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Can digital empowerment alleviate poverty in India

The focus has, until now, been on access but is gradually shifting towards changing social behaviours within communities.

Meera Vijayann
29 October 2013

Amit, a small-time teashop owner in Bangalore, is proud of his latest purchase; a Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 device. Earning a fair profit from his tea and snack business, this investment could potentially change the way he works. Yet, when a few customers demand a bill, Amit hurriedly takes a notepad to scribble the amount onto a piece of paper. Amit’s story reflects not one, but millions of people who live on the fringe of the India’s surging technological boom.

Creating new avenues

In 2007, Babajob, an informal networking and entry-level job portal, decided to make the growing Indian marketplace accessible for the country’s neglected urban poor. The website promised ‘Better Jobs for Everyone’. The idea was revolutionary. In India, informal workers are often pushed to the edge, as they are unable to compete with computer-savvy middle-class Indians who are looking for work. Using a model that created a personal connection between the employer and employee and ensuring that both received a profit, the website tapped into a socio-economic background that was otherwise disconnected from the fast-paced, modern work sphere.

Six years later, advanced mobile technology has sparked a sudden interest among younger entrepreneurs who are hoping to devise ways to use technology to help fix pressing socio-economic problems and cash in on the wave. It’s no surprise. With mobile ownership touching 900 million, India is the world’s second largest market for mobile phones.  Yet, a large number of enterprises are lost when it comes to truly empowering rural consumers.

Jugaad’ (frugal) innovation has been stirring the Indian technology and social sector for a decade. Sameer Segal, CEO and Founder of Artoo, an organisation that helps social enterprises operate viably at the BoP (Bottom of Pyramid) through inclusive technology, is optimistic but has his concerns about the trend,“There is often a narrow approach to technology. Most social entrepreneurs understand the potential of technology but they are unable to optimize it,” he says, “The reason this happens is that most enterprises don’t realise that their own models have to change.”

Identifying challenges

In a country where income and social disparities are large, this is easier said than done. In 2012, the Planning Commission estimated that almost 270 million Indians lived BPL (Below Poverty Line) with 217 million restricted to rural areas. The government has continuously tried to tap into the technological boom by supporting several initiatives that could potentially help combat poverty. Most of these initiatives were unsuccessful. The shortcomings of the Aakash tablet, a cheap android-based computing device that aimed at enhancing education left a huge impact on industry. Since then, innovators and social entrepreneurs have experimented with a range of micro-localized services ranging from regional language options, free mobile apps, call-in services and entertainment packages to attract rural consumers.

Trupti Chengalath, who leads communications at Mahiti.org, an enterprise that develops low-cost technology to strengthen social initiatives, stresses the importance of understanding the behaviour of communities. Talking about the team’s on-ground experience of training sex workers in North Karnataka to use tablets, she suggests that their approach is to concentrate on skills-based training with technology instead of focusing only on economic empowerment. “The economics of rural India works differently,” she says,  “We want to help them become role models in their communities. Because when women are given this choice, they immediately take the initiative to reach out for more.”

This approach points to a crucial trend in the way the social sector has been addressing economic and social challenges through ICTs. The focus has, until now, been on access but is gradually shifting towards changing social behaviours within communities. If this is ignored, the rift between technology providers and the end consumer will continue to grow. “The challenge is that most technology companies have the conventional wisdom to build and sell products but they are unable to counsel organisations, spend time in the field or understand their users,” Sameer admits, “no one know how this technology really translates into impact. Social entrepreneurs too need to re-engineer their models to make their approach inclusive.”  

Creating sustainable solutions

To co-create sustainable solutions to combat poverty, social entrepreneurs need to start working with technology partners to frame new models. Innovation in technology has to aim at systemic change, and not be seen as a means to an end. Jugaad innovation, which may prove efficient, isn’t scalable as it serves as a short-term solution for a long-term problem. Combating poverty and hunger has been central to the discussion about India’s post-2015 development agenda. But several states in India are witnessing a sharp rise in rural poverty. Social barriers such as caste, gender, and religion continue to play a role in stalling socio-economic progress. This challenge is one that technology partners and social entrepreneurs must be willing to take on. It is only with this knowledge that we will be able to create solutions that not only help lift communities out of poverty, but give them the power to explore and redefine their futures.

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