Mrida focusing on sustainable and scalable holistic rural development: Arun Nagpal, Co-founder of Mrida Group

Mrida operates around distinct verticals: Mrida Renergy looks at energy access as a tool for development. It sets up solar micro grids in villages and hamlets not connected to the electricity grid, replacing kerosene lamps with environment friendly LED bulbs and providing mobile charging facilities, thereby connecting remote villages digitally.

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Arun Nagpal , CO-Founder of Mrida Group

NEW DELHI: Mrida Group, a Social Business Venture that seeks to build sustainable and scalable, financially viable business models aimed at holistic rural development. Mrida has worked on a variety of initiatives with individuals, village level entrepreneurs, self-help-groups, rural communities, and Corporate entities. Mrida has more than 40 projects on-ground, many of these projects in remote, difficult to access areas and with underserved communities. It has worked on a variety of initiatives with individuals, village level entrepreneurs, self-help-groups, rural communities, and Corporate entities. Mrida is also focused on agri-interventions and providing inputs to ensure that optimal benefits can be derived from the parcel of land that the farmer cultivates. Keeping in mind the agrarian nature of the local economy, the focus is on providing proper inputs that could significantly improve agricultural output and productivity.

An interact with Rusen Kumar of India CSR Network; Arun Nagpal , CO-Founder of Mrida Group talked about how Mrida projects have effected changes in the lives and livelihoods of the base of pyramid, underserved, rural communities in India. Edited Excerpts:

Tell us briefly about Mrida.

Mrida is Sanskrit for ‘Soil’. And that is what truly defines us – our interventions are for the soil, from the soil and about the soil. We seek to build sustainable and scalable business models for holistic rural development and economic as well as social upliftment at the Base of the Pyramid (BOP). Rather than grants or charity, our focus is on creating an enabling environment where rural lives and underserved communities are positively impacted.

Mrida operates around distinct verticals: Mrida Renergy looks at energy access as a tool for development. It sets up solar micro grids in villages and hamlets not connected to the electricity grid, replacing kerosene lamps with environment friendly LED bulbs and providing mobile charging facilities, thereby connecting remote villages digitally. We have till date, saved more than 11 thousand litres of kerosene and illuminated more than 3000 lives, We work with local communities on effective use of the energy access – education, livelihood, women’s empowerment and so on, leading to holistic development – more than 15,000 lives have been impacted through our work so far.

Through another business vertical, Mrida Greens has set up a herbal extraction unit in Umbergaon in Gujarat, showcasing the best of equipment and technology, good manufacturing practices, and a comprehensive testing laboratory. Plants and herbs like aloe vera, amla and others are responsibly sourced and processed into value added extracts by Mrida, in a manner that becomes a business model for Mrida, while providing income enhancement and rural development opportunities at the source.

We have also launched a FMCG brand Earthspired through which we seek to create market linkages and skill development, employment opportunities for small and marginal farmers and artisans from rural India. Earthspired today encompasses a variety of healthy millet and amaranth based flours (‘attas’), cookies, cake mixes, sweet /salted snacks and savories, with a range of health and wellness related products, and handicraft items to follow.

Over the years, Mrida has set up more than 40 projects on the ground covering remote, underserved areas and communities across the country in the states of MP, UP, J&K, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand.

Who/what inspired you to start a social business venture?

I have spent more than 30 years in the corporate world and during that period, some of my work took me to the remote areas where I have seen extreme poverty very closely. My father was an agriculturist, travelled extensively because of his work, and extremely passionate about rural development as the route to a prosperous country. I still remember those visits with my father in rural Maharashtra in the 60’s and 70’s and spending time with the farmers and their families. My upbringing and subsequent work brought about the urge to do something to positively impact sections of the society left behind as the rest of the country prospered and developed. The idea of bringing to bear, my experience and the rigors and the financial discipline of the corporate world into the development sector, was very compelling and attractive. Fortunately, I came across friends and ex colleagues – now co-founders at Mrida, who also felt the same way and harbored similar ideas. I would therefore say it was a combination of factors, including close interaction with rural communities, and the exciting possibility of coming up with financially viable business models that could impact them in a holistic, sustainable and hence scalable manner, that prompted the move towards social entrepreneurship.

Brief us about your projects and how do they impact the lives of others?

At Mrida, we have distinct business models, interlinked and synergistic with each other, with the common motive of upliftment of remote rural areas and transformation of lives at the Base of the Pyramid (BOP). These include:

Mrida Renergy & Development: It seeks to provide energy access to the remote areas by setting up Solar Micro Grids in the villages through Village Level Entrepreneurs, Self Help Groups, and CSR initiatives. Mrida Renergy provides the off grid population with access to energy, and works with local communities on how this access can be used as a tool for sustainable and holistic rural development.

Mrida Renergy provides the off grid population with access to energy, and works with local communities on how this access can be used as a tool for sustainable and holistic rural development.

Mrida Green & Organics: supports cultivation and collection of high value crops, plants and herbs, and value addition to provide income enhancement opportunities. A modern, well equipped processing unit in Umbergaon, Gujarat completes the loop to make extracts of plants and herbs as per good manufacturing practices.

Earthspired: Through Earthspired, Mrida empowers farmers and rural artisans to create a self-reliant, progressive and sustainable economy. Earthspired seeks to link small and marginal farmers and village folk with consumers in a manner that enables sustainable livelihoods, income enhancement and social upliftment. The Earthspired brand currently covers a range of highly nutritious millet and amaranth based mixed flours, cookies and snacks marketed through niche channels and on-line.

How has the CSR sector shaped up for you? Has the Government mandating a necessary CSR spend impacted your initiatives? 

As a self funded startup and as social entrepreneurs, the business opportunity thrown up in the form of CSR has proven to be an excellent opportunity, business-wise, and in our endeavor to serve marginalized, base of the pyramid, remote rural communities. Our strengths are a holistic approach to development, commitment to deliverables and measurable impact, and thrust on sustainability and scalability. Several Corporates who were made aware of our work and our value proposition showed interest in having us partner with them on integrated CSR initiatives.

While many Corporates were actively engaged in CSR activities even earlier, mandating of CSR  spend by profitable businesses in 2014 opened up huge opportunities and significant inflow of funds into the development sector, particularly in areas such as education, poverty and hunger alleviation, gender equality, skill development, and livelihoods.

And the numbers tell an important story here: According to During FY16 5097 companies spent Rs. 9822 crore on CSR, while Rs 8803 crore was the CSR spend from 7334 companies during FY15. The growth in CSR funding is appreciable and we are looking forward to more opportunities emanating for Mrida from this segment.

Who are your CSR partners? 

Mrida has partnered with leading business houses in India like Mahindra & Mahindra, Reliance Foundation, Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services Ltd. (IL&FS) and the Hero Motors Group (AG Industries and Rockman Industries), for integrated corporate social responsibility initiatives. Several projects have been implemented in different areas in the states of MP, UP, J&K, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand. Mrida is actively seeking to expand the scope of its geographic operations and engage with more partners moving forwar.

What categories of CSR do you focus on?

Mrida has been consciously focusing on sustainable and scalable holistic rural development initiatives; within this category, our focus is on the base of the pyramid and underserved/ marginalized communities. The scope of activities includes energy access (DC solar micro grids), education, livelihoods, women’s empowerment, and agricultural interventions.

Skill Development is a major focus of the Government and so is Swachh Bharat Mission. How involved are you in these categories?

The main objective of the government’s skill development program is to generate employment and income enhancement opportunities, promote and develop entrepreneurship, and eliminate poverty. Our objectives in Mrida are similar – our holistic development initiatives include skill development and a variety of other interventions, all working together in tandem in order to uplift lives in a sustainable manner, and move individuals and communities from vicious circles of poverty and deprivation, to virtuous circles of education, skill development, livelihoods and income enhancement leading to holistic development. We are actively involved in promoting self help groups for initiatives such as tailoring, handicrafts and spices, supporting farmers for agri initiatives, and also creating market linkages for the output generated. Today we have several working examples on the ground, of initiatives that have created and mentored entrepreneurs, empowered women, and uplifted rural lives in different parts of the country – socially as well as economically.

Though not in a very significant way so far, we have been involved in construction of toilets in some of our field locations – again as part of an integrated initiative encompassing various other interventions, and including training/workshops on maintenance of the toilets, health, hygiene and sanitation in general, and so on.

Now that you have completed 3 years of operations, how do you see Mrida shaping up? 

It has been an amazing experience so far. When we started Mrida in 2014, our main objective was to build business models that facilitate holistic development of underserved communities using energy access and agricultural interventions as tools. We have since been focused on creating working models that showcase proof of concept on the ground, and demonstrate sustainable and scalable interventions that help development of remote rural communities – socially, environmentally and economically.

Mrida’s activities today cover not only Solar Micro Grids but related initiatives such as the solar powered e-hub for education, entertainment and e-commerce, environment friendly e-rickshaws for travel along feeder routes in remote areas,  and self help groups engaged in projects like tailoring, spices, food processing and so on. Our agricultural interventions cover productivity enhancement, shift from grains to more remunerative vegetable cultivation, creation of market linkages through a distinct brand Earthspired, and so on. We have introduced innovations such as the Grameen Haat which provides basic facilities and amenities to highway travelers, even while facilitating market linkages for village folk, farmers and rural artisans, and showcasing holistic development CSR initiatives. Overall, Mrida today has more than 40 interventions on the ground, in the States of UP, MP, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand, with initial inroads made into Manipur.

Grameen Haat provides basic facilities and amenities to highway travelers, even while facilitating market linkages for village folk, farmers and rural artisans, and showcasing holistic development CSR initiatives.

Grameen Haat provides basic facilities and amenities to highway travelers, even while facilitating market linkages for village folk, farmers and rural artisans, and showcasing holistic development CSR initiatives.

We are proud to have been associated with some of the largest and most well known Corporates in India as partners for integrated CSR initiatives – these include Mahindra & Mahindra, Reliance Industries (Reliance Foundation), IL&FS, Hero Motors Group (Rockman Industries, AG Industries), and Rio Tinto India Ltd.

We have recently started propagating the concept of PSR (personal Social Responsibility) where we aim at providing a platform, at creating a movement through which more and more individuals connect with us, and with rural India not only by investing money, but by investing their time, their skillsets, and their ideas.

No doubt, we have covered substantial ground over the last 3 years, and are proud of the impact we have been able to create in the form of over 3000 lives provided with energy access, and over 15000 lives impacted overall. Having said that, we still have a long way to go, and are excited about the opportunities that exist, to create long lasting, sustainable and scalable impact.

What are your future/expansion Plans?

We are working on the concept of 50-500-5000. As a self funded operation, the 50 odd interventions undertaken so far in different parts of the country were to demonstrate proof of concept on the ground, ability to scale, and a path towards financial viability for Mrida in the process. We would now like to tap the market for funding into Mrida, so that we have the resources to scale up our initiatives to the next level(s) – 500 in the next two years, and 5000 in the two thereafter.

Through our own example and demonstrated proof of concept in an ‘open source’ mode, we also hope to motivate more individuals and organizations to engage in similar activities/ initiatives/businesses, and create a movement for change – a movement towards sustainable and scalable, holistic rural development and upliftment of lives at the Base of the Pyramid.

Moving forward, we would also like to spread our wings in other parts of the world – working with underserved communities on the one hand, and expanding market linkages to overseas customers on the other – in the EU Region, the US, and elsewhere. Clearly, there is a lot to look forward to, and exciting times ahead.

Most of your initiatives have been with the corporate sector. Are you also looking at the Government sector?

As we scale up our existing engagement with the Corporate sector in the form of integrated CSR initiatives, a logical extension would be to engage with the Govt. sector and explore avenues of cooperation, support, and integration with various Govt. development schemes and programs.

We have already made a beginning in this regard in Kushinagar in Eastern UP, where we have been in active discussions with the District Administration to progress the development agenda to the ‘next level’.

In conjunction with Mahindra & Mahindra, we began with electrification of 2 villages/hamlets in the year 2015-16, and expanded this to cover electrification of 11 hamlets in 2016-17, with related interventions involving skill development, women’s empowerment, and education. During the current year, the plan is to engage with the District Administration and to bring areas such as agriculture, health hygiene and sanitation within the ambit.

As such then, we see huge opportunities to scale up our development agenda with the support and involvement of the Govt. over time.

Disclaimer: The thoughts captured in the interview is solely that of the interviewee. The views expressed by the interviewee in this feature are entirely his own and does not necessarily reflect the views of India CSR Network and its Editor.

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