Meeting Rural Access Challenges with Business Solutions

Daniel Canning is Vice President, U.S. Money Transfer at Western Union Financial Services.  In 2011 he traveled to India to work with Drishtee, an organization founded by Ashoka Fellow Satyan Mishra that provides essential services to rural villages via locally run franchisee kiosks.  By expanding its network of rural retail points across India, Drishtee aims to reach 100,000 villages over the next 10 years and ultimately become the world’s largest organized rural distribution network.

Though I had previously visited India prior to my Executive in Residence experience with Drishtee, this trip allowed me the opportunity to dive in and experience everything India has to offer.  From a cultural and business standpoint, the result was a fascinating and hugely educational experience.  In India’s rural villages I saw many basic needs going unserved, and in Drishtee I found an organization that was highly creative, highly adaptive and 100% focused on evolving a sustainable business model to serve these needs. 

From IT to Social Change—Developing Drishtee

Ashoka Fellow Satyan Mishra founded Drishtee to provide information technology services and solutions at the local and state levels in India.  It began as a small business venture for a creative man with an IT skill set, but evolved over the course of 10 years into a much more holistic social venture with big ambitions.  Rural India is a place of great social need, especially given that 1 in 8 people on the planet lives in a village in India.  As many of these villages are underserved on many fronts, their residents typically lack access to financial services, healthcare, education and basic goods and services.  The Drishtee model focuses on addressing each of these areas.   

Drishtee’s impressive leadership team comprises seasoned professionals who left behind successful careers in the private sector to work with a leading social entrepreneur.  Even though I worked with the team for a short period of time, I felt a strong desire to help advance the program.  This meant quickly finding solutions to very complex issues and adapting almost immediately to the fast-moving environment.

Recognizing Both a Growing Need and Potential Market

An ability to innovate quickly was not the only takeaway from my time with Drishtee.  India is a big, complex and captivating place, and while there, I consciously decided to immerse myself; I wanted the experience to be as complete as possible.  I stayed in the very humble Drishtee guest house in a working-class district of Delhi, commuted to work via rickshaw, and went out for a weekend in rural villages to see the business model in action.  Fully immersing myself in this way led to an appreciation of the many complex challenges facing rural India.  In this I recognized not only the massive social need, but a prospect for business. 

Ongoing migration from rural to urban areas has led to money movement dilemmas for many of these residents.  Being on the ground allowed me to identify that need and see where Western Union could play a role in providing that service.  This year, Western Union launched a domestic money transfer service, headed by another Executive in Residence alumnus, Kiran Shetty.  In my conversations with Kiran, we were both enthusiastic about the opportunities and products that could be offered to underserved populations for the benefit of everyone.

Collectively Tackling a Developing Market—Shared Value in Practice

Anyone participating in an Executive in Residence placement will have his or her eyes constantly opened to new opportunities.  How one chooses to respond to those opportunities could have an extensive ripple effect.  Ultimately, it begins on the ground.  Drishtee has an established presence in thousands of small villages in India, where financial services are lacking.  This presented an opportunity for Western Union to provide access to financial services to underserved populations.  By working with organizations such as Drishtee, we can help solve an array of social problems while simultaneously benefiting from an expansion into developing markets.  Such “aha!” moments are what makes the Executive in Residence program so uniquely beneficial for all parties involved.