Bridging Digital Gap To Alleviate Poverty

Updated: Jan 4 2004, 05:30am hrs
Today deprivation is not only about lack of food, clothing, shelter and healthcare, but also about information and knowledge gap. In fact, bridging the gap can help one in overcoming the other shortcomings, too.

This is what the inhabitants in seven remote villages adjoining Parvathapur in draught-prone Mahbubnagar district in Andhra Pradesh are banking on. It depends upon the recently launched Computer-On-Wheels for People-Centred Development (COW) project evolving into a self-sustaining, enterprise model after its trial phase, though.

The initial results are promising. Its only a couple of months now that Hari Krishna has been travelling everyday to the seven villages on his dirt motorbike. In every village, about 90-100 villagers gather around his motorbike whenever he comes. The motorbike is no ordinary one. It has a platform fitted in the backside on which is mounted a weather- and shock-proof, solar powered equipment case which carries and recharges a laptop, a printer, a satellite phone and a camera. It also has a portable tent for impromptu meeting in open fields.

Equipped with these, Mr Krishna comes to the villages everyday offering information on hygiene and healthcare, agricultural credit, weather, rainfall, pest control, soil testing, availability of seeds at subsidised prices, and crop prices in local markets.

Its helpful to villagers like Damodar Reddy. One morning when the farmer in Parvathapur village discovered that his paddy field was affected by a harmful pest and traditional remedies were ineffective, he sent out an emergency call to Mr Krishna. Mr Krishna came with his bike, took close-up pictures of the pest and the affected crop with his digital camera, took notes from Mr Reddy, and sent an email from his laptop to Palem Agricultural University and the regional agricultural office. The replies suggesting the remedies came in the same day. And Mr Reddy was able to contain the pest.

Similarly, Sudhakar Reddy and his fellow villagers from Upparapally village got connected with a veterinary doctor.

Seventy per cent of these villagers do not have access to telephone or electricity, women there earn livelihood by breaking stones, collect potable water from as far as two kilometers, and walk between two villages for medical help, explains Rajeswari Rao Pingali, the founder of project COW.

She adds, An extensive field enquiry suggests that there exists a salient knowledge gap, which needs to be bridged if these poor villagers are to be brought above the poverty line. The COW project aims at delivering information at their door-step by a trained person.

A social entrepreneur, she has been working in the Telengana region for over 10 years now. I conceived this idea while travelling south Gujarat looking at the issues of lack of access and challenges of investment, infrastructure and illiteracy that plague rural development, recalls Ms Pingali. Then I was selected for the Reuters Foundation Digital Vision Programme in Stanford University, USA, between October 2001 and June 2002, where I developed the model and felicitated the prototype. It took me another nine months to take the model to the field. Finally, it took off in April 2003.

Elaborates Ms Pingali, US-based Whipsaw Inc, an industrial designer group, which prototyped the motorbike donated its time and Reuters spent the money for the basic equipment which was about $13,000. The cost was high because it was manufactured in the US. Making it in India wont be as expensive. What I need now is a motorcycle company willing to understand the need for such a cause and partnering in terms of providing modified bikes at a reasonable price.

The Discovery School of Discovery Channel and the Indian pharma company Dr Reddys Laboratory also lend the educational content support to the COW project. The Greenstar Corporation of the US provided with the digital product design and the solar equipment case.

The project will be run on trial basis for few years with a regular assessment of success every six months, says Ms Pingali. She adds, There are a few success stories such as the Reddys. And these give us the confidence to convert the pilot project into an enterprise model for unemployed youth to go to rural areas using this model and earning a living. The beneficiaries can be involved on a cost-sharing basis. People are willing to pay if they get value for their money and it can become an opportunity for an enterprise. For the pilot phase, we are getting financial support from US-based Digital Partners and Global Catalyst Foundation. They gave $10,000 each.

Its already having a ripple effect. Inspired by Ms Pingalis technology vision and prompted by their own benefits, the villagers have built in part a second COW to speed up the replication of the project.

We are planning to slowly reach out to 227 villages around this area, says Ms Pingali. The long term goal is to promote micro-enterprise, particularly for women. include a decision support system for public administration and a trading support system like e-commerce.This year this project is one of the winners at the World Banks development market place and that helps me to get going.