The World We Want To Live In

Joseph Fernandez
7 min readJan 1, 2022
The kanthari campus drone view image courtesy: kanthari institute

It is a perfect day in December 2021.

And I am at kanthari, watching 16 of the world’s newest change makers from 8 countries step up to the spotlight to receive their certificates. kanthari in Trivandrum, Kerala, India, offers a 12 month, scholarship based leadership program for visionaries who have overcome adversity and who are keen to drive ethical social change anywhere in the world.

A Story of Origins
On any kanthari day, you will meet some of the most inspiring and courageous people that you will ever meet on the frontiers of social change, at their verdant campus on the shores of the Vellayani lake near Trivandrum. The kanthari campus is an amazing work space and designed in an earth-friendly way as a living space, a collaboration zone and as an energy pioneer.

HUDCO — India’s Housing and Urban Development Corporation — chose kanthari as India’s second greenest campus in 2013. So before we begin, you really need to check out kanthari’s awesome campus:

Amazing, isn’t it?!

Back to that perfect December day. On stage, are the kanthari founders Sabriye Tenberken and Paul Kronenberg handing out certificates to the kanthari participant of the moment. A personal testimony and a community tribute accompany each kanthari participants as they step into the spotlight. A gently perceptible breeze from the Vellayani lake in Trivandrum, Kerala, South India adds to the ebb and sway of the certification ceremony as 15 other batchmates cheer loudly for their social change makers in the spotlight.

Resilience beyond Adversity
Year 2021 was a year like no other. In a season of incredible adversity, shut borders and lockdowns, 16 of them made it here from 8 emerging countries of the world to participate in what is now considered to be an iconic experiential learning program that has borne tremendous results for NGOs around the world.

And, how do I know this?

Well, long story short, I have shared the kanthari journey since day 1 when it began as the fledgling International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs IISE back in 2009. Back then, I learned the nuances of the kanthari language. I have shared their journey as catalyst facilitating their communications program. What this means is that I have taught all of them and I know them — all of them. Here is a throwback video of kanthari in its early days as IISE:

In the Vision film, you heard kanthari co-founder Sabriye Tenberken envision social change projects around the world. That vision more than came true. Speaking for this vision during the writing of this story, kanthari co-founder Paul Kronenberg had this to say: “How the world has been developing has shown that many more change makers are required to instill a new hope in the generations to come!…Simply imagine what kind of world we could have, If only humanity would start to use its talents and focus on constructive instead of destructive actions!…We will keep on going and hope that we can add our little part in the years to come!”

A Decade for Community

Our new decade — the 2020s — has been marked by the specters of COVID-19, Climate Change and Conflict, to which the global response has been the emergence of Community (rooted in the Latin word Communitas — Public Spirit). This decade will see the post pandemic surge towards community in real life and online environments.

In the circle of human history, we are coming to the close of the Industrial age that began 1850s which led to the corporatization of our world, being led by large business corporations and companies. Today, the three Cs of this decade: COVID-19, Climate Change and Conflict to the setup of self-sustaining communities that are focused on sharing and growth. This decade marks the coming together of people, communities and countries to face the problems of COVID-19, Climate Change and Conflict.

The pandemic months have shown use that communities are built on purpose: a shared belief in the future. They contribute to the world around them through value: a measurable contribution to the world. Communities that successfully combine energy and growth with purpose. They will see the coming together of arts, business, culture, science and technology.

Vellayani Lake Aerial Image: Joseph Fernandez

The kanthari experience has been a life transforming experience for me — learning about our world’s biggest challenges and how these resilient men and women work across countries to make a spicy difference in the world. Spicy difference? That’s a great place to start understanding kanthari leadership institute on the shores of Lake Vellayani in Trivandrum. It is ideally situated near the verdant sprawl of Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala.

A Chilli for Inspiration

The name ‘kanthari’ (aka ‘birds eye chilli’ or ‘peri peri’) has a fascinating story attached to it. In Sabriye’s words: “Kanthari”… is a special type of chili that grows wild everywhere in Kerala, South India. It is small and harmless in appearance, but incredibly spicy and fiery if you taste it. In addition, it has many medicinal properties, it purifies your blood, it lowers blood pressure and it makes you awake better than the strongest coffee can. The Kanthari grows wild in the backyards. You don’t need to plant and care for it, it sows itself (It is also called a bird’s eye chili and the seeds are spread by birds). If it manages to grow roots, it will survive droughts and floods”.

“That was what we had been looking for, for a long time! A perfect symbol for a very special type of person who can be found on the backyards, margins of society, like a kanthari chili and who defies all odds, who wants to change social conventions with spice and fiery commitment. Someone who is not afraid to swim against the current and, like a Kanthari chili, is not necessarily liked by everyone. And that’s why we henceforth called this very special type of person a “kanthari” a true change maker. At the same time we had found a name for our institute in Kerala.”– Extracted from Sabriye Tenberken’s book “The Dream Workshop of Kerala, learning to change the world”.

The kanthari logo: courtesy kanthari institute

At kanthari, social change makers inspired by the chilli’s vibrant colours are differentiated into 5 different categories: Initiators (Green), Inventors (Yellow), Entrepreneurs (Orange), Advocates/Activists (Red) and Artists (Purple).

Influence, Impetus & Impact
On another perfect day in October 2021, I met 8 kanthari alumni for a meeting to compare notes on their progress. Again, the results were spectacular. One of the most rewarding parts of my journey has been the opportunity to tell stories that inspire change in society.

A kanthari session in progress on a perfect day in October 2021: Joseph Fernandez

A Personal Moment
To be Frank, I am sharing this post on January 27th, which is my mother Grace’s birth anniversary. Her worldview of people and communities that build each other up inspired my journey to kanthari. Along with my father, she believed in a fiery engagement with Life and stepped up to help the vulnerable on the fringes of society.

Digging deep into her Kerala roots in Kollam, she introduced me in my growing years to the earthy flavours of kappa (tapioca) with spicy kanthari chilli chutney. Growing up in our verdant home, kanthari chillis were already a staple favourite. And the kantharis who make a spicy difference around the world are certainly her kind of people.

For this reason, this post is dedicated to my mother Grace. Inspired by her journey, I continue mine with kanthari. And she moves into the 21st century, my daughter Joanna Grace is a committed contributor to all manner of community initiatives beginning with her participation in the relief efforts of the Kerala Floods in 2018.

The kanthari 2022 graduates leap for joy at their graduation in December 2021

The results: 242 participants. 50 countries. 150 projects. 50,000 beneficiaries. That is reason enough for you to leap for joy on a perfect day in December.

A New Horizon

Since 2009, the kanthari program has proved to be one of the most powerful learning programs on the planet, delivering spectacular social results addressing the biggest challenges of our world. Today kantharis are making a difference in many different fields: in alternative education, environment, disability, empowerment of those who are situated on the margins of society.

Now, the next kanthari course starts in April 2022. If you are one who has always wanted to start your own organization to make an impact in your community and possibly beyond, then this could be the right course for you. Check the FAQ page to learn more about what kanthari has to offer and then apply via

The kanthari campus waterfront at Lake Vellayani: Joseph Fernandez

The Way Ahead
Kudos and credit to kanthari on the 12th year of making a spicy difference to our world, inspired by the the potent little chilli that grows enthusiastically on its campus. The kanthari story has a parallel for us wherever we are in the world. In the year ahead, seek to partner with similar organizations in your region.

Chances are that you have realized by now that the single most important word of this decade is Community. It is a whole new horizon out there as this decade begins. As a community partner, share your time and talent with the NGOs and community organizations in your region. Get your teams to directly work with them. For this reason, it is possible to have a perfect day, much like the one I am having at the kanthari campus, knowing this:

It’s the world we want to live in.

Links and Resources