The Ambuja Cement Foundation, being established for more than 25 years aims to use its skills to generate an ecosystem where it would handle responsibility of operations and arrive at impactful outcomes. Pearl Tiwari, CEO discusses the journey and evolution in a chat with Pankaj Joshi.
What is the primary impetus behind choice of geographies?
The Foundation came into existence 26 years ago, mainly to manage community engagements for the group in its operational territories. Hence that was the main impetus behind the choice of areas where we would operate. Communities – large or small, are vital stakeholders and engagement with them is essential.
So in the first phase we followed the group’s (Company’s) footprint. As we approached our silver jubilee, the thought was how to collate and leverage the experience and expertise obtained through our body of work. We have traditionally avoided urban locations in favour of rural areas. We decided firstly to move out to neighbouring villages and to reach out to other individuals and entities and offer our expertise for project management.
For example, if a company or individual can arrange for an owned/ rented building, we would manage internal infrastructure, put people in place to run a skill development centre. I give this example because skill development is an antidote to unemployment, a vital issue right now.
How do you make choice of activities?
Given our single location of community engagement, we cannot afford to have just one activity. The primary thrust areas are livelihood (farming and skill training), then water resource management. We have learnt that communities cannot prosper when water is scarce. Beyond drinking and irrigation difficulties, scarce water means that women and girls spend most of their day traversing distances on foot just to procure basic water needs. Water has the capacity to transform lives. The Ambuja group, incidentally, prides itself on being six times water positive. Overall our thread is human development, where we come to women empowerment – self-help groups and extending micro credit.
SHGs primarily ensure that people do not fall into the debt trap, plus they give women access to finance. What we have done is mobilise people, build a capacity for action. In Gujarat alone we have a federation of 7,000 SHG members. Now, such an aggregation can be a great access point for say health education. In sanitation, we have thoroughly sensitised the target audience. Health practices at an overall level include preventive and curative practices. We have put in place a set of practices to combat infant and maternal mortality. Now beyond that is spreading awareness of non-communicable diseases and how they can be managed.
We also trained over a hundred women as Internet Saathis, who travel and set up mobile kiosks where they teach people (especially children) to use, appreciate and derive benefit from the internet. In agriculture, one strong project is the Better Cotton Initiative, where the cotton is grown with good practices – controlled water usage, approved pesticide use, no child labour and so on. Such cotton has demand from top brands like Gap, Marks and Spencer, Levis and others. Across an eight year period we have got the farmer strength from 2,000 to around 150,000.
What factors do you consider towards budget allocation? How do you measure impact?
Our activity-wise budget is never allocated, it is entirely bottoms up. Also if you see, funds are from diverse sources. Within that, we have found that reliance on Government funds is often counter-productive because the monitoring body does not understand ground realities. We pride on being cost-effective and using local resources. Today the foundation has 150 staff and around 650 field facilitators dedicated across different projects. Monitoring is something that is critical, so we have invested in a customised monitoring and tracking system. For instance, in farmer training, we can track number of events, level of attendance, diverse support measures and finally income enhancement. Our philosophy is to change lives via different drivers – training, collectivism and confidence.
We actively invite people to do research on our work. Where it is successful, people can learn, manage outcomes and develop as local community leaders. We are currently putting out papers in international journals. The whole idea is that our work should be evidence-backed. Today CSR activity has penetrated into boardrooms, directors ask about the social return on investments, specially when projects are more capital intensive in nature. You look at the social ROI in the project on water in Gujarat, where every rupee spent has yielded 13.5 times in returns. This is humungous.
For the future, we want to scale up and access more collaboration. For example, take our salinity management project across the Gujarat coastline, which had started from 20 villages and today is in the region of 400 villages. Scale cannot happen individually, we can bring together partners, train local talent and get results. The next stage is working in new areas in the same villages, to learn new skills to understand the new challenges. The ultimate goal remains community prosperity.