05/15/2012 12:23 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2012

Green Social Entrepreneurship: A Long View

Forty years ago next month, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi presciently told those gathered in Stockholm for the United Nations' first major conference on the environment that "poverty is the worst form of pollution." Citing the indiscriminate use of firewood for fuel, which had decimated India's forests and denuded the land, she lamented that such an "assault on nature" had become synonymous with progress. "Must there be a conflict," she asked, "between technology and a truly better world?"

If our success over the past decade is any guide, the answer is no. Through our Global Social Benefit Incubator (GSBI), launched in 2003, we've promoted the use of science and technology to better the lives of the bottom four billion, primarily by working with field-based social entrepreneurs throughout the developing world. And since 2009, that work has largely been focused on improving access to clean energy for underserved communities, including those in India.

Indeed, among our many award-winning alumni are "green" organizations like FREED (the Force for Rural Empowerment and Economic Development), a non-profit social enterprise that leverages the growing demand for biofuels to better the lives of India's rural poor. Based in Kolkata, FREED converts agricultural wasteland into productive plantations of jatropha. Hailed as a promising source of clean energy, jatropha can grow in marginal soil with little fertilizer, and in the hopes of reducing their dependence on oil, companies around the world have invested millions of dollars in its cultivation.

Founded in 2010, FREED acquires land from government agencies and corporations and hires local villagers to tend the plantations, training them in new skills and providing them with a sustainable source of income. In addition to strengthening the local economy, the production of biofuel on formerly fallow land can prevent erosion, reduce carbon emissions, and relieve stress on the water table. Gandhi would surely be impressed.

Equally as impressive is the South Africa-based Alternative Energy Development Corporation (AEDC). A for-profit social enterprise, AEDC makes it patented fuel cell technology, a clean power alternative to diesel, available at low cost to residents of the country's rural, off-the-grid townships. In South Africa alone, more than 1.6 million households lack access to electricity, and most still use paraffin candles for light after sunset. Fuel cells, which can deliver uninterrupted power for up to 240 hours, offer a portable, recyclable, non-polluting way to bring electrification to rural communities.

Through AEDC's franchise system of recharging services, customers can access electricity for less than the cost per month of paraffin. They also benefit from the new business and educational opportunities made possible by fuel-cell powered appliances like computers, printers, sewing machines and lights.

In the Northern Cape communities of Magwegwe and Ntswelengwe, for example, school children can now access the Internet through an AEDC fuel-cell powered computer lab. A small building next door houses a de-ionized water plant, an electrolyte mixing station, a store room and a facility for manufacturing new anodes by hand. That process takes as little as 15 minutes and produces wastewater rich in zinc and zinc oxide, which can later be used to improve crop production in the community vegetable garden.

A similar concept is at the heart of re:char. A for-profit social enterprise, re: char empowers subsistence farmers throughout the developing world to enhance their crop yields by providing them with a low-cost soil amendment called biochar. Rendered from farm waste by way of pyrolysis -- an oxygen-starved process originally invented to convert coal into liquid fuel -- that carbon-rich substance can be briquetted and burned just like traditional charcoal.

But biochar can also be buried. Known as black-carbon sequestration, burying biochar enhances agricultural soils, improving crop yields and ensuring that plant carbon can't return to the atmosphere. In doing so, biochar reduces farmers' need for costly chemical fertilizers derived from energy-intensive processes that harm the environment. Using re:char's "Climate Kiln," a small, self-contained pyrolysis system, farmers can save money by producing their own biochar and restore the health of soil damaged from the prolonged use of fertilizers.

One of the most successful "green" organizations we've worked with to date is the non-profit International Development Enterprises -- India (IDE-I). Taking a "market creation" approach to development, IDE-I puts income-generating technologies -- treadle pumps and low-cost drip irrigation systems -- into the hands of India's many impoverished small farmers by investing in the supply chains that connect them to private manufacturers.

In addition to generating some $1 billion in income among the rural poor, this model has allowed farmers to drastically reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. Indeed, by replacing diesel pumps with manual treadle pumps, farmers have cut their diesel consumption by more than 600 million liters, while the use of drip-irrigation systems has saved approximately 5 billion cubic meters of water and more than 700 kWh of electricity.

We're proud to have had the opportunity to help these and many other social enterprises address the problems of poverty with an eye to environmental sustainability. And as we put another Earth Day in the rearview mirror, we would do well to keep Gandhi's Stockholm speech close at hand: "Pollution is not a technical problem," she said. "The fault lies not in science and technology as such but in the sense of values of the contemporary world, which ignores the rights of others and is oblivious of the longer perspective."