What I Learned About India from Jacqueline Novogratz

My daughter introduced me to the book, "The Blue Sweater". The book was a required reading in her ninth grade English language curriculum in her high school. It's a real life experience of the author, Jacqueline Novogratz (picture above, courtesy Acumen), in her twenties then, as she goes to different countries in Africa and South Asia, that are struggling to tackle extreme poverty. At a very young age she knew she wanted to make an attempt at bridging the gap between the rich and the poor, not through charity, but by exploring means of offering self reliance. As she takes us through her journey of learning, understanding, researching, educating and problem solving, we're left in awe of her courage, determination, perseverance and the strong will to make a difference in the world. In the end, we find that we have been educated not just about global poverty and the innovative ways in which she and the organizations that she was associated with tackled it, but we also learn about several wonderful organizations in the world that work hard to alleviate sufferings, provide essential needs of housing and medical care, and help the poor on the road to self reliance. On the way, we get historical lessons on the Rwandan genocide, both facts and a human perspective. Also, the book is full of wise lessons to be learnt and keeps you in a reverential state throughout.

Jacqueline's journey leads her to co-founding Duterimbere, a micro-finance institution in Rwanda. Jacqueline also founded and directed 'The Philanthropy Workshop' and 'The Next Generation Leadership' programs at the Rockefeller Foundation, before eventually founding Acumen Fund, an organization that she runs today. Acumen, whose goal is to change the way people tackle poverty,  invests in companies, leaders, and ideas and has offices in Accra, Karachi, Mumbai, Nairobi, and New York.

Ever since I read the book, I have been wanting to share what I learnt about India from Jacqueline Novogratz. So here goes (facts mentioned are largely from her book and so the information may not be current with respect to the data today)-

  • Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai, India, was founded by Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy in 1976 to help rid the country and then the world of unnecessary blindness. It started as an 11-bed hospital in a simple house and went on to become a center where over 2 million patients are examined and around 300,000 cataract surgeries are performed per year. Each doctor performs, on average, 80 surgeries a day. The US average, in comparison, is six. When the intraocular lens to fix cataracts was invented in 1990, the cost of $140, was a prohibitive price. The organization then manufactured a lens at $10, through its technology company, Aurolab, to make it accessible to large number of people. Aurolab went on to become the world's largest manufacturer of intraocular lenses, exporting to more than 120 countries and selling the lenses for less than $2 apiece. The business model was simple- the wealthy paid full price and the poor did not. No one was turned away. With the help of Acumen Fund, Aravind implemented telemedicine where doctors connected to patients in remote areas through video feeds.
  • Drishtee, a for-profit company, was founded by Satyan Mishra, a visionary entrepreneur whose focus was to support the poor by building a large-scale information distribution system. His vision was to establish a network of  tele-kiosks one in each of India's 650,000 villages with the goal of bringing 300 million poorest people into the global economy. A tele-kiosk is a small store with phone, computer and a camera that offers computer training classes and other services like internationals calls and taking family photographs.  In 2008, Drishtee's expansion was quicker than Starbucks in its early days, opening about four tele-kiosks a day in 4000 villages, serving 7.5 million people- all with Acumen's help. Today Drishtee has provided education, health, availability of household products and banking services in over 5000 villages over a time period of 13 years since it was founded in 2000. It has won several awards and accolades.
The Blue Sweater
  • Amitabha Sadangi's organization, IDE (International Development Enterprises) India, has been working with the poor farmers of India since 1991, designing innovative ways of bringing more water to their farms. Over 275,000 Drip Irrigation systems were sold to farmers of India by IDE India, in mid 2000s, with the help of Acumen Fund. And this technology was transferred from India to the farmers of Pakistan.
  • WHI, Water Harvest International, a for-profit organization that is committed to providing clean water to rural communities, established it's first facility in India at Vijayawada where people can buy clean water at affordable prices. It was an immediate success, enticing men to get water in large plastic containers, instead of the women. Of course, they used their bicycles, motorbikes, rickshaws, three-wheelers and even carts as against women who had walked with pots all these years. Acumen Fund was among the first investors in WHI. WHI also partnered with Naandi Foundation, a local NGO, to reach out to rural villagers.

Before reading the book, I had not even heard of Aravind Hospital and its role in curing blindness in the poor. I was not aware of Drishtee and its efforts in bringing the villages at par, or at least connected, with the world. I certainly didn't know about IDE India and how its role has led the farmers' income to quadruple. I was oblivious to the role of WHI in taking clean water to the villages. And I was unenlightened about the existence of Acumen Fund, let alone know its role in making the world a better place. And most importantly, I feel I would have missed out on something important had I not come to know of the person behind all of this- Jacqueline Novogratz. I'm thankful to my daughter for introducing me to 'The Blue Sweater' and with that, to Jacqueline Novogratz. I'm so grateful to the education system here in America for making my daughter reasonably au fait with the various different businesses and organizations of the world that are working together in bridging the gap between the rich and the poor. It is information like this that empowers the young mind to question the current and to explore new possibilities, to have the heart that feels compassion and a brain that does something about it.

(by Sonal Kulshrestha)

 Jacqueline's Comments on India-
  • "I felt intoxicated just by breathing in the colors and silks, the jewelry and makeup on the women, the multitude of spices in the food. How could so much variety and exuberance exist in one place?"
  • India is filled with flowers- jasmine and gardenia, marigold and bird-of-paradise. Flowers for celebrations, for mourning, for making life more beautiful.
  • On Mumbai, she says, "India is a contradiction of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. In Bombay, one of India's biggest billionaires was constructing a 27-floor mansion with parking for 168 cars, three helipads on the roof, and a staff of 600- all at a cost of a billion dollars. At the same time, 300 million people lived on less than a dollar a day.
  • On Taj Mahal, she says, "It inspired me to sit and stare for hours, wondering about the Mughal civilization that had constructed this masterpiece more than 300 years earlier. The beauty of the marble walls and feminine domes, the byzantine patterns of lapis and ruby and other gemstones inlaid into the walls, the changing color of mausoleum against the setting sun-all of it astonished me."
  • On Rajasthan, she says, "Despite the heat, I was mesmerized by this land of exotic cities like Jaipur, blushing pink from the palace walls, where elephants rambled through the streets and even poorer women wore the most fabulous jewelry I'd even seen.


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Of course, she does describe the "refuse of civilization"  (paper, rotten fruit and plastic bags and can) as 'part of the landscape', 'squatting on the fields' and 'open defecation', the stench of garbage on the streets, every possible type of transportation on the road, schools where teachers didn't show up (I see my daughter's comment of disbelief at that part with a WHAT?!), the separate utensils kept for 'untouchables',  trucks that carried signs on the back saying, "Please sound horn, please", women walking with pots of water tucked under their arms covered with colorful bangles, morning being the time for fetching water, potholes on the roads, etc. in just as much details.

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