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Sahayta initiative aims to revive over 10,000 SMEs: Romesh Wadhwani

The Wadhwani foundation are trying to serve SMEs at different size levels because the nature of the consulting they need is somewhat different.

US-based billionaire Romesh Wadhwani recently launched a Rs 200 crore initiative to help SMEs affected by the coronavirus induced economic slump, re-skill frontline public health workers and fund innovations in Covid-19 related technologies. In an exclusive chat with Economic Times, Wadhwani, the founder and chairman of Symphony Technology Group, talked about the motivation behind setting up the Sahayata initiative, the rollout plans and what he aims to achieve through this program. Edited  excerpts

Economic Times (ET): What was the motivation behind launching the Sahayata initiative?
Romesh Wadhwani (RW): 
In late February, early March, we saw that there was going to be a major disruption in public health, and immediately following the public health crisis would be an economic crisis. And in the economic crisis, all businesses would be disproportionately affected.

Large businesses have large balances, much greater ability to be resilient and protect themselves from an economic crisis. But most SMEs don’t have that kind of balance sheet, they don’t have the deep reserves of resiliency that allow you to get through the cycles. So we were trying to figure out what was the best way in which the foundation could help businesses to survive and stabilise their business, even in the midst of an economic crisis.

The second part of the initiative was around public health, and then again, we were trying to figure out what we could do to supplement the load of the Indian government and the work of hospitals and clinics, all over the country. We thought we could take advantage of the large capabilities we have in skilling and improving the skills of 1 million Asha workers, Anganwadi workers, nurses aides, and home health workers, by giving them more information, more knowledge in Covid-19 patient care. And to do this at scale we would leverage all the digital platforms we have been creating inside the foundation for the last many years.

A third part of the initiative was innovation. So we thought that by giving innovation grants to highly innovative companies would help them scale up new kinds of technologies to fight Covid-19 or in improving public health.

ET: What kind of impact are you looking at through this program?
As part of the Sahayata initiative, we have three major programs. Sahayata Business Stability program will support up to 10,000 SMEs with business survival, stability and growth consulting—all provided at low cost to help save up to one lakh jobs. Secondly, Sahayata Covid Skilling program will train between 5 lakh to 1 million Aasha workers, Anganwadi workers, nurses’ aides and home-health workers on Covid-19 related patient care leveraging a variety of digital platforms, including our own portal, including WhatsApp. And then thirdly, Sahayata Public Health Innovation program will provide innovation grants to 50 startups to help them accelerate their journey in terms of manufacture of PPE and other technologies that can help improve the public health system in India.

Over the next three years or so, I have committed about Rs 200 crore to the Sahayata initiative. And the reason I mention three years is that I don’t think this problem is going away anytime soon.

ET: How do you plan to activate the Sahayata initiative on the ground?
So, there are two-three different parts to the activation. The first part of the activation is identifying the SMEs, we should be working with to assist them. The government itself does not work directly with SMEs, it works with the SMEs through banks and non banking financial institutions. So we have formed partnerships with SIDBI, IIFL Finance, Clix Capital, Power2SME, and Magma Fincorp, to jointly select the SMEs that will be part of this program. They will help channel the SMEs that are right for us to support.

We can only support 10,000 SMEs with this program. It’s a very, very large number of SMES. We’re trying to find the right mix of small and medium enterprises in different sectors, different parts of India so that we can have a balanced view of the support we provide. But the access to the SMEs will come through these partnerships. That’s one part of the partnership framework. The other side of the framework for us to provide transformation consulting or business survival, stability and growth, we need consultants.

ET: You will need to create an ecosystem of consultants who can work alongside businesses to create meaningful impact for SMEs. At what stage are those plans?
RW: There are two parts to it. On one side, it’s the banks for access to the SMEs and to the selection process, and on the other side, it’s the delivery of the low cost consulting services.

We are forming partnerships with consulting firms. The foundation is planning to partner with KPMG, Deloitte, FlexingIt, GroCurv, and other leading consulting firms like Strategy Garage, Bada Business, VentureBean Consulting, and individual subject matter experts and mentors, to provide 100-150 SME consultants to this Sahayata initiative.

We are also expanding our internal team dedicated to this program to 100 SME business consultants. And we are in the process of interviewing thousands of consultants to fill these positions sometime by August-September this year. And then we have to form partnerships with local and state governments and we are also in the process of doing that.

On the public health support side of the program, we are similarly creating an ecosystem where we will work with a number of government agencies. And we are also ramping up our own internal staff in the area of COVID-19 patient care skilling program.

ET: By when will you unroll the program?
We have been working on all the necessary ingredients for the program for the last 100 days. We are launching the program on August 1. And we will start in August, with the first 50-100 SMEs and we will start training the first 5,000 Asha workers. Then build every month rapidly till, we are adding approximately 500 to 1000 SMEs per month and training 50,000 to 75,000, Asha workers per month.

ET: Have you reached out to the Indian government to collaborate with them for this initiative?
We are keeping the central government informed about what we are doing. They are happy that a private foundation is actually making this kind of commitment in terms of technology and capital to help India at this difficult time. And we are working with the MSME ministry in particular to develop a joint program with them that hopefully will be supportive of the work related to Sahayata.

ET: Indian startup ecosystem has also been impacted by Covid-19 pandemic. Will startups also be part of the Sahayata program?
We are looking at four different segments of companies. Companies that are less than one crore in revenue, Rs 1-Rs 3 crore in revenue, Rs 3-Rs 10 crore in revenue and then Rs 10-Rs 100 crore in revenue. We are trying to serve SMEs at different size levels because the nature of the consulting they need is somewhat different. So we want to make sure that we are designing consulting support models that fit the nature of each of these segments of companies.

ET: How will you use technology to help the SMEs get out of the crisis?
It’s terribly hard to do a program around 10,000 SMEs which is what we are trying to do without use of technology. India is so vast, it’s just not possible…there are millions and millions SMEs of different sizes in India.

So, we have a technology platform, which is our Wadhwani Foundation platform. We have been building it out over the last three or four years, and it’s a platform that’s extremely advanced in its capabilities. And we are also setting up investments in the technology platform to make it a self service platform for SMEs. By January, 2021, our platform will be a fully self-serviced AI powered platform. That will make it possible for SMEs to go directly to that platform and be assisted in terms of thinking about important business issues around survival, stability and growth. And the moment that begins, the next phase of the technology journey begins. Our ability to help companies can grow beyond 10,000 to a much larger number. All empowered by technology. Similarly, on the Covid-19 patients care skilling side of the program. We can’t reach one million Asha workers without technology. So the only way we can reach them is through a combination of YouTube, Whatsapp, and our portal and other government portals. For each of these technology delivery channels, we are creating different kinds of content. So, you have a very sophisticated strategy for the use of technology to have impact at the scale of 1 million healthcare workers.

ET: What do you think of the government’s initiatives on SMEs?
I think they’ve done a terrific job by opening up a very large pool of funds to support the SMEs. But credit by itself is not going to solve the problem because you also have to show these businesses how to work better, how to deal with cash flow issues, deal with market issues when your customers are no longer buying from you, how to deal with supply chain issues.

All of these have been disrupted. So the credit part of this comes from the government. The other part in terms of supporting them, relative to replanning supply chains, rethinking their customer relationships, working on operational issues that have been caused by the economic crisis, that’s what we are trying to do. It’s kind of complementary to what the government is doing.

ET: Are you launching the program only in India or other emerging countries too?
The first launch is in India and immediately after that we are launching in Mexico. Our foundation has its core operations based in India but operations in 20 other countries as well.

Over the last five years particularly we have expanded the foundation to Latin America, South East Asia and Africa. And in those geographies, we are serving 30 countries in Latin America. The two major countries in the region are Mexico and Brazil. The second country after India will be Mexico. And then once we have the program, up and running in Mexico. We will launch in Brazil. Then we will go to countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh and Philippines. And then the countries in Africa.

Source: The Economic Times

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