Incubator for a Sustainable Local Economy-Ecology (ISLE)

What is the idea?

Our ecologically sensitive regions cannot be conserved and protected without the help of local communities, their livelihoods, and their well-being. Very often, local communities see that there is no local economy that can create well-being and livelihoods for them and they engage in 1. Migration to urban areas to make a living, and 2. Selling land (that was otherwise part of an ecologically rich landscape) to urbanites or the real estate industry to create wealth for themselves. Forest goods like timber may also be sold in an unsustainable way. These in turn create ecological destruction over the long term as there is no local stewardship and pride in maintaining local natural resources. 

The proposed incubator should be physically in such a region with have market connections to urban centers. It should promote ecological entrepreneurship, agro-forestry, horticulture, organic farming, organic dairy, simple eco-tourism, etc. Local youth, housewives, and farmers could generate supplementary income through such opportunities and raise their annual income. The key factor is such businesses will develop a deep sense of ownership of local natural resources and their health, resulting in long-term stewardship. 

Will the incubator be dependent on urban centers to generate income?

Yes, but only partly. To the extent possible, such incubators or other local economic vehicles should follow J. C. Kumarappa’s principles of economy of permanence. i.e. they should produce-sell-buy from & to local businesses and consumers and that too in a sustainable way. However it is a given that in a highly integrated national economy of today, some dependence will exist on the nearest urban centers.

How is this different from a regular venture incubator found in our cities?

It is true that India already has 500+ “venture incubators”. The concept of a “venture” or “start-up” is an enterprise that will raise multiple rounds of capital, scale ideally to national markets, lead it’s market, even become a monopoly if possible, list on stock exchanges or get acquired by a bigger fish, and create wealth for promoters and investors. Businesses incubated at an ISLE will aspire to do none of the above. In fact they should deny external venture capital or loans and not aim to “scale” or “go national”. The reason is: Any pursuit of scale, especially under the pressure to generate returns of capital, will lead to an unsustainable model w.r.t natural resources and in the long term will cause ecological destruction. This defeats the very purpose of sustainable development. 

They may raise very small amounts of capital (if at all) largely from grants or local self-help groups and build small but sustainable businesses that focus on livelihoods, well-being, multiple sources of income, all largely from the local economy. Many of the business ideas and processes should be open-sourced so that others can build similar local businesses in other ecologically-sensitive regions. 

How to get an ISLE going?

Local youth and panchayats should take the lead in this and raise support, know-how, and grants, and volunteer help from central/state government, academic institutions, corporations, and urban experts and volunteers. Such incubators should become long term assets to the local community, remain transparent in their objectives/processes, be fair to all stakeholders, and stay detached from local politics.