The Digital Village

The Asian edition of Business Week had a cover story by Manjeet Kripalani on the use of technology to benefit India’s poor:

Now, the entrepreneurs are starting to discover one another: India has this year been host to three conferences on the use of technology for development in rural societies. So far, most of these ventures have been funded with entrepreneurs’ savings because venture capitalists see few prospects of early returns. With the number of success stories growing, though, Nasscom and the World Bank are planning a fund of up to $1 billion to support promising ideas. And other developing nations such as South Africa, Brazil, and Sri Lanka are closely watching India’s progress to see whether the projects can be successfully replicated. “India could lead the world in creating the grassroots social experiments that could teach both India and other nations how to use technology for the common good,” says Kenneth Keniston, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who follows such experiments globally.

Computer kiosks are at the center of all this. These are typically in the front room of an entrepreneur’s home, with one or two pcs linked to the Internet via a satellite, phone, or wireless link. The country already has some 7,000 such kiosks, and more than 100 new ones pop up each week. By 2007 there could be as many as 300,000, estimates Nasscom. The giant Indian Tobacco Co. has taken the lead in this movement: The company has funded more than 4,000 kiosks so far, giving them to farmers in a bid to boost sales of everything from seeds to soap via its Web site, e-Choupal. But new players are emerging, offering eager entrepreneurs a chance to open kiosks as a business. N-Logue Communications, for instance, has adopted something of a franchise model. The company arranges a low-interest loan of $1,000 to buy a computer and install a wireless link to the Internet. Then it teaches the kiosk owner its possibilities: Net-based education, computer training for local children, videoconferencing, photo work, and more…These kiosks often become the hub of village activity.

Can these projects transform India? Not by themselves. But if, bit by bit, they can make India’s poor a little healthier, a little richer, and a little more literate, the cumulative effect on the country’s fortunes could be enormous. The poor are eager for a wave of digital change. Young people across the country — even in many villages — are familiar with computers and keen to learn how to use them. These days, education and computers are primary items in every rural family’s budget. In the poor, dusty village of Shahpur in Uttar Pradesh, for instance, impoverished farmers save their rupees to send their children to school in the neighboring town of Barabanki. There they can study English and computers, which are considered key to prosperity. Among India’s poor, there’s no shortage of ambition to learn them both. And no shortage of ideas on how to harness technology to give the poor a fighting chance to improve themselves.

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.