A Fistful of Rice: My Unexpected Quest to End Poverty Through Profitability

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Harvard Business Press, Nov 9, 2010 - Business & Economics - 208 pages
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Around the globe, poverty has held too many people in its grip for too long. While microfinance - small loans to impoverished individuals - initially attracted attention in the press, it didn't achieve the scale, scope, and profitability necessary to substantially combat poverty. All that changed with Vikram Akula's creation of SKS Microfinance.

In this highly personal narrative, A Fistful of Rice, Akula reveals how he pieced together the best of both philanthropy and (to his surprise) capitalism to help millions of India's poor transition from paupers to customers to business owners.

As thoughtful as Barack Obama's personal journey in Dreams from My Father, as harrowing as Paul Farmer's battle against infectious disease in Mountains Beyond Mountains, and as gripping as Greg Mortensen's fight for education in Three Cups of Tea, Akula's story shows how traditional business principles can be brought to bear on global problems in new ways.

A Fistful of Rice offers not only inspiration but also lessons for anyone seeking to transform tenacity, creativity, and innovation into potent tools for fighting even the most seemingly intractable human burdens.

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User Review  - tjsjohanna - LibraryThing

I found this book inspiring primarily because Mr. Akula has been able to see a need and do something about it. I admire his ability to get in there and find solutions and also that he's been able to ... Read full review

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If you want to do well by doing good, then take a leaf out of Vikram Akula's book.
Akula, whose parents emigrated to the US in 1970 when he was two years old, worked in remote Indian villages as an
idealistic graduate student before going on in 1998 to found SKS Microfinance, which provides small loans and other financial services to poor people in India. He tells his fascinating and inspirational story in A Fistful of Rice, published earlier this year.
A Fistful of Rice is fascinating because in compelling language it introduces the lay reader to a subject that most would not have much interest in: development work. And it is inspirational because Akula shows how well-meaning — and driven — people can transform for the better the lives of those less fortunate than they are.
Akula says he knew as a teenager, after having made several visits to Hyderabad, his hometown, that this is what he wanted to do. He writes in A Fistful of Rice:
"When I enrolled at Tufts University at seventeen, I began thinking in earnest about how to help India's poor. I devoured the works of the great philosophers, searching for clues on how to live my life and make a difference in the lives of others."
And after he graduated, Akula says, he was excited to get out into the world and test his theories. He writes:
"At long last, it was time to go to India and start working with the poor! The only problem was, I had no idea what I might do there, or who would hire a fresh-faced college graduate like me. And in those pre-Internet days, these questions were far more difficult to answer."
But Akula did not let this "problem" deter him:
"I went to the women's center on campus, knowing that groups working specifically with women were more progressive. I began flipping through magazines in hopes of finding a nonprofit located in drought-prone Telangana, the impoverished region of my birth. Because I spoke rudimentary Telugu and had family there, I figured that would be the best place to start. Unfortunately, there weren't as many options there as in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, or Kolkata, but eventually I tracked down the contact information for a few nonprofits. I sent off a raft of letters and waited.
"Only one organization, the Deccan Development Society [DDS], responded. And even their letter was decidedly lukewarm. The director, a man named Biksham Gujja, basically said, 'Okay, if you come here we'll meet with you, but we're not promising anything.' "
But this was good enough for Akula:
"Relieved to have gotten a reply, and determined to convince Biksham to hire me, I bought a one-way plane ticket to Hyderabad and packed a single gym bag with clothes. I wanted to travel like Mahatma Gandhi — no unnecessary attachments, no excess of material goods."
And so Akula comes to India, begins working with the poor as a volunteer, is hired by DDS, learns what it means to work in development, and finally, after a two-week training session in Bangladesh with Grameen, founded by the pioneer of microfinance, Muhammad Yunus, starts his own organisation, SKS, for Swayam Krishi Sangam, "a Sanskrit phrase meaning 'self-work society', or more loosely, 'self-help-society'."
In later chapters, Akula, who was named by Time magazine in 2006 as one of the world's 100 most influential people, describes in moving detail the challenges he and his inexperienced team face. Today SKS, which unlike most NGOs is a for-profit organisation (read the book to understand the reasons for this), has moved beyond giving microloans. "We're also able to offer our members social, educational, and health benefits," writes Akula.
Vikram Akula's tale proves that initiative, enterprise, and enthusiasm aligned with a desire to help underprivileged people can help to combat poverty. It also proves that you can do well by doing good.


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About the author (2010)

Vikram Akula is the founder and chair of SKS Microfinance. In 2006, Time magazine named him one of the world's 100 most influential people. He has received several awards, including the World Economic Young Global Leader (2008), the Schwab Social Entrepreneur of the Year in India (2006), and the Ernst & Young Start-Up Entrepreneur of the Year in India (2006). He has been profiled in media ranging from CNN to the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

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