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.”