For ICT to deliver results, think rural, act rural

Written by Uma Ganesh | Updated: Oct 7 2013, 17:02pm hrs
The rural market is undergoing transformation with better access to information and changing patterns in demand structure and lifestyle. According to, India has 6.27 lakh villages and business in rural India grew at about 11% annually over the last decade. FMCG sales are expected to grow to $33 billion by 2015, of which $22.1 billion will be contributed by rural areas. Poverty levels have dropped to 22% in 2011-12 from 37.2% in 2004-05 as per the reports of the Planning Commission.

While this is a very positive development, the challenge going forward would be not only to reduce the level further but is also to ensure the people who have moved up,remain there and become part of the growth story. This would require focus among others things on education and skill development leading to better livelihood options.

It is a widely acknowledged fact that digital technologies hold a great promise for rural development and transformation. Although the government has been keen on bridging the digital divide and has initiated several projects towards this objective, there is a huge requirement for building more IT products and solutions leading to noticeable change in the rural economy.

Let us take a look at a few examples of IT implementation that have had a direct impact on the rural economy. e-Chaupal with over 6,500 kiosks in 40,000 villages in 10 states covering 4 million people is an oft quoted example of efficient supply chain system empowering the farmers with timely and relevant information and enabling them to get better returns for their produce. Because of the community centric approach it adopts, the system has managed to create opportunities for providing other offerings as well to the farmers insurance and farm management practices to name a few.

The e-governance system is the other instance that is cited as a good example with immense potential to create transparency and good governance through IT. The successful implementation of this system in areas such as land records in the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and others is indeed a great step in removing the malpractices and creating assurance of rightful ownership with the citizens. In recent times Aadhaar has been seen as yet another tool to empower the masses by confirming their identities. Despite the recent judgement of the Supreme Court and the opposition to this scheme on the grounds of politicisation, security and privacy, Aadhaar is a good example of ICT solution attempting to provide access to monetary benefits by establishing the correct identity and through this approach trying to expand the rural economy by energising the dynamics of the economic system.

Thus we could classify the ICT offerings meant for the rural sector into three categories. The first would be those solutions which are aimed at empowerment, an example of which would be e-governance. The second would be enablement, an example of which would be Aadhaar. The third category would be market expansion, e-Chaupal qualifies partly for this category by its system providing access to a range of offerings apart from buy and sell information pertaining to the farm produce. All three categories of solutions are required for our country but we would be able to witness significant rural upliftment and development only when market expansion takes place.

In the case of IT products/solutions, very few offerings have been designed specially keeping in mind the rural customer. Further, most of the solutions or products, IT or non IT have often aimed at addressing the needs of the population and not necessarily enhance the demand side. It is when IT solutions are designed to create new demand that there will be overall expansion of rural economy powered by digital technologies.

The key stakeholders in rural development involving the grassroot level organisations and NGOs, the government, the technology providers and providers of rural centric offerings would have to come together and create an integrated approach aimed at expanding the rural economy. The citizen service centres (CSCs) which were designed to address this objective and launched with much fanfare in many states have unfortunately not taken off due to lack of a viable business model attractive to the investors and offerings appealing to the rural audience. The need for building a technology enabled education system which brings in the best of expertise and teaching pedagogies at the fingertips of the students is much more significant in rural India than the urban locations where students do have choices.

We need a MOOC like approach to skill development oriented programs in vernacular languages which could be delivered through CSCs and schools in rural locations. We need orientation of rural folks on using the technology to market their services to wider audiences outside of the rural base, be it marketing their traditional crafts and arts or farm produce to customers globally or bring in customers to their base through smart communication strategies marketing their villages as holiday destinations.

Rural transformation through ICT innovations requires a long term approach with an appetite for risk taking and tolerance for failure. Although some of the current venture fund initiatives are supporting the proposals that are aimed at inclusive India, there is a need to also create venture funds with the specific focus on innovation for rural India as the demand generation and the characteristics of market functioning are very different from the urban models and their customer mindsets. With the growth of agriculture segment hovering around 2%, and the resources being scarce, the objective of equipping the villages to embrace knowledge economy powered by digital technologies has to be vigorously pursued to build a sustainable development plan.

The writer is CEO, Global Talent Track, a corporate training solutions company