5th Global YES Summit, Rework The World - A trip report

The YES Summit: Working toward a new world for the youth

Had the opportunity to attend a recent worldwide gathering on the topic of youth and social entrepreneurship, which gave much food for thought. The event was the 5th Global YES Summit, entitled “ReWork The World”.  Details of the gathering are at www.reworktheworld.org . The message there  was that we need to do something radical in order to find productive work for the vast numbers of youth coming into the workforce especially in developing nations. The new jobs cannot be of the old variety, they need to be green, sustainable jobs. In other words, we need to ‘rework the world’.  The conference was based on the premise that these new jobs will come out of social entrepreneurship.

YES is a global network dedicated to “Youth, Entrepreneurship and Sustainability”. They work by creating national and international networks, bringing visibility to  projects with potential for scaling up and providing employment and knowledge dissemination and building youth capacities. YES holds a major summit every two years,  Previous summits have been organised since 2002 more or less annually including one in Hyderabad, India in 2003 and the next and last summit will be at Alexandria, Egypt in 2012. This year’s version of the summit was co-organised by the Tallberg Foundation (www.tallbergfoundation.org ) of Sweden. The Tallberg Foundation is quite well-known for their annual event where they get together world leaders to discuss and brainstorm on a variety of issues, the overarching theme snappily stated as “How on earth can we live together?” 

Of course I was there primarily to observe, learn from and contribute to the water and sanitation track. Overall I found that this was a less attended (perhaps least attended!) track, and felt distinctly less glamourous than things like solar, biogas, livelihoods etc. It is something for us in the sector to note. Even though the world acknowledges the centrality of water and sanitation in development, it does not get proportional attention or mindspace.  Even within the community I observed an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand the social entrepreneurship projects that were presented there were interesting, and it was great to see the energy and enthusiasm of the entrepreneurs trying to make a difference. However the discussion that followed, mainly went back to the old themes from researcher, non-profit or government types : water stress, water pollution, water conflicts. From the limited observations there, I felt that the sector does not acknowledge social entrepreneurship enough, and does not accept that traditional methods are not working well enough and we should try social entrepreneurship to see if it can do better.

One product in the water and sanitation theme that received many accolades  was the "Peepoo" bag. The world is bedevilled with sanitation problems ; 2.5 billion or two thirds of the people in the world don't have access to proper sanitation. It leads to non-solutions like the infamous 'flying toilets' of the slums of Kenya ; people 'do their business' in a plastic bag because they don't have any other way and then throw the bags out of the dwellings into the streets or wherever. This seems to have triggered the idea of the Peepoo bag. This is also a bag in which you do your business (usually by wrapping it around a tin over which you hunch). The difference is that the bag is lined with/constructed with materials so that in about 30 days the harmful bacteria in the poop and pee are neutralized. This solves the biggest problem with improper sanitary facilities ; that they spread disease in vast quantities. Further the bag and its contents actually are fertilizer ; the bag can be buried in a hole dug in the ground where it acts as manure. This also opens the possibility that a market system could be created around the sale and productive utilization of human waste. More about the Peepoo bag at www.peepoople.com .

Pic: Suraj Sudhakar of Peepoople.com

I talked to Suraj Sudhakar who works for the company that commercializes the Peepoo idea. Suraj is an effervescent enthusiastic young go-getter, and is the best face of young social entrepreneurship. He is Indian,  and spent a year working at an IT company in Chennai after an engineering degree. But he was possessed by the idea of social entrepreneurship and threw up his IT career to scratch the itch. He spent some time at Rural Innovations Network in Chennai, and then at an effort out of IIT Mumbai which was trying to  commercialize a new and simple approach to water quality testing called Polysensors. He next pursued a fellowship with Acumen Fund, a nonpofit global venture fund that supports social entrepreneurship initiatives . Suraj is a really positive face of new India -- he is possessed with a bug to make a difference, but has a refreshing lack of self-righeousness or  holier-than-thou attitude. He's seriously having fun (or having serious fun) doing what he's doing. His dream is to expose engineering students in India to some of the real heroes of engineering ; he feels that engineering students (like himself) didn't really find out what our history of engineering is in India.

Pic: Petra demonstrates the Solvatten product

 Another company in the water and sanitation space was Solvatten, www.solvatten.se . Solvatten is an attempt to ‘productise’ the idea of Solar Disinfection or SODIS. SODIS has been around for a long time and is the idea that, properly done, the sun is an adequate disinfectant for cleaning water of harmful microbes for drinking purposes. More about SODIS at www.sodis.ch .  Solvatten was developed in an African context and is thus shaped like a ‘jerrycan’ which is the common way of carrying water in many countries there. However the product is completely applicable to other countries too. The Solvatten product includes an indicator that  shows when the water inside is safe for drinking ; an important value-add of the product that makes it safe and easy to use. Solvatten purifies 20 liters at a time and can be reused multiple times a day if there are enough sunshine hours to generate more hours.  The product is still quite expensive so that remains one of their challenges.

Pic courtesy Solvatten website

It is interesting that both of the above products came out of work done in Sweden. This is biased by the fact that the event was held in Sweden but there might be more to it too.  An attendee at the conference was Thomas Bjelkeman-Petersson of the social company Akvo, who is an old friend of us at the Portal. He and his team have visited India more than once and have interacted closely with us at the Portal and been very supportive. Akvo is based in nearby Netherlands although Thomas, the co-founder and CEO works from Stockholm in Sweden. Akvo, like IWP, tries to leverage Information and Communication technologies for development. Their focus areas are somewhat different though. Their central product at this time is a lightweight reporting system that enables quick and frequent updates to be made to the web about ongoing water and sanitation projects, so that stakeholders are better-informed. This is connected to an online donation system so people can also choose to support projects of their choice. Thomas sees growing interest in this system from governments in Europe who are being increasingly pushed to justify and make transparent their overseas development funding, and who realize that their current monitoring and evaluation systems are not doing a good job. Visit Akvo at www.akvo.org

There were also presentations from two young Bangladeshi scientist turned entrepreneurs. Both had done higher education in Sweden and turned their respective skills to the problem of arsenic that is a serious issue in Bangladesh. One of them was trying to popularise nutraceuticals that mitigate the effect of arsenic poisoning and another was trying to create a system of safe drinking water using distillation plants powered by biogas. While their plans seemed somewhat raw and they were struggling to find funding and scale up, it was inspiring to see young émigré scientists turn their skills to solve pressing problems in their home countries.

A number of other promising ideas found an audience at the event : for eg. a solar powered refrigerator that had the potential to be marketable for very low costs of less than a thousand rupees ; a company trying to make purses and other products from the water hyacinth that chokes so many of our lakes and water bodies.  The full list of social entrepreneurship ideas that were presented are at www.reworktheworld.org

The event organisers found a nice solution to the problem of providing water to attendees ; since tap water in Sweden is pure enough to drink directly, there was no bottled water provided anywhere in the conference; everyone was given bottles to keep with themselves throughout the conference and refill from the taps.

The conference was held at a lakeside resort called Leksand. The water in Leksand lake is incredibly pure (see photo), a counterpoint to the very sad state of so many of Indian waterbodies.

Overall the event had an infectious energy, its hard not get jazzed up when you're seeing so many people full of enthusiasm and energy all trying out ideas to make the world a better place. Definitely one got a sense that these were for the most part not seasoned entrepreneurs ; many had not thought through their business models and business plans and seemed a little clueless about the big bad world. But they were out there trying their best and no doubt they will learn a huge amount ; some would learn fast and figure out how to make a successful business ; many will fail but will go on to do excellent work as employees or at their next entrepreneurship idea.

It was a fantastic experience to be part of a gathering of more than 1500 people from all across the globe, with a very high youth component, more than half the people under 35 years of age, and all infected with energy to make a diference. One thing that came across clearly is that this generation of youth is smarter than their parents and are capable of making things happen much earlier in their lives than their parents. We could do with so much more of this spirit in India. 

Vijay Krishna

India Water Portal




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