Feature stories

Jaipur Foot: Partnering Technology and Social Entrepreneurship

Social Entrepreneurs are now equal partners with the private and public sectors in engendering "Inclusive Growth" that engages, enables and empowers the poor. They combine the conscience of social activists, the public service delivery mission of the public sector, and the efficiency of the private sector. The Development Marketplace works with social entrepreneurs and funders of social entrepreneurs to surface and invest in a range of scalable and financially-viable business models. In addition to the Jaipur Foot example below, the Development Marketplace is preparing similar case studies on other types of business models, such as fee for service models, cross-subsidy models, for-profit models, and debt & equity funded models.

"The minute you start instituting a charge for your service, the most vulnerable populations are the first sector of society to be marginalised, and it's precisely this sector of society you wish to serve the most," explained Devendra Raj Mehta of Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti (BMVSS), the world's largest limb fitting organisation based in India.

Under this umbrella organization, Mehta, a graduate of the Sloan School of Management at MIT in the United States, heads the Jaipur Foot team, which provides world-class artificial limbs, rehabilitation aids and other appliances to physically-challenged individuals below the poverty line, and at no cost to the beneficiary. Not even one Rupee, ever.

Affordable and Comfortable

Their $45 ultramodern prosthetic is unmatched when compared to a similar $12,000 limb produced in the United States. The beauty of the Jaipur Foot is its lightness and mobility, as those who wear it can run, climb trees and pedal bicycles. Their knee replacement developed in cooperation with Stanford University costs a mere $20, and was named one of the 50 best inventions in the world by Time Magazine.

"That's quite an achievement for an NGO," reflected Mehta. "Too often the NGO sector relies solely on sentiment. We need to marry sentiment with science." The Jaipur Knee is made of self-lubricating, oil-filled nylon and is both flexible and stable, even on irregular terrain. Comparable devices include a titanium replacement, which can cost US$10,000 or more.

"Lives are instantly changed, and to witness such transformation is an experience like none other."
— Devendra Raj Mehta of Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti
As a non-profit social enterprise staffing 20 centers across India and servicing 65,000 patients each year, 20,000 of whom require new feet and leg replacements while the remaining 45,000 require crutches, wheelchairs, hand-peddled tricycles and other aids, Jaipur Foot is not only a global leader in prosthetic science, production and manufacturing, but also surgical in its fiscal discipline.

Founded in 1975 with less than US$10,000, Jaipur Foot is now operating with an annual budget of US$3.5M, and about 60% funded by donations, 30% is government support and the remaining 10% is earned income on the corpus built over time. With overhead costs hovering at 4%, an extraordinary low percentage considering the non-profit industry at large hovers at 20%, Mehta has proven that his organisation spends each and every dollar mindful of its source. "From the beginning, I instituted a culture that did not allow the use of funds for any other purpose than our core objective. I did not even serve tea during our meetings, and tea costs two cents in India," stated Mehta. "I believe that if I divert even one penny to an activity other than serving the poorest of the poor, I am committing a moral sin and a legal wrong."

From Public Service to Serving the Public

As an Indian civil servant for nearly 40 years, Mehta has held such positions as the Deputy Governor of the Indian Reserve Bank and Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI among several other high-profile posts. Mehta explained that his tenure in public service conditioned him to be accountable. "For government grants to Jaipur Foot, we detail an Excel spreadsheet that spans 17 columns of information about our patients, including their signature and thumbprint. This is not our money, and therefore it is our duty to be absolutely accountable for these funds, or we might not receive them again," continued Mehta.

Therefore, the backbone of the organisation's steady growth is clearly rooted in rigid expenditure policies and cent-by-cent accounting, coupled with a suite of incredibly cheap, world-renown prosthetics, aids and appliances. The two go hand in hand, or in this case, foot in foot.

In 1975, during their first year of operation, the Jaipur Foot team fitted 59 limbs. Today, nearly 400,000 people have such limbs fitted. In addition, there are mobile clinics setup in 26 countries around the world, including the war torn regions of Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan. "You will find the Jaipur footprint in the most difficult places on earth," asserted Mehta. Setting up a mobile clinic in Libya is currently being considered.

Dow Chemicals, one of Jaipur Foot's largest corporate donors, contributes $250,000 per year, or 5,000 limbs, as Mehta likes to analogise, but despite such success, funding still remains the organization's largest challenge. "At the current setup in Jaipur, we have the capacity to fit 10,000 more limbs each year, but we lack the funding to fulfill that capacity," said Mehta. "Because of this challenge, I'm the biggest beggar in India."

Mehta recalled a telephone call he received from an individual abroad who wished to donate US$10,000. Refusing the donation, Mehta explained that he did not accept such large gifts from individuals who have not yet witnessed the operation in action, and he invited the donor to view their facility in India. After witnessing firsthand individuals limping in one day and walking out the next for a meager $45, a check was written for US$20,000—double the original intention. "Seeing is believing," said Mehta. "Lives are instantly changed, and to witness such transformation is an experience like none other."

While a pioneer in prosthetics, and having served more than 1.2 million individuals to date, Jaipur Foot is much more than an organisation that fits high-quality limbs at zero cost to those living in poverty. "We wish to restore and advance the human dignity and self-respect of those we serve," stated Mehta. "And simply put, doing good to others is my religion."