Round 2 with CGAP’s Gautam Ivatury

The ThinkChange India staff is committed to providing our readers with interviews with people we believe are at the brink of something special but have for the most part been overlooked by the mainstream media. Readers will be able to see other conversations under our TC-I Changemakers tag.

This week, Vinay sat down (over the phone) with Gautam Ivatury of the global microfinance center CGAP, which works to expand poor people’s access to financial services. Such services include but are not limited to microcredit and branchless banking. This interview is a follow up to one conducted on May 4, 2008, which you can read here.

Vinay Ganti: Could you please review yourself on the following topics, which we discussed in our last conversation?

  • Reaching beyond MFIs:

Gautam Ivatury: This still continues to be a major focus of CGAP’s mission. Across all of CGAP’s work we continue to look for ways to partner with a range of institutions and providers, including but not limited to MFIs, to be able to massively expand financial services for poor people.

GI: With regard to branchless banking, we set out to accomplish a number of goals. Overall we have been happy with the results of CGAP’s work in this area over the last six months, despite the fact that it has taken longer than expected for our project partners (in countries like Pakistan, Kenya, Mongolia, South Africa and elsewhere) to roll-out the branchless banking channels we helped design and finance.

Since our last talk, CGAP has expanded its policy and regulatory diagnostic work in branchless banking. New markets analyzed have included Colombia, Argentina and Indonesia, and we’ve continued to maintain close dialogue with the Reserve Bank of India and regulators elsewhere.

Also, the actual awareness of mobile banking in the field, i.e. what is and how it can work, has increased dramatically in the past. Last May we co-organized the first major annual event on “Mobile Money” for the unbanked in Cairo with the GSM Association (the industry body for the world’s 700+ mobile operators), IFC and DFID. That event got more than 500 paid attendees, most from private industry. And this week at the GSM World Congress in Barcelona, GSMA and other private sector players will announce additional activities in the space. DFID announced its new FAST program to encourage branchless banking this week. Initiatives like these are critical to get widespread adoption of the concept and to achieve scale. Moreover, major consulting and research outfits like Aite, Monitor and McKinsey have started research and published reports on the topic.

At the same time, our seven branchless banking projects have been slower to launch than we all expected two years ago. There have been some notable achievements — our Philippines partner has entered three new rural provinces and signed up about 80,000 new mobile banking clients, and Telenor bought 51 percent of Tameer Bank (our partner in Pakistan) to jumpstart its mobile banking initiatives. But in general the implementation of mobile / branchless banking has been slower than anticipated.

VG: Why do you think this is? Continue reading

Transfer money after the beep

Here is an interesting approach to the technological hurdles of mobile banking. Called Cashnxt, this venture in Kerala, uses high-pitched sounds via mobile phones to encrypt and decrypt the secure data needed to perform a financial transaction. An article on ReadWriteWeb, explains it as such:

As a customer, if you and a vendor are a member of the Cashnxt network, you can conduct transactions using your mobile phones. The merchant dials CashNxt’s IVR number, enters their PIN and transaction amount, and then hears a high pitch sound on their mobile phone. The customer does the same – calls the IVR number, enters their PIN and hears a high pitch sound. The two phones are then brought together, held close enough for CashNxt to encrypt and decrypt the sounds. 

Go after the jump to see a youtube video of the process:

Continue reading

Ashoka Focuses on Agricultural and Sustainable Development in India

Last week, Ashoka announced that the organization will use a US$15 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support the placement of Ashoka fellows in Africa and India.  The grant money will specifically target social innovation and entrepreneurship in agriculture and sustainable development.  According to their press release,

Agricultural and rural sustainable development initiatives supported by Ashoka will be oriented around key issues such as new technologies, farmer productivity, key agricultural policies, and connections between smallholder farmers and markets. Ashoka’s network already includes many Fellows working on agriculture and rural development related issues— whether developing markets for small farmers in Kenya, or using local knowledge to regenerate arid land through natural farming and permaculture in India.

The most promising aspect of this partnership is the approach that Ashoka espouses in ensuring that their social innovations become sustainable – a community based approach:

Ashoka realizes that innovations alone do not create sustainable large-scale solutions in agriculture and sustainable rural development. These new solutions endure only when social entrepreneurs have a community-level understanding, build a broad citizen base of support, introduce incentives for participation, and topple traditional barriers to entry or involvement. This partnership will allow Ashoka to launch 90 social entrepreneurs and their powerful, pattern- changing ideas that are built on this bottom up approach. Additionally, as a product of the increased number of entrepreneurs in this area and their broad base of supporters, Ashoka will be able to identify transformative universal principles that will ultimately revolutionize the field.

Looks like this is a great time to become an Ashoka fellow in India.  I’m looking forward to seeing what developments Ashoka comes up with in 2009.

Aiming for 100 Million

Many people dream, but some people dream big.  Dr. Ashok Khosla is one of those that dream big – but also puts the dream into action.  As founder of Development Alternatives, Khosla plans to bring wide-scale employment to India’s rural areas.  IndiaWest reports:

“Poor people are seeing more products, but have little access to them. The poor do not have purchasing power,” said Khosla, the 2002 winner of the United Nations’ Sasakawa Environmental Prize, and the Schwab Foundation’s outstanding social entrepreneur award in 2004.

The Technology and Action for Rural Advancement (TARA), a partner of Development Alternatives, is a social enterprise focusing on standardizing “technology packages, which offer training, technical support, financing and marketing assistance to small enterprises.”  TARA’s products range from paper to textiles to cyber-kiosks.  Khosla aims to create 100 million jobs by 2018 through these micro-factories – no easy feat, considering that the organization claims to have created 3 million jobs in the last 15 years.

More importantly, the initiatives are created in a way that the villagers benefit above all.

In a typical model, the village will form a cooperative to purchase the equipment needed for the project, and determine wages for the workers, typically slightly above the area’s minimum wage. Development Alternatives’ social enterprise arm, Technology and Action for Rural Advancement, markets the products created by the villagers.

Tracking TARA’s progress in the next decade will be interesting and may provide further evidence of the impact of social enterprises and employment generating activities.

Bolstering Rural Industries

The comments from a previous post questioning the value of urbanization discussed the need of developing rural industries and services. According to iGovernment, the government has made a real step toward this with the Ministry of Panchayati Raj and the Khadi and Village Industry Commission (KVIC), a non-profit, working together to promote the Rural Business Hubs (RBH) initiative.

Under this initiative, Panchayats and KVIC will jointly identify potential projects that can be supported under KVIC schemes and also extend marketing support through the corporate members of industry working on the RBH initiative.

Wherever required, skill development and skill upgradation training will be provided to the potential beneficiaries by KVIC through accredited training agencies.

Considering the fact that RBH has been in place for three years, I wonder how successful programs under the initiative really are. In addition, there is a barrage of other questions that come to mind: Do the MoUs actually become operational? Are the rural areas in which they enact MoUs seeing an increase in economic development? And more importantly, does the development of rural industries allow for self-sustaining local economies, or does it make them more dependent (in an arguably negative way) on global markets?

In Theory v. In Practice: The India Development Gateway

In line with its National E-Governance Plan, the Government of India recently launched the India Development Gateway, which seeks to “foster inclusive growth and empower its rural users through relevant information in six languages – Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Marathi, Bengali and English.” In addition, the portal aims to provide information on agriculture, health, primary education, rural energy and e-governance, namely in the form of government schemes and other services.

Before I go any further, a primer on the National E-Governance Plan:

The Government of India has formulated the National E-Governance Plan with the vision of providing all government services in an integrated manner at the doorstep of the citizen, at an affordable cost. The NeGP initiatives consist of 26 Central, State and Integrated Mission Mode Projects (MMPs) along with 8 other support components for rapid introduction of e-governance in the country. The NeGP envisions a three pillar model for delivery of “web-enabled Anytime, Anywhere access” to information and services in rural India.

According to President Patil, the gateway has the potential to benefit a large swath of the rural population:

“A space has been created in the virtual world where knowledge and experience transcend geographical distances to benefit citizens at the last mile,” said President Patil in her address.

The portal would help connect panchayats across the country, making them “knowledge hubs” and help inform on various government schemes and their benefits, said the President.

This initiative is yet another attempt to harness the untapped power of information technology for the benefit of the rural poor. Minister of Communication and Information Technology, Thiru Raja, “expressed hope the portal would help synergise different government initiatives by becoming a nerve centre of knowledge for the rural masses.”

The question that remains unanswered is this – what vehicle will the rural poor use to access these services?

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From Basic Elements to Useful Technology

Raja Sekhar Malapati shares a piece on water technology that is not as popular or known in the quest for safe, accessible drinking water everywhere. A company known as Aqua Sciences developed a way to extract water not from the ground, but from the air – even in dry regions. According to a Wall Street Journal article published last year, “the technology uses a blend of salts to collect water, then employs a combination of heat, chemistry and mechanics to extract the water from the salts.” Employing a 40-foot trailer, the generator can produce about 1,200 gallons of water a day from moisture captured in the air.

Currently, the company’s products are in use by the U.S. government for emergency situations and troops in Iraq. Malapati wonders if this technology could be implemented in India, with its vast dry regions and serious water issues in rural areas. The 40-foot trailer may be a bit of an eyesore, but the technology is nonetheless exciting and certainly one to watch and see in which ways it can contribute to solving water challenges.

The Experiment: E-Medicine in Rural Gujarat

Under the auspices of its “e-gram” initiative, which intends to connect all villages through broadband, the Gujarat government has launched an e-medicine scheme for rural areas.  The objective of the scheme is to “offer online and telemedicine facilities to villagers,” specifically through the installation of web cameras and other infrastructure. 

Said Health Minister Jay Narayan Vyas:

We are waiting for the panchayat department to cover all 18,000 villages in the state under the e-gram initiative. Once this is done, we are planning to use the broadband connectivity to initiate an e-medicine programme wherein we will set up e-cardio testing and e-diagnosis facilities. All villages will have these facilities over a period of two years.

Through video conferencing, doctors at a distant hospital will be able to diagnose villagers for basic ailments and prescribe medicines online. The printout of the prescription will be available at the community service centres set up by the department. 

This proposal raises a number of questions – even though the state government of Gujarat has set aside 4% of its total budget for the health sector, is funding all that is needed in order to implement such schemes?  Granted, physical infrastructure is required in order for the scheme to be operational, but how will training be provided to local medical practitioners?  Where will these services be made available?  Through PHCs?  Private clinics?  How will this equipment be maintained over time?  How much will these services cost, and how effective will diagnoses be?  Has this program been piloted in other rural areas?  Most fundamentally, how will e-diagnoses be effective when stable access to electricity isn’t even guaranteed in most parts of rural India?

The scheme is an ambitious and admirable one, but I remain skeptical as to feasibility given human and physical resource constraints.

Source:  OneWorld South Asia

Rice Husks + Innovation = Renewable Energy

India has been found to be particularly fertile ground for experimentation with renewable energy initiatives. The latest version of Ernst & Young’s “Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Index” reaffirms this fact, ranking India as the third most attractive market for renewable energy investment:

India’s rise to third overall … has been precipitated by excellent national and regional government support for both foreign and local investment in renewable technologies. Consequently, rapid growth is expected to continue in this market.

The report goes on to note that “installed renewables capacity in India – currently standing at 8GW – is now expected to double every five years, and is forecast to reach 20GW by 2012, twice the government’s target.”

One new venture in this space is Husk Power Systems, which aims to “provide power to millions of rural Indians in a financially sustainable, scalable, environmentally friendly, and profitable manner.” Starting with villages in Bihar, HPS has developed a viable business model for generating power from agricultural residue, namely rice husks. How does the system work?

The organization has developed a distributed power supply and distribution system that uses 35-100kW “mini power- plants” in villages of 200-500 households within the Indian “Rice Belt” and offers electricity as a pay-for-use service.

In addition to power generation, rice husks have additional income-generation utility, as 1) the ash produced by burning the rice husks can be “converted into a valuable ingredient for cement production,” and 2) the rice husk generators can potentially be paid for reducing carbon emissions through a trading program established by the Kyoto Protocol. The result, then, according to innovators Ransler and Sinha, is the multi-fold:

Continue reading

Cellphone Company + Fertilizer Company = Cool Idea

IFFCO Kisan Sanchar (IKSL) is a unique partnership between India’s largest mobile operator, Airtel and Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative (IFFCO). According to the brief on iGovernment:

IFFCO Kisan Sanchar (IKSL), would be focusing on communication requirement of rural India, besides providing agriculture related information to enable villagers take right farming decisionsIKSL will offer handsets, co-branded SIM card, and agro development voice messages in regional languages related to farmers

There is a lot of synergy between both these companies. IFFCO has significant access to farmers and farming communities, being a major player in the country’s fertilizer industry. Airtel on the other hand is focused on extending rural connectivity and bundling additional services into cellphones. Of course, cellphones themselves are touted as the next big development success story (talk about unintended consequences), as highlighted in this space before.

Cellphones and (Rural) Development, Part Two

The agricultural sector employs 2/3 of India’s population, and contributes to 1/3 of its gross domestic product (GDP) – yet, Indian farmers in rural communities are plagued by debt, falling commodity prices, changing weather patterns, fluctuating demands in the global market, and failing crops. In regions such as Vidarbha, farmer suicides are endemic, to the extent that even the recent governmental debt relief scheme has been unable to mitigate the crisis.

Moreover, most rural farmers are unable to capitalize on the true value of their crop yields, often getting as little as “25% of the value of the final price of their raw produces against 40%-50% in America and Britain.” In light of this concern in particular, technological advances, specifically with respect to mobile phones, have gained traction within South Asia through initiatives like Grameen Phone, InternetSpeech, the recent IBM initiative, etc.

As highlighted in a recent Times Online article, of particular interest is the Reuters Market Light campaign, which has the capability to provide, for example, weather reports, crop spraying information and competitive market pricing, all through the mobile phone for 175 rupees a quarter.

I know what you’re thinking – we’ve all heard of this kind of technology before, but what makes this particular initiative so unique? According to the Indian Development Blog, Market Light uses a very different, and in their opinion, “superior system for gathering and reporting local spot prices than that employed by local newspapers.” The blog goes on to explain:

Newspapers typically rely on middlemen to report the range of prices observed in the market each day for a given commodity. The problem with this method is that the maximum and minimum quality of the produce that shows up in a mandi on any given day can vary quite a bit so these figures are often difficult to interpret.

Reuters Market Light takes a different approach. Rather than report a range of prices, Reuters provides the exact spot price for a given quality level of each commodity. Doing this takes more effort – the person providing the prices must be able to precisely discern between varying levels of quality — but it is much more useful for farmers.

In terms of measurable outcomes, this initiative has reportedly generated positive results to date, concretely enabling farmers to enhance their abilities to bargain, negotiate prices, and most importantly, make choices on the basis of the most favorable financial outcomes. Sounds great in theory, but what exactly does this look like on the ground, you may ask? (this article continues after the break – click “Read More”) Continue reading

ISTE Conference and Student Essay Competition on Rural Technology

From Let Me Know, here is a conference and essay competition on “Technology For Rural India: Challenges and Perspectives.” The conference will focus on the following:

In celebration of the ISTE Day 2008, the Delhi Section of the Indian Society of Technical Education (ISTE) is hosting a conference on “Technology for Rural India: Challenges and Perspectives”. The conference will focus on strategic technological development and research on problems specific to rural India. The event is targeted to educationists, researchers and students and will include technical sessions, invited lectures, special workshops, interactive sessions and student activities.

Also, the student essay competition will ask them to write on a specific problem in no more than six pages that affects rural India and a well-defined technnlogical solution for that problem. More information can be found on the website.

Here are some important dates.

Key Dates:
Deadline for:
1. Registration: May 15, 2008
2. Initial Submission of papers: April 30, 2008
3. Final Submission (After Acceptance of Initial Paper): May 15, 2008
4. Postal Submission of Student Essays: April 30, 2008
Conference Dates: May 31-June 1, 2008

IBM and Rural India Make a Connection, Literally.

As a follow-up to previous posts relating to the role of mobile technology as an enabling factor in the development of rural India, IBM has recently launched a pilot project in south India that will allow rural communities to access information ranging from healthcare service providers to potential markets for finished goods through a toll-free number. Users will be able to access this information either through their own mobile, or through local “kiosks”:

Rural users can dial the toll-free number from a kiosk or their own handset to find out things like what precautions to take for some common diseases, where to find the nearest primary healthcare centre, which plumber or carpenter is available at what time and at what charges, what are the micro-finance options available and also learn some basic English or another language.

This project is part of the India Research Lab’s “Spoken Web” project, which includes 6 other projects in the area of voice-enabled mobile commerce. In terms of the logistics, the exact revenue model has not been disclosed, but the kiosks themselves will be established in partnership with local NGOs.

Although I am optimistic about initiatives of this nature, it is my hope that IBM, in partnership with local NGOs, work not only to enlighten rural communities on the concrete, locally relevant implications of this resource, but also provide insight into the connection between access to information/knowledge and power. If a community member does not feel empowered enough to effect profound change within their own lives through more concrete means, how can they see the tangible benefits of a voice enabled mobile service? There need to be more concrete, awareness/confidence building initiatives that accompany these technological innovations in order to bring about true behavioral change and boost self-confidence on both an individual and community level.

Evening Edition

Some table topics as you start preparing for dinner:

  • Humanitarian awardsThe Grameen Foundation reports today that Mohammad Yunus will be awarded the James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award.  The award will be bestowed upon Yunus at the Tech Museum of Innovation award ceremony in November (by the way, the nomination deadline for the Tech Museum award has been extended until April 7th!  Watch a video here).
  • TourismThe Times of India reports that the medical tourism industry is booming, with medical tourists increasing by 25% each year.  McKinsey predicts that earnings from medical tourism will reach $2 billion by the year 2012.  In its latest report, the Planning Commission did a performance and price comparison for medical procedures between different countries, and found that India offered “superior quality of medical service coupled with the low cost of surgeries.”
  • Technology/Connectivity:  Nokia Siemens, in partnership with BSNL, will deploy broadband access to an additional 25,000 Indian villages by July of this year.  In a statement, Micael Kuehner, who heads up Nokia Siemen’s sub India region division said, “With a population of 700 million, rural India, without a doubt holds the key to the future growth of the telecommunication industry and the long term economic and social development of the country.”

Manthan Awards 2008: Solutions for the Digital Divide

The 5th annual Manthan Awards, which aim to encourage usage of ICT for the empowerment of rural communities in India, are underway.  The mission of the competition is as follows:

To create an information rich society where everyone, irrespective of caste, religion, race, region, gender etc., is empowered to create, receive, share and utilize information and knowledge through digital content for their economic, social, cultural and political upliftment and development.

The awards are currently accepting nominations from individuals or grassroots organizations who are “doing pioneering work in developing, creating and disseminating digital content, be it online or offline, for grassroots empowerment and development in daily walks of life.”  Categories for nomination include: e-Business, e-Learning, e-Culture, e-Government, e-Health, e-Education, e-Enterprise and Livelihood, among others.  For a full list, go here.

Here is a video from the 2007 Manthan Awards. For more information contact the Digital Empowerment Foundation at defindia@gmail.com

Vodpod videos no longer available. from www.ibnlive.com posted with vodpod