Mehmood Khan disguises his revolutionary tendencies well. His 12th-storey penthouse is perched high above the exclusive area of Gurgaon, just outside Delhi, and it is full of books, mementoes and collectables from his years travelling around the globe as head of innovation at Unilever.
Many of the items mark Khan’s journey as one of capitalism’s shock troops, opening up countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam as they began to embrace the market economy.
Khan brought the delights of Lux soap and Brooke Bond tea to these countries, and behind such innocent pleasures he took with him the infrastructure of consumer capitalism: advertising agencies, market research companies, supply chains and beauty pageants for Miss Lux.
A maid appears with tea, which is set down on a low table. We then walk out on to the top terrace to admire the view over a small park in a sea of concrete. Thirty years ago, the landscape would have consisted of mustard fields stretching into the distance; now the view is of roads and tower blocks that have expanded from Delhi, absorbed Gurgaon, and gone racing off into the hazy distance.
Such growth has brought benefits. Gurgaon now has a variety of restaurants, shops and theatres within walking distance – although, given the extreme heat, no one chooses to walk when you can use a car.
Khan’s six-room penthouse, which he bought during a slump seven years ago when the previous owner had financial difficulties, has been a sound investment, with its value having increased probably sevenfold – Khan agrees that it is now worth more than £1m. Given that average gross domestic product per head in India is about $1,500 a year, it is clearly not an average sort of home.
And it is just one of five that Khan owns, including residences in the UK, US, and Mongolia, where his wife, Sanobar, has a business. However, the apartment’s interior is understated: homely, rather than designer.
The view has special meaning for Khan: this land was where his ancestors were based. When asked about family history, most people go back one or two generations. Khan claims to be able to trace his lineage back 3,500 years to the Hindu deity Lord Krishna. DNA testing shows that Khan is of Meo stock. The Meo occupied 1,200 villages around Delhi at the time of Lord Krishna and are said to have provided one of his eight wives.
Khan’s family converted to Islam in the late 12th century, when northern India was under Afghan rule. “But of course,” he says, “my recent history really starts in 1447.” This is when his home village of Nai Nangla was set up by his ancestor Naru. Khan is 18th in line from Naru.
His family has seen empires come and go. The British made the biggest impact: they decided to build New Delhi in the early 20th century on the site of the Meo homeland, and the people were offered Rs35 per bigha (equivalent to about $500 per sq km) for their tribal lands. It was the sort of offer they could not refuse.
Khan’s tribal homelands are now under even more threat. Population growth, environmental degradation and poor education mean that the new generation has worse prospects than he had. Although there was no school in Khan’s village when he was a child, he was able to walk to one in a neighbouring village. He learnt science, went to university and found his way to Brooke Bond and Unilever. Now the local children are not even taught science, and do not have the opportunities that he once enjoyed.
Khan is not one to shirk a challenge. At Unilever he was responsible for taking on regional power barons, putting in place a global supply chain and fostering global integration. The threat to his villages is personal, but he is bringing all his business experience to bear; he is attempting nothing less than a revolution in development to turn the tide of poverty.
The scale of the challenge is huge. The local population has increased fourfold in 40 years and the land cannot cope. The forests have largely disappeared and water is becoming scarce. When Khan was a child, wells were about 10ft deep. They now descend to 250ft, and the water table is going down by between 5ft and 10ft each year. There are not enough jobs and there is not enough energy. And Khan is dismissive of the “green” revolution that destroyed the land in the Punjab through the overuse of fertiliser and pesticides.
As we tour a series of simply furnished, cream-painted rooms, Khan quietly explains what needs to be done to change society. It is easy to see how he would gently seduce ex-communist officials into accepting a capitalist system. As with all revolutions, he wants to change everything. His revolutionary vehicle is his charity, the Rasuli Kanwar Khan Trust. Its goal is to transform rural India by innovating and taking risks that no one else will attempt.
Khan is experimenting with ways to turn brackish water into clean drinking water. The technology, based on plant enzymes, is still unproven, but if it works, it will have global implications for anywhere with poor or dirty water supplies.
To bring jobs to Mewat, his homeland, he is equipping villages with the training, machines and fabric for garment making. This means that female workers do not get displaced into huge factories and can still maintain their home life. He is moving beyond microfinance to create “participatory finance”. Each block of 50 villages will set up a producer company with 1,000 members each contributing Rs1,000 ($18), and they will share the risk and the profit while benefiting from the economies of scale in sourcing and selling. He is even creating energy by feeding dung and slurry to earth worms: the gas creates the energy, and the remains create high-quality compost. And he is supporting education by introducing a scheme under which unemployed young adults teach children, under trees if necessary. Literacy in the villages has risen from less than 23 per cent in 2003 to nearly 95 per cent, according to Khan.
Water, energy, education, factories and finance – and the suspicion is that Khan has only just started. He does not want partial solutions: he wants to change society. Khan is someone who makes things happen; he is no academic at the top of an ivory tower. Which means he has the most spectacularly inappropriate address: the Penthouse, Ivory Towers.
Jo Owen is author of ‘Tribal Business School’ (John Wiley & Sons, £16.99) and ‘How to Lead’ (Pearson Business, £12.99)