In the summer of 2022, 10 students from the University of Southampton travelled to India to join the SPARK India programme in supporting a group of extraordinary social enterprises that are changing lives every day.
Our editor Milly caught up with Alex Fishlock, a member of the team that participated in this programme, who has been working for an enterprise called ReMaterials.
You can find all materials from this expedition at https://dissertationmasters.com/ There you can order several types of research papers or essays from students who were on an expedition to India.
How did you get involved with SPARK?
I got involved with the programme after hearing a speech from Lottie Pearce, ex-president of Enactus Southampton, at a committee meeting. She told us about how we could spend 4 weeks India gaining real business experience by helping to solve some challenges faced by the social enterprises. Being a management student this really appealed to me, as did a month in India! I filled in an application form, which was reviewed by the Spark India team, and was told a few weeks later that I had got onto the program.
How is ReMaterials making a positive social impact with its business? What key challenges are they overcoming?
ReMaterials is all about tackling social causes through innovation. The team were using agricultural waste and packaging found on the streets such as cardboard, together with natural ingredients such as coconut fibres, to manufacture a new roofing material. Not only does this help to clean up excess waste (which attracts stray dogs and disease), but the material also provides slum inhabitants with a strong, insulating, waterproof and modular roofing material, which is much cheaper than some of the alternatives. There are 2 main challenges – the first is to make sure that the roof is actually waterproof (the team was testing this when I was there). The second is to make the product affordable to potential customers by partnering with micro-finance institutions, as most the potential customers live in the slums and are financially deprived.
What stage was the business at prior to your visit? Are they in the start-up phase or more well established?
The enterprise is actually well established, having partnered with Berkeley University some time ago. But I’d say that in July, this particular product, the roofing material, was just starting up because it was still in the testing stage.
In basic terms what is their business model?
For other items, the enterprise would sell direct to the customer. However, the roofing material didn’t have a business model in place because it was at the early stages of testing. The proposed model which my team researched would involve micro-finance institutions loaning customers money to make the purchase, with the customer then paying back installments to these financial companies across a long period of time. In theory this would avoid unmanageable debt because the last thing we want to do was to put these people further into poverty.
How did you first get involved in the business when you arrived? What was your role?
When I arrived I met up with Hasit, ReMaterial’s founder, for breakfast along with one of my colleagues and some of the ReMaterials team. We discussed the enterprise and what our challenges would be. Over the next week or so, my team (4 students from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and myself) visited the factory and did some basic research. We needed to find out if microfinance was the best financial strategy and if so, which organisations to partner with. I was elected project leader, so my role was to coordinate the different tasks, set deadlines and to do as much research as possible.
What responsibilities did your team take on together?
Overall we were responsible for recommending a financial strategy to the ReMaterials team. This involved getting in touch with local and global microfinance institutions, seeing if they would partner with the enterprise, conducting customer surveys and then pitching our findings.
What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome whilst you were in India?
Aside from a case of Delhi belly, I’d say the communication barrier. The students and lecturers spoke great English, but it was a struggle talking to the financial companies. In the end I would have to research the companies to contact, whilst my colleagues would actually phone them up! It didn’t help that I only know 2 words of Hindi – ‘nay’ which no means and ‘Namaste’ which means hello!
In your opinion, how does business in India compare with your experiences of business in the UK?
I don’t know whether it’s because of the difference in size of India compared to the UK, but I noticed that there were allot more people with their own businesses or who are self-employed – it really is the entrepreneurial heart of the world. There’s allot more haggling, not just in the markets frequented by tourists, but all over the country. One thing that my colleagues and I realised is that there are many NGO’s and social enterprises in the UK where helping a social cause is the primary aim. As such any profit is donated to tackle that cause. However, in India, the primary aim for social enterprises is to operate as a business, where any surplus is not donated but reinvested into the venture. The business models are the same as private enterprises. The only difference is that the work they are doing may be related to a social cause (such as creating roofing materials made from waste).
What were the key insights about business you took away from the experience?
Perhaps it was because of the marginalized segment of the population we were working with, but I learnt that even for a new and unique product, price is everything. Despite the roofing material being modular and insulating (which is rare in India), potential customers were only interested in how much the roof would cost. Any other features aside from being strong and waterproof were irrelevant. People work extremely hard for their money and most won’t spend it unnecessarily. I guess that there is so much competition (product imitation and lack of differentiation) that price is the only factor that counts when making a purchase.
Do you feel that you developed any key transferable skills?
I learnt how to work effectively in an international team – everyone has different ideas and it’s great to hear people’s opinions. I found that by sitting down, everyone together, we would often spark off one another and generate ideas that working alone we would never have thought of. I also developed my presentation skills – I really learnt that you’ve got to engage and involve the audience to keep their attention. After all, a presentation is not a lecture and if it was it would certainly be less effective in communicating information.
How do you think this experience will prepare you for working in business in the future?
I gained experience of coordinating a team, project management, working to deadlines and of persuading people to form a partnership to make the product commercially viable – I think these are all experiences which employers are looking for and which help to tackle problems faced by businesses.
What is your advice for other young professionals looking to participate in something similar?
I would say it is very rewarding – in the UK you can take part in internships and placements which is great and often lead to employment, but I believe showing the motivation to do a placement abroad is invaluable. It might help to differentiate you from others as placements abroad are less common, and there’s more to talk about in an interview. Working in an international team prepares you for working overseas, in that you experience different cultures and learn to communicate more effectively. I think that employers like that. So if anyone gets the opportunity to do something similar, voluntary or paid, I can’t recommend it enough!
You can find Alex here: