Village people

Last month, Unilever's global leader of innovation process development took a public oath in his home village of Nai Nangla that he would dedicate the rest of his life to making the world a better place. Mehmood Khan left the multinational at the start of August, returning to India to focus on innovation of a different kind.

Over the past five years, Khan has brought together government, NGOs and businesses to make huge changes to life in Mewat, the district where he grew up. Though only a couple of hours from Delhi, Mewat suffered from high levels of illiteracy and unemployment. In 2005, 2 per cent of girls attended school; now 85 per cent of children aged 6-14 are in education.

Khan has forged connections between Mewat and big business to provide employment. A year ago, Aviva, the UK's biggest insurer, was looking to build its rural presence in India. Khan's trust connected the company with 60 local young people and 12 were ultimately recruited. "It's a cycle that generates money . . . Aviva hired some people whose income went up . . . This creates a market economy," Khan told Forbes.

Education is, of course, vital to creating jobs - and consumers. Khan says that "multinational and large domestic companies are considering [employing] rural talent, provided they have basic skills in English and computing." Working with Genpact, a global business services provider, he has set up a computer centre in Nai Nangla. ICICI Bank has recruited 16 of the 30 villagers trained in the first intake. Khan has also engaged charities and NGOs to administer literacy programmes.

Large companies are increasingly dependent on developing and emerging markets for growth. According to the website for Shakti, Hindustan Unilever's own development programme, one in eight people on the planet lives in an Indian village. The programme, which acts as both a way out of poverty for women in rural India and a "crucial new distribution channel for Unilever", aims to reach an amazing 600 million low-spending consumers by 2010.

Can - and should - companies' role in meeting basic needs be kept distinct from their desire to create new consumers? For Khan, the two can work together. "If large companies wish to grow, they have to play an active role in market creation. In Mewat 75 per cent of the people are below 18 years of age. The area has acute poverty. Should the companies wait for the region to become rich and then serve, or should they work in communities in helping to grow the pie, and then everybody gains?"

Khan is acting as an individual from a sense of commitment to the village where he grew up. But if big business scents a link between alleviating poverty and creating new customers, could market-driven social responsibility make a difference to the likes of Mewat?

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The next 100 years