The return of Vikram Akula, this time as sugarcane messiah

Vikram Akula is back. And this time, he’s donning the mantle of sugarcane grower, sustainable agri-business advocate and also helping budding social entrepreneurs ‘be good’.

The former posterboy of Indian microfinance, Akula, who, in 2006 was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, has finally come out of self-imposed exile, nearly six months after his unceremonious exit from SKS Microfinance, the firm which he set up, took to dizzying heights and saw being mired in controversy over farmer suicides and the firm’s aggressive debt collection tactics.

Making a rare public appearance for the first time since his November 2011 exit from SKS amid the wave of controversy, Akula held a packed audience spellbound at the Sankalp Summit 2012 organised by Intellecap in Mumbai, where he admitted he made ‘many, many, many mistakes’ in his journey as a social entrepreneur.

Vikram Akula. Reuters
“For those of you who were wondering what I was doing for the past six months, here it is: sugarcane,” he said, holding a cane stick in his hand and explaining how he is now involved with Hyderabad-based sustainable agribusiness venture AgSri as director, helping farmers grow sugarcane with less water, less pesticides and increasing yields through the drip irrigation system.

AgSri is founded by Biksham Gujja, who worked with WWF-International, Switzerland, who also led a team of professionals in a WWF-Icrisat joint project to focus on improving water productivity for major crops like rice and sugarcane. Today, Akula says he is associated with this movement in AgSri to help the 45 million small farmers, and says the technology which has been pioneered by AgSri will remain open source and will not be patented by them.

But the new avatar as sustainable agribusiness messiah is not all that Akula is busy with. He is now focusing on corporate governance in social enterprises as a task force member of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, and also helping budding social entrepreneurs grapple with problems to ensure they don’t end up making the same mistakes as he made.

Keen to prove he is determined not to repeat his SKS mistakes again, Akula said: “I am not setting up a fund, I am going to help other social entrepreneurs.”

Carefully avoiding any direct mention of his problems at SKS Microfinance, Akula said social entrepreneurs needed to focus on the 3Cs to be successful: culture, code of conduct and control of their institutions.

“Other than the first round of 3Cs I propounded earlier for microfinance and social entrepreneurship – access to capital, dealing with capacities and costs, the new 3Cs are vital for social enterprises,” Akula said. Asked by audience members on what were the key mistakes he made at SKS, he skirted a direct answer, saying, “I just did not focus on the three Cs: did not focus on culture, code of conduct and control.”

Culture was critical, said Akula, pointing out that as social enterprises grew in size and scale, the view was that any professional could take it to greater heights. However, it was imperative the professionals had the correct balance of the culture of the organisation to succeed. “Professionals may not always have the same passion and intensity as the social entrepreneur himself. After all, these are not just enterprises, they are social enterprises.”

Culture, however, was not enough, Akula added. “There need to be some rules as social enterprises scale up. The rules complement the culture. The code of conduct, therefore, is very critical. Culture is a necessary condition, code of conduct makes it sufficient,” he said, adding he was focusing on this aspect at the Schwab Foundation. “Google exhorts you saying don’t be evil. However, for a social enterprise, it has to be taken further by saying be good,” Akula exhorted, saying social enterprises had a greater responsibility than normal enterprises because they had a social mission.

Control, he said, was equally important. “Social entrepreneurs are often naïve. I know I was,” said Akula, adding that while social entrepreneurs want to do good, they also often end up trusting people too much. “I know I should have been much more savvy of control. Social enterprises should also have lawyers and advisors to help the social entrepreneur so that the mission is not turned upside down,” he said. “Otherwise, they will end up facing the same problems as the others.”

Saying he was now busy as an angel investor, seed funder and helping other social entrepreneurs, he advised budding social entrepreneurs to “pause and think about the 3Cs before you are caught up with the heady thrill of success.” A heady thrill which Akula himself was all too familiar with before it all fell apart.

SKS’ Akula to take on new challenges

Hyderabad: The poster boy of the microfinance industry, Vikram Akula, founder of SKS Microfinance, is now planning to don a new hat, moving from a microlender to farmer-friendly technologies, including mobile banking.
Continuing his social entrepreneurship, Akula will now devote more time to AgSri, a Hyderabad-based company into farmer-friendly technologies and ecologically sustainable agriculture. AgSri was registered in 2010, focusing on improving the productivity of rice and sugarcane. It is learnt that Akula is an angel investor in AgSri. Akula would also be responsible for raising resources and expanding the market.

In November, Akula quit as executive chairman of SKS Micro and stepped down from the company’s board. Akula continued as consultant to the company till March to assist with the transition.

“Akula has a broader vision and will be moving to the next level,’’ said Biksham Gujja, founder and chairman at AgSri, and former policy advisor to WWF International, Geneva Gujja, who is also Akula’s mentor, has had a 20-year relationship with him. The board of AgSri is also open to increase Akula’s stake if the need arises.

According to Gujja, AgSri has been established with the concept of making “more with less” possible in agriculture. “It is possible to improve the productivity of agriculture with fewer inputs,” Gujja said.

There are options for farmers to adapt to simple but integrated methods to improve the productivity, while reducing use of seed, water, fertilisers and pesticides. AgSri is reaching out to farmers in UP, Maharashtra, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. AgSri team, which has earlier worked under an ICRISAT-WWF project, is reorienting knowledge and training systems to improve the productivity of land, water and labour.

The sugarcane industry in India is in deep crisis in the last 10 years as the production remains stagnant though it supports 45 million farmers.

It suffers from low yields, high input costs, lack of labour, water scarcity, pest and diseases, climate-induced uncertainties and high political stakes. “The situation warrants specific action and need for catalyst to bring farmers, industry and government. Akula’s association with AgSri will boost such effort,” Gujja added.

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