Of development and dialogue


Alys Francis profiles four young people working in the India space to keep an eye on

Groundbreaking research into India and exciting ventures to help the poorest of the poor are happening all the time, but most of it ticks along quietly, unreported by mainstream press.

But who has the time to trawl through a hundred websites to find out what’s happening and who’s doing what?

Thankfully you don’t have to.

You can get a taste by checking out our pick of the most interesting young entrepreneurs who attended the third Australian India Youth Dialogue.

The annual dialogue brings together 30 young professionals and community leaders from Australia and India, and took place in India at the end of January.


Chris O’Neill

Works: Director at Hydronumerics

Studied: Environmental Engineering and Commerce, double major in Finance and Economics

Chris is an expert in the thing we least like to think about that is most crucial to our survival and health: wastewater.

Having grown up in Werribee South, he spent more than 12 years working in the industry in Australia and overseas before bumping into the director of Hydronumerics in Kuala Lumpur in 2009. He was quickly blown away by the cutting edge work the company was doing using the latest 3D modelling techniques, and signed up to work for them.

The 33-year-old visited India for the first time in 2012 as part of a Victorian government trade mission, and now makes regular trips for work.

What is Hydronumerics doing in India?

The company is working with a cooperative in Gujarat, assessing the environmental impacts of ocean outfalls from wastewater treatment plants and has started discussions with Rajasthan villages to develop sustainable, low-cost water management tools and techniques.

What have you learnt about India since working with Hydronumerics?

The atmosphere walking down the street in India is awesome, and something I really miss when I come back to Australia. Here you don’t get street-vendors, hawkers, boot-makers, hair-dressers and snake charmers jammed into tiny streets with autos, cars and everything in between happily going about their daily business.

The most unexpected thing I’ve learnt is how alike we are. We have so many common interests (even beyond beating the Poms at cricket!) we share a common legal system, have similar water management practices and have similar can-do attitudes.

What are the biggest misconceptions about India?

We don’t understand just how cosmopolitan India is. Take a walk down any city street in India and you will see people jostling for the best table at the hottest café, wearing designer threads and eyes glued to their smart-phone, rickshaw drivers stopped for a quick chai, and groups of women wearing any number of regional variation on the sari – you realise just how rich the fabric of contemporary India is.

Most Australians probably don’t realise just how much the Indian landscape reflects our own. India boasts barren desserts, steamy rainforests and ultra-modern urban spaces that could be dropped into any city in the world. We certainly don’t have a full appreciation of the tourism opportunities – we need to look beyond the ‘golden-triangle’.

What did you learn from AIYD?

The biggest highlight for me was taking stock of all the amazing things people are doing in both countries, whether it’s in trade or commerce, the development sector and in arts and culture.

What are your career aspirations?

My goal is that Hydonumerics will have a self-managed, sustainable business in India before 2020, led by my Indian scientists and engineers and servicing the domestic and pan-Asian markets, with links back to our Australian base.

I’m really passionate about getting our business involved in more aid and development projects where we can make an impact to local well being. We’re always on the look-out for suggestions!

Monique Alfris

Works: Pollinate Energy co-founder

Studied: Photovoltaics (Solar) Engineering, masters of International Business

Monique makes the buildings people live and work in better — better to live in and better for the environment.

The 30-year-old has worked on building projects across the globe and spent two years developing renewable energy loans for microfinance organisations in Asia.

Eventually she made a field trip to India and discovered thousands upon thousands of people live in urban slums without access to electricity, and so the idea for Pollinate Energy was born.

The ‘social business’ gives India’s poorest people access to solar lights and stoves, and has so far helped more than 10,000 individuals.

What have you learnt about India since living here?

Something unusual is how entrepreneurial people in Bangalore are! Everyone I speak to is doing something on the side, or has some amazing start up project they are working on!

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about India?

Everyone thinks that all Indians are yoga gurus — this is not true! 🙂

What are your career aspirations?

I hope to be able to reach many more urban slum communities with a range of services. Our aim is to reach a million people across India.

Danielle Rajendram

Works: Research Associate in the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute

Studied: International Studies majoring in Asian Studies and a master of International Law

Danielle spends her days researching simmering tensions along the India-China border, political maneuvering in the Indian Ocean and the occasional upset with an Indian Foreign Service officer in the US.

The 25-year-old spent a year studying international relations and Japanese language in Tokyo before landing a gig as a researcher at one of the most prestigious think tanks in Australia, the Lowy Institute.

What was your first experience involving India?

When I was 18 I spent  six months travelling around Asia, two of which were spent in India. This was my first experience of India, and when I first became fascinated with the country.

What are some of the most unexpected things you have learnt about India since researching the country for Lowy?

One thing I am always struck by when I travel to India is the level of engagement with politics and foreign policy across the board. It’s very heartening to see how engaged ordinary people are with the political system.

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about India?

Many Australians don’t have a strong awareness or understanding of India’s potential as a rising strategic power.

How was your time in India for the AIYD?

I had a fantastic time in India for the AIYD. It’s a great initiative that provides a really valuable forum for young people with an interest in India the opportunity to interact with one another. Aside from opportunities to interact with speakers, I learnt a lot from the diverse experience of the delegates themselves.

Julian O’Shea

Works: director Engineers Without Borders Institute

Studied: Engineering

Julian uses his technical knowhow as an engineer to help poor, developing communities around the world.

The 29-year-old’s efforts in humanitarian engineering saw him named Young South Australian of the Year and one of Australia’s 15 Most Inspiring Engineers, while he has also been awarded a Pearson Fellowship for Social Innovation.

As a director at Engineers Without Borders Institute (the education, research and training division of the not for profit) he connects Aussie professionals and students to sustainable community development projects going on around the world.

What is Engineers Without Borders doing in India?

India is one of the key countries that EWB works in, primarily on sustainability and poverty alleviation projects. We work with local community groups to bridge the cultural gap and ensure the work aligns with the goals and aspirations of local people. Projects to date include: waste management — including bio-digestion and sustainable energy production, access to clean water and sanitation, and sustainable school design.

What have you have learnt about India since working there?

Understanding the size of the country. With a population orders of magnitude above our own, understanding the enormous challenges and opportunities is at a scale that is bigger than anything here in Australia.

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about India?

That there is one India. It is an incredibly diverse country from food to fashion; religions and languages; culture and communities. I think you could spend a lifetime there and still have so much more to see and learn.

What did you learn from AIYD?

My major takeaway was that there is both the will and opportunities for Australia and India to have greater engagement in a range of sectors. Of note, people-to-people connections can have the most impact, so we can get started right away.

What are your career aspirations?

I have a strong interest in the role of technology in development. This makes India a fascinating place to work — with a strong engineering and technology sector and rapid and significant transformation underway.

Published in The Indian Sun (Indian Australian Magazine)

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