Business Case Studies, Executive Interviews, Vivekanadan on Bottom of the Pyramid

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Executive Interviews: Interview with Vivekanadan on Bottom of the Pyramid
November 2008 - By Prema Ramachandran

Former CEO of South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies

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    As far as NDDB was concerned, I had worked with two of my classmates in the NDDB to explore the opportunities to set up fruit and vegetable coops as part of our management training project. It was an exciting project and we really looked forward to the opportunity to work in this new sector. However, our dealings with the NDDB top brass gave me the feeling that NDDB was too much rigid in its thinking on cooperatives andmany of the features of the Anand Pattern cooperatives had become articles of faith and one felt that there will be resistance to new ideas.Much later, Tushaar Shah showed how Anand Pattern has "core" features and "auxiliary" features and NDDB tended to mix up the two and treat all the Anand pattern features as sacrosanct and

    non-negotiable. I thinkmy gut feel has been proved right and NDDB has failed to make a success of its coop intervention in Fruits and Vegetables. SIFFS was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity and I was lucky to land it. It was not that I was the only person who sensed this. Many others in my batch also sensed this. This is reflected in that at least six of us in a batch of 41 (who passed the two year course) applied for the SIFFS job. It included Sanjoy Ghose who was later tragically killed by ULFA. It is not to say that all the six were serious about the job, but still there was recognition that SIFFS represented a special opportunity. Only Suresh Raghavan and me were actually keen on the job. Suresh was actually offered the job and I was wait-listed. He was somewhat uncertain about taking it because he was one of the few married IRMANs and wondered whether it was a risk. The fact that I was keen on the job must have also swayed his decision to decline the offer and let me have the job.

    While SIFFS represented a huge opportunity it was also said to be a high risk venture as it was a start up and the promoters were not well known. However, I did not somehow think too much of the risks. This was because Dr.Kurien himself had recommended the organization to IRMA for designation and was reputed to have visited the first coop of the SIFFS network in the mid 1970s and was said to be friendly to the group of organizers behind SIFFS. In addition, I had the reference of my friend and classmate Suresh who knew some of the SIFFS promoters and had actually encouraged them to recruit an IRMAN.

    With respect to risk, a professional does not necessarily lose if the organization he chooses to work with is not successful. It is the learning and value addition that takes place in the skills and knowledge of the professional that is crucial for his future. So, even if an organization or venture goes under, the professional may come out of it with rich experience and add to his market value. So, the learning potential of an organization is of higher importance than whether its business is likely to succeed or not.

    As far as the salary was concerned, the SIFFS offer was on par with that of NDDB in Anand. So, even salary wise it could not be said that I was making any big sacrifice at that time. Of course, this was not true subsequently. Over the years, SIFFS could not keep up with the extraordinary inflation in salaries of professionals, and my salary has been among the lowest in my batch for quite sometime. But that is a different story. Once you are in a leadership role, then you have to set the example and you cannot allow personal interests to be the determinant of all your decisions.

  • Can you briefly sum up the work done by you in SIFFS for the last 26 years?
    I must start with a caveat that it is difficult to separate out my personal contribution because: (i) as administrative head, I have been involved in almost all activities, but rarely did anything on my own, (ii) many professionals have worked in SIFFS over the years making major contributions and (iii) a number of external resource persons were involved in many of the programs, especially in the earlier years. So, the following list indicates what work SIFFS has done when I was present, rather than something that I can claim personal credit for.

  1. Introduction and commercialization of marine plywood boats as alternatives to country boats for artisanal fishermen on the south west coast
  2. Development of a wide range of boat models in plywood and fiberglass
  3. R&D initiatives in artificial reefs, fishing gear improvements, safety at sea, etc.
  4. Development of a network of 18 boat yards manufacturing marine plywood and fiberglass boats
  5. Direct import of Out Board Motors and spares and running of a network of 25 service stations along the South Indian coast
  6. Organizing primary fish marketing societies and district federations in many parts of South India
  7. Running a microcredit program which is the largest in the fisheries sector in India with a current portfolio size of Rs. 7 cr
  8. Experiments in fish marketing, export, social labeling of fish, etc.
  9. Lobbying and advocacy on many fisheries issues including that of human rights of fishermen in detention for crossing into neighboring waters.
  10. A number of study projects in fisheries
  11. Initiating a community-based fisheries management in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu and Alappad Panchayat of Kerala on an experimental basis
  12. Post tsunami relief and rehabilitation work that includes construction of 2000 houses in Tamil Nadu, distribution of over 700 boats, repair of 1000 boats and 1800 motors. My role in the above activities vary quite a lot, but after the first couple of years in SIFFS, my role has been largely one of constantly scanning the environment for opportunities and to relate them to the objectives and then to develop programs/activities. I have also been the main fundraiser and the one who had the hand on the rudder of the organization steering it past various obstructions, both internal and external

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