As MBA entrepreneurs ponder over what business idea to sink their money, sweat and hearts into, I have a suggestion to make. Build a product or service that leverages humans’ most powerful sentiment: nostalgia.
Backed by time
The two most famous and most-used apps on any smartphone today are Facebook and WhatsApp. The underlying business model for both is that they connect people largely through historical relationships and nostalgia.
WhatsApp, in particular, is powerful at exploiting this feeling. It is why we jump at the chance of joining a high school alumni group, although we may have nothing in common with the group members anymore.
An idea that has strong potential along this line of thinking is to run camps for children in self-sustaining farming environments in the Indian countryside. It brings back nostalgia to Indian families from the big cities who are tired of rapid and never-ending urbanisation. It also provides an escape to the lives of their children; children, who are otherwise trapped by western consumerism on a 24 x 7 basis.
Learning from Israel
In Israel, such a farming environment is called a Kibbutz, which simply means group in Hebrew. According to the Kibbutz Program Center, today’s kibbutzim are not just based on agriculture but have branched out to make a wide variety of products including electronics, furniture, household appliances, farm machinery and irrigation systems.
When I lived in Israel in the late 1990s and travelled the country during weekends, I was amazed to see these farms scattered around the hinterland. Some were located in the Judaen desert, by the Ein Gadi oasis, which gives the valley a splash of green in an otherwise endless ochre expanse of sand and rock.
Others were located close to the Sea of Galilee, a large freshwater lake. Many members of the Kibbutz were children from the US and Western Europe, spending an entire summer at these camps. Today, some 270 kibbutzim, varying in size from 80 to over 2,000 people, are scattered throughout the country, hosting children from Israeli and Jewish diaspora families worldwide.
Back to roots
These children learn about life the way ancestral Jews did. They are trained in the art of farming including growing vegetables and fruits, and taking care of farm animals. They assist cooks in preparing meals in kosher kitchens and serve food to workers at the Kibbutz. Hebrew is the only language allowed to be spoken, so they are forced to learn the ancient dialect.
There may be games and recreational activities but they’re all centred around the concept of a self-sustaining ecological system which cares for the environment. The relative affluence of a child back in the West is of no concern to the Kibbutz community — on the farm, everyone is equal.
Cut to India
India’s budding entrepreneurs have so many opportunities to build on the idea of Israel’s kibbutzim. About 30 km into a train ride from Bengaluru to Chennai, India’s rural scene vividly opens up to anyone looking out the window. Huts and settlements are in full display as local villagers are seen ploughing the land or preparing bales of hay for the cattle to feed on.
The only heavy traffic is the occasional bullock cart or tractor, with light traffic relegated to bicycles and two-wheelers carrying multiple passengers. This scene plays out every day, not just on the Bengalaru-Chennai sector but a few kilometres from every major train station in India. There’s no sign of authority — no rules, no police or no government buildings. Life, in India’s villages, just goes on — as it has been going on for thousands of years.
To these village folk, today’s big-city-educated children would seem like creatures from another planet. City kids have limited attention spans, are incapable of a few hours of hard labour and disconnected from the travails of the Indian farmer.
Many children would not be able to converse in the language of the local farmer without inserting English words and phrases into the exchange. And without constant access to the internet, they would be lost, rolling their eyes in exasperation.
Start a Gurukul
This is where our entrepreneur can come in. He/she can build a safe and healthy Indian Kibbutz (call it a Gurukul, maybe) where Indian children can be taken back in time.
They should be taught to work and live off the land, help the local farmer till it and pick a harvest in a sort of internship that will last an entire summer, perhaps longer. Children can then learn first-hand about the environment and the sustenance choices an Indian farmer is forced to make every day, balancing scarce resources to grow his crops.
Back at the hutment, children can be taught the values of our culture — language, music or arts. One of the main objectives of the Israeli Kibbutz is to teach Hebrew, and Gurukul should be no different. Within a short time, children will be forced to communicate with each other in an Indian language without any devices to assist normal human interaction.
Keep it bare
However, the entrepreneur must resist every temptation to make the hutment a 5-star dwelling. Bengaluru already sports a village-themed luxury park, where children can buy ice-cream cones and pizza for lunch. We’re not talking about that.
We are talking here about a genuine and real experience of simple living. Indoor plumbing and basic hostel-like accommodation is sufficient. A playground and a library are essential but all other luxuries must be out — particularly electronics (TV, Internet), which must be banned. The idea is, in part, to wean addicted children away from screens.
Farming — the true backbone
Indians have the highest numbers of diaspora worldwide and share large similarities with the global Israeli diaspora. First generation children born to Indian families abroad have little connection with India or its rich heritage. Many children raised in the big Indian cities too have little connection with the rural landscape which forms the true backbone of the nation.
The Kibbutz-inspired Indian Gurukul could well become the vehicle that takes children back in time in a meaningful manner that can be created nowhere else. That is a powerful attraction which will motivate thousands of Indian families to commit their children to the experience.
And when well executed, these Gurukuls can become a resounding commercial success.