If Not Us, Then Who?: Q&A with Mala Subramaniam, CEO of Arghyam
Mala Subramaniam is the CEO of Arghyam, and her work focuses on sustainable participatory water security. At Arghyam, Mala & her team are catalysing an ecosystem of partners to address a key gap of capacity building in the water sector.
Over the last two decades, Arghyam has evolved constantly and dabbled with multiple themes and approaches to water security. Having understood the diversity of problems and solutions in the sector well and also the urgency of acting at scale, they are now focusing on enabling large-scale programs to adopt a “first-mile centric” unified approach.
Would you tell us about Arghyam? What excites you about your role?
Ever since Arghyam was born, it has had this strange DNA: we wanted to remain small but at same time we have wanted to scale yet be close to the ground. In a way, Arghyam has somehow very positively carried a lot of angst and in that angst, given birth to a lot of innovation in the sector.
Arghyam is 15+ years old and it really started off in a way that said, let’s look at what’s available in water, fund people in water, and understand this whole other dimension in water. And that was about two to three years through that process.
The complexity of water was apparent and so the second phase was about can we invest in projects and get an end-to-end understanding of how do we take a problem and solve it? And that included, working with communities, looking at issues which are more first mile, and then building out physical interventions because water security is about creating more storage, more safe storage closer to home. And that’s when we got into a little bit of analytics on how do we spend Arghyam’s money better? How do we leverage what’s already there in the ecosystem?
And so the third phase was being much more systematic and structured in looking at programmatic investments, looking at what are the gaps in the sector, and honing in on groundwater, which we felt was completely under-invested. You know, it’s an invisible resource, and India was water secure in 1950 and food insecure but now we find ourselves water insecure and food secure largely due to the digging for groundwater deeper and deeper, which we know is now unsustainable.
So the third phase was about looking at approaches that can build water security for the communities through groundwater conservation and that led to many interesting things. Like how can Arghyam, a funding organisation, work with a large partner network of NGOs to together influence policy to make groundwater visible, to attach public funds to groundwater, to understand that springs are actually groundwater in the mountains…and so those were the first three phases.
Then there was a great seminal moment about four or five years ago when we sat together with all the partners and said, “Now, all of this work that we, our partners, and others are doing, if we added them all up and sort of take the same approach to the problem on the ground, how long do you think we will take to solve the problem? And the number came to 30,000 years!” And that really was a telling moment..a turning point in terms of looking at a very different order of scale.
30,000 years? Wow, that would be several lifetimes! Around that time is when you intersected with Societal Platform Thinking. Tell us about your early experience.
We realized early that the current operating models are not amenable for the government to scale – they were resource intensive. And that’s when he realized that we have to get involved in execution at scale. But the language of scale was not understood in the same way we understand it today – today we are talking about population scale. We had to get non-linear, and the intersection with Societal Platform, the thing that struck us is that there is a way that we can amplify impact non-linearly.
The early days of that interaction was exhilarating. It gave me a chance to sit down and say how does this translate to some things that we’re seeing on the ground and asking, what is the GPS of water? Soon we realized that no there is no GPS of water and that was disappointing.
This led us to thinking..can we do this? What are we taking on? Do we become a technology company? Do we have to change our DNA? Will we be successful? What is required for us to go from here to there? We could see the end but we didn’t know the steps in between. It can be a lonely place – I can see what will happen five years from now, but what needs to happen now? That was difficult.
What helped was to say, ‘Okay, forget that five year picture. Let’s look at the plus one kind of change that we can make?’ Then the aha moment for us was to even define our mission. So we finally landed on, we will enable the ecosystem. We will not do anything ourselves, but we will enable and catalyze and strengthen the capacity of the ecosystem actors to impact water security for 400 million people. That separation of us from ecosystem actors, doing an enabling that gave us a lot of strength.
What was going on in your mind personally as a leader, going through this ambiguity and unpacking?
So for me personally, I felt like it’s not an option. We have to go through this because business as usual would not be an option. So it was a question of “if not now, then when? If not us, then who?”
It’s not easy to make this kind of change. It’s not easy to find patient capital that would be required. It’s not easy to find an organizational framework that would be amenable for this. And the fact was that we are the most suited, however difficult it is, we may have to take the lead on this.
Could you tell us about your journey of unpacking what scale means for Arghyam?
We realized that it’s better to leverage what is already available. What is the one big problem that we want to solve today? That one big problem we realized was going to be foundational – that was training. You really have to make the people who are being trained available so that they can move on on a cycle, rather than keep going back to square one of the training days.
Both from a training perspective, trainer perspective, program perspective, and a trainee perspective, all angles we felt that what is happening is completely inefficient. So if we could just solve that problem, and make these people visible – the trainers, the trainees, and along with that the content, then we would have created a foundation for solving some of the higher order problems later.
With that clarity, we worked with a partner, Socion, who was able to turn that whole idea to a product and offer this as a service. We realised that if we did just this, it’s probably going to be a game changing for the sector. This was the turning point, finding the plus one. And we said, that’s probably why it will scale, because it’s so simple. And we needed to create a foundation of scale.
On this journey, as you were mobilising this ecosystem, you found resonance in another Societal Platform mission, Project ECHO – tell us about that?
We had been thinking of Project ECHO even before we started to hone in on the build. Because we felt that the idea of moving knowledge not people, which is ECHO’s tagline is exactly what we were dealing with. India has very few water experts, hydrogeologists. So, this was a similar problem we are trying to solve here. So ECHO’s work spoke to us – the remoteness, the kind of barefoot nature of the beneficiaries or the trainees on the other side – we felt there is something here. This whole discipline of peer-to-peer learning, the aspect of respect and teach-all-learn-all really spoke to us.
We needed to increase interactions. We were clear that whatever we do, whether it’s technology or anything else – it has to be first-mile focused, which is really that person in the village who’s managing the community water, barefoot hydrologists – that person is our center in terms of who we want to enable in the first instance.
We had learned that to make a good water security plan it would take anything from 19 to 40 interactions with various people. And at scale, there were no operating models that were allowing for that. So then how do we amplify the interactions? How would we focus on increasing interactions without an increase in resources? How could we bring in different types of experts? This whole idea of pivoting from supply side thinking to demand side thinking..what do the people want, how do you even figure that out, we found that this idea of doing it the ECHO way would be useful for us, so that’s how we started.
We sat in on ECHO sessions trying to understand what is the method in the madness. We tried to code some of that. And then we said – how do we apply, not one-on-one, because health and water are very, very different, but how do we take the salient principles, and then bring it to water and that’s really what we are doing now – keeping the core intact, but really customizing it for water.