportunities, and we offer them to go through our Rural Entrepreneur Development Incubator (REDI). They learn with Kuza mentors and from their peers. Each agripreneur serves 200 farmers in his/her local communities, providing advisory and information services. They are not agronomists; they are not specialists. They are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. We work with micro-learning with bite-size content. We have created a massive library of 10.000+ videos in local languages and dialects, very clearly designed and with animations. These are short three-minute videos which cover multiple topics of business, entrepreneurship, and agricultural skills, and are available through specially designed portable digital devices. We give the agripreneurs a backpack, designed with a digital extension kit and a self-powered projector with the content inside, which runs without the internet or electricity. And with that they can reach their 200 farmers. When farmers have questions or problems on even very specific topics, our agripreneurs can offer them micro-mentoring. Imagine a farmer is desperate for a pests attack and doesn’t have a clue of what to do. The agripreneur opens this backpack, takes out his little projector, finds the topic in the library and then plays the three-minute video in the local dialect. And there is where the magic happens: the farmers learn how to solve the problem. The instant gratification that you get in the moment when you are stuck is priceless.
You don’t need to know everything. Believe in something.
How many young agripreneurs did you engage in the past 5 years?
5,000 agripreneurs right now across 4,000 villages. I would say we are very close to a million farmers now that we are engaging. And the beauty of it is that this rolls up to us as a system. We provide technology and a network. We bring every individual through the learning process. And when we bring them together across geographies and regions, the “network effect” happens. We support them with a structured support system, which helps them to provide advisory on the trust and be in a position to facilitate seeds, fertilizers, credit, markets and other things. So that’s how the wheel spins for them. Thanks to our digital marketplace called One Network, they connect with many farmers, suppliers and service providers; they grow and start sustaining themselves with the income that they generate from this system.
We learned that for Kuza, one plus one makes 11. Can you tell us more about this collective principle?
Of course, one plus one is two, but one plus one has to become eleven. That’s only when the magic happens. At Kuza, the agripreneurs who went through our REDI incubator program are engaging 200 farmers each but have gained experience in different areas. For example, one of them, who had chosen soil health, now has a team of 14 other young people who are manufacturing biofertilizers. They’re super specialized in doing biofertilizers, but they don’t know how to distribute them. Another agripreneur, instead, sells seeds, fertilizers and other things in her shop, and she’s the one who is distributing the biofertilizers of the other guy. That’s the idea of one plus one is eleven. These entrepreneurs just see the others in the neighbourhood doing different things; they come together collectively, each one doing his/her own business, not only with their 200 farmers but with many more. And now they are all making a massive difference in their lives. This community of service providers and entrepreneurs has incredibly grown in Kenya.
How could you believe all this magic could happen?
I believe a thought is only a thought till you don’t take action. Taking action is the most crucial piece. Once you make up your mind, things happen. And because our approach is one at a time, you don’t necessarily need to think of the big mountain. We had no idea what we were doing. But we had an intention, a purpose, and we were committed to taking action. And the outcome happened. Thinking boldly without constraints is, for us, a mindset. Just take one step at a time, one inch at a time, start moving, and you’ll get there.
You’ve been quite successful since 2000, but it must not have always been easy. What are your learnings from your failures or difficult challenges?
I need to admit ours is a 95% failure because we have tried a hundred different things and succeeded only five times. And I take pride in saying that because at least we know what we should not do. And the boldness of every day getting up and saying, yes, I can do it, is an extremely important piece of it.
You’re very inspiring, Sri. Is there anyone or anything that inspires you?
When you see a smiling face of a young person or a farmer, it’s so fulfilling! One smiling face is all that you need. Yes, you may have a hundred things that don’t go right in a day, but that’s fine. One smiling face you see at the end of the day is good enough for you to see. At the end of my day, I can close my eyes and reflect on the day. And then say, I made it. I brought a smile to someone’s face. It’s good enough for me. That’s my inspiration. My inspiration comes from seeing an ordinary person smiling.
Is it true that your goal by 2030 is to impact 1 billion lives? This is quite a bold move!
That’s correct, and the secret is very simple. Lots of people think that I know how to do that. They believe that this is happening, and they just trust the process. Do you think I know how to reach 1 billion lives? I don’t. If you have a structure that will help you get there, you’ll get there. We are already there. We will get there.
Imagine yourself much younger, reading this interview. Which would be the very inspiring message that would help you take action and make your bold move?
My message is: you don’t need to know everything. Believe in something. And yes, you need inspiration. You need motivation to get inspired and get started. But it is a habit that keeps you going. The habit of doing things systematically. Every day, one inch at a time, one step at a time. And I want to be very clear on this. It’s not about myself, Sri. I just lit the fire and led the way. My hero is that young entrepreneur in that remote part of Africa who is close to these farmers.
Photo Credits: Kuza