The pandemic has spared no industry and sector, including social enterprises and organizations whose focus is on alleviating social inequities. People Matters asked social entrepreneur Dr. Rajiv Bhanot, the founder and CEO of water technology social enterprise H2GO Global, how COVID-19 has affected his company's operations and ability to advance its mission of relieving water poverty in underprivileged communities. Here are the highlights of the conversation.
How have you been keeping your mission on track during these recent months?
When the lockdowns first began, it was quite intense because of the uncertainty—how long would this last, what direction should we take? But it also allowed me the opportunity to take a step back and reflect on how many of the businesses in my portfolio were being run.
And one of the things I realized was that businesses that don't have a strong digital presence are always going to be at a huge disadvantage.
We are a global water technology company, and we've been on the journey to eradicate water poverty for close to a decade now; we've been working in rural communities from all over the world, with a presence in places like South America and Africa, and right now we're working very closely with the government in Bangladesh. And all this is because we've sold our story on a digital platform, used the Internet and social media to reach out to partners all over the world, and these partners have then helped us to grow our technology and reach out to the millions of rural folk in different parts of the world that don't have any access to clean drinking water.
Is the pandemic affecting your operations in other ways, especially the way you're working?
One of the very early decisions that I made was to be very, very clear that we were not going to retrench anybody within the organization. I made it very clear from the start that I would protect everyone's employment, and in exchange I would expect them to continue contributing as much as before.
Working from home was certainly something new to all of us. But by constantly reaching out with my teams I could make sure that everybody was on top of things. I do try to be as flexible as possible, but I also make sure I have a video conference call with my teams every morning, and one of the criteria I stressed on was that I wanted everyone to switch their video on.
When you see people sitting there in person and looking presentable, having taken the time to prepare themselves in the morning, it sets the tone that the workday is going to be a productive one.
The interesting thing was that because digital platforms allow us to work as efficiently from home as we would do working from the office, it reached a point where time became one big blur. It stopped mattering what day of the week it was or what time it was. And I personally found myself working 16, 17, sometimes 18 hours in a day because of time zone differences. I would go from working with partners and associates in the Middle East, to working with clients in Europe, and then late into the night with associates in South America—to be honest, the total working hours that I spent during this time period were a lot more than I would spend during normal times.
Could you share a little about how your business plans have been accelerated as a result?
I spent so much more time with my innovative engineers and designers that we've been able to launch three new water technology products in the next quarter, when we had initially planned to launch these towards the end of the year. Bringing them forward was really about putting our time to a more constructive use while the manufacturing side of things had slowed down.
I also began to notice who among my management team was able to step up at a time like this. I saw many shining stars, but I also did see a few who disappointed expectations.
It's during the crisis, that you really learn about the true quality of people.
And so some of my businesses are going to be built with those individuals who have shown that they can go through a two or three-month period like we've just experienced, and do well.
You mentioned partners and associates around the world: what are you hearing from them?
The thing about this pandemic is that the virus does not discriminate between anyone. Friends of mine who are based in Mexico, Tanzania, Nicaragua, we've all been affected. Many businesses, unfortunately, are not going to be able to sustain themselves long enough to come out of the pandemic. We've come together to try to learn from the initiatives that each other have taken, to figure out how to sustain cash flow—which is the biggest challenge faced by business leaders all over the world now.
And just like it does not discriminate between businesses, the virus does not discriminate between human beings. It's hit Prime Ministers, elite celebrities, billionaires, the poor man on the street. That has also highlighted the massive imbalance in how the world is today. On one hand we talk about reaching new heights in technology and a digital world, on the other hand you've got billions of people living in conditions where they do not have clean water, they do not have food on their table, they do not have basic access to education. Forget about washing and sanitizing your hands, these people are going to sleep with nothing in their stomachs.
Are you seeing any way that we can come out of this situation with some better approach to addressing poverty and need?
You know how the numbers have been reported and presented to us on a daily basis—in Malaysia, every day at six in the evening, everyone can go to their computer or their TV to see the number of new COVID-19 cases and how many deaths have been reported, and the nation rejoices at the fact that the numbers are on the decline. If we could have similar transparency around the way other issues are reported—how many people have died globally from starvation, from not having clean water to drink—I would love to see some of these statistics being reported on a daily basis, so that there is awareness.
With the pandemic that has just happened, people are still in something of a compassionate mode, they are willing to work together and help the less fortunate. We as business leaders are during ordinary times so consumed by our focus on revenue and growth that we never get the opportunity to step back and look at those communities that could benefit so immensely from just a simple act of kindness. It's taken a deadly virus and a pandemic to get people to work together and overcome the issues faced by the underprivileged communities. And we need to hold onto that, build on it, use it to try and make this world better. It would be very, very sad to see the pandemic come and go and everybody just getting back to life as usual.
Most of all, we need to keep that sense of togetherness. If we can come together in our communities—business communities, rural communities, urban communities—I truly believe there is nothing that can't be achieved.