Notes on Rural India

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Asia » India » Andhra Pradesh » Hyderabad
October 29th 2009
Published: November 1st 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

The Ashoka-Lemelson Tech 4 Society event was this past week in Chennai. The event brought together several Ashoka and Ashoka-Lemelson Fellows to discuss opportunities and challenges as it relates to technology adoption in rural areas. The makeup of the individuals ranged from 25+ years of efforts in the social sector to new entrepreneurs - all of whom share common themes in their work including the development of new economic models for disseminating technologies to India’s poor, inventors of new technologies serving the bottom of pyramid markets as well as those using new technologies to teach or grow new inventors, and those who employ innovative approaches to inspiring youth to study or pursue careers in science and technology. A large majority of the Fellows in attendance were also involved in numerous lines of business and technologies responsible for improving the livelihoods of entire communities.

Some common themes that came out of the first day of discussions were around actual community acceptance of new technologies. In many instances, the technology in question is not necessarily high tech, or cutting edge, but is simple. Regardless of simplicity, which is a vital characteristic, if a community does not see a legitimate need for the technology it will not get adopted. The technology must create a substantial change in order to have value. This value proposition usually comes in the form of cost savings or capacity/revenue increases. Cost savings has been found to be the most compelling benefit as even if production capacity is increased, there must be an outlet for these goods and it is not always the case that a market exists for additional product. In many cases the adoption of technology is far outpacing the development of infrastructure. In Africa for example, many villages are lacking roads but the inhabitants have mobile phones. An interesting point that was brought up was that sometimes people ultimately adopt and get acquainted with a technology in surprising ways. With mobile phones for example, in some areas it was the ringtones that brought the people to the technology. Due to the interest in various ringtones, people learned how to use the phones. The interest in the feature ultimately familiarized the new user base with how to use the key pad. Ordering a ringtone teaches SMS and was the first text messaging interactions users had. From this they became mobile-phone literate, in a sense, and it was
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Example of latrine improvements and construction done at the panchayat.
easier to use mobiles for other activities, such as receiving disaster warnings and accessing market pricing for commodities.

A lot of interesting debate occurred about whether the poor needed to be segmented even further when discussing various technology strategies - possible segments could be the abject poor, the middle poor and the upper poor where market systems could still work for the middle and upper poor but have failed the abject poor. This led into the general acknowledgement and running theme through the discussions that there needed to be a better “highway” to reaching this poorest of poor segment with available technologies. There is so much being put into making changes at the village levels all around India, but no one has been able to federate all of these individual energies to make a substantive and scalable change yet. Just by listening however, it is very apparent that there is no one size fits all solution to problems facing the very different populations of abject and even upper echelons of the poor and very different strategies were being implemented by each Fellow to improve livelihoods. Given this, very strong local knowledge is required in order to not only recognize
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Assembly process for village stoves.
what technology could make an impact, but how to present it, and how to get it there. Taken together, this creates a natural inhibitor to a widely scalable solution to reaching the poor in many instances. In a chicken and egg example, it was mentioned that the poor have such a difficult time rising up because of an inability to value-add as producers. Because they cannot add value to increase the market value of the products that they are producing, they are much more vulnerable as suppliers. The poor cannot value add in many instances because the technology doesn’t exist and if it does, it can’t get to the people who need. One example that illustrated this well is about a village whose major output is walnuts. Each villager may have 1 or 2 walnut trees that they attend to. Cracking these wild walnuts is a very labor intensive job, done completely manually, which doesn’t allow for the opportunity to further value add and get the goods to market on time. The problem is that these walnuts are considerably harder than the walnuts being farmed in places like California which have a much softer shell; thus, the traditional mechanical walnut
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Assembly process for village stoves.
crackers will not work but no one has designed a machine that can fill this gap. This village even tried to import such machinery from the U.S. but the walnuts actually broke the samples. And so harvesting and cracking still goes on by hand and nothing changes for these producers. No one is trying to produce these machines given the market for it, and the ability to get it where it needs to go and service it. Therefore the villagers are continuing to provide essentially commodity offerings as far as the walnuts are concerned.

Technologies have been failing in the villages for many reasons, but most commonly for lack of market knowledge on the part of the innovator. One example is the solar cooker, which was first developed about 20 years ago. This technology never caught on despite the purported cost savings because it was not created in a way that suited the lifestyles of the individuals using it. The solar stove was most powerful at the times of the strongest sunlight, which was mid-day and early afternoon. The population it was made for were largely village farmers who consumed their big meals by early to mid-morning and then again late at night, after the sun had gone down. In addition to this the stoves were not made in a way that was conducive to Indian-style cooking. The stove had four separate chambers which could boil or slow cook food. Indian cooking is mostly with oil (with the exception of rice) and requires frequent temperature manipulation and flipping and turning which was not possible with the solar stove.

Along the same lines was the smokeless stove which was developed in Delhi. This innovation failed because the burning chamber did not accommodate for the different materials that people were burning across India. For example, in Punjab large cotton stalks were used as fuel while elsewhere small wood chips were used. The stove didn’t accommodate for the variations in local fuel supplies. Even large companies such as Tata have had their share of failures at the village level and not necessarily for adoption issues but on the service side. When these machines would break, there were no mechanics to fix them or parts readily available. The lack of trained help extends far beyond mechanics and has resulted in a large force of “barefoot” workers ranging from barefoot mechanics, to engineers,
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Women are working in village clean room assembling medical packs for students.
doctors and veterinarians. The barefoot doctors, for example, receive minimal medical and paramedical training in order to bring some form of health care to rural areas where urban-trained doctors will not settle. Generally these doctors are trained in basic hygiene, preventive health care, and family planning and are able to treated common illnesses.

We went on a site visit to something called Panchayat Academy started by Ashoka Fellow, Elango. Elango has created a model village, or panchayat, and is now training other panchayat leaders how to replicate his system through training at the Panchayat Academy. Elango’s system is aligned with the ideas of Gandhi and was inspired by his teachings on self reliance: " If India lives in the villages, then let there be but one ideal village so that it may serve as a model for the whole country" (Mahatama Gandhiji ). Indian villages are organized under a Panchayat System. This system represents a form of local government where panchayats represent one or a group of villages. A panchayat can be set up in villages with minimum population of 300 (or a club of villages to get to 300). Within each panchayat, a local leader, or president, is elected and undertakes the following basic responsibilities: maintaining street lights, construction and repair work of the roads in the villages and also the village markets, maintaining records of births, deaths and marriages, improving public health and hygiene by providing facilities for sanitation and drinking water, providing education and implementing development schemes for agriculture and animal husbandry.

Not all panchayats function successfully, and many villages in the site we visited had been suffering with no significant growth or initiative among the panchayats to function as a local self-governments. This was the inspiration behind Panchayat Academy. Elango had left his home of Kuthambakkam and taken a job for some time but upon returning to his village he saw what troubles the people were facing and this inspired him to come back and reform the panchayat. His objective was to make Kuthambakkam a model panchayat and through Panchayat Academy, it now serves as a learning centre for other panchayats. Approximately 30 panchayat leaders are being trained monthly at Elango’s Panchayat Academy, located in the heart of Kuthambakkam. Elango’s objective was to make the panchayat self-sustaining which he has accomplished in numerous ways such as adopting the technology at the village level to produce the major needs for the village and reduce dependence on the outside markets, train villagers to work in the production of village goods. He also manufactures some goods for export out of the village but under the idea that these goods must have a certain level of value add. The ideas is that a system of several strong villages can leverage the local labor and natural resources and become self sufficient. This however requires strong leadership and the implementation of viable technologies, both of which Elango tries to teach in his academy.

When the Elango’s panchayat project started in 1996, there was high unemployment, poor basic infrastructure, livelihood insecurity, violence against women and children, liquor menace, illicit arrack brewing (alcohol produced from fermented palm sap) and general communal disharmony. Elango’s objectives were to implement grass roots level planning, community mobilization, promote and create livelihoods based on local resources, secure housing for all villagers and stimulate employment through panchayat activities. When Elango started his work the livelihood profile was 35% farming, 15% artisans and 50% “have-nots”. In his two terms as panchayat president and continued work thereafter, the livelihood profile has changed to 35% farming, 15% artisans, 15% skilled laborers, and 35% local producers.

Elango has introduced many technologies to the village and numerous items that relate to Elango’s community goals are being produced there. Many housing products are being manufactured such as cement stabilized compressed mud blocks (to replace wood) and cement panels and joists . Also granite waste is being utilized for rubble based masonry construction. For sanitation, installation of latrines with bathing units (made of panchayat constructed panels) is continuously occurring and the model for new latrine systems was developed in the village and is manufactured there. Almost 60%-70% of panchayat dollars were being used for energy and many measures have been taken to increase efficiencies here. Energy efficient lighting has been installed on the streets and in buildings (66% energy savings - 320 of these street lights save 15,000 rs per month). The bulb itself is outsourced but the rest of the lights are manufactured and assembled in the panchayat. Also solar panels are being used to power street lamps.

The model for growth involves a several villages sharing resources and engaging in some manufacturing with the objective of less and less need to access the marketplace and the achievement of a great level of self sufficiency. For example, the panchayat produces all of its own soaps and processes much of its own foods. In the 22 village cluster surrounding the Panchayat Academy, the most common activities are rice mills, dal mills, oil mills, bakeries, confectionary, flour and milk processing. The village industries include bathing soaps, washing soaps and detergents as well as some of the light manufacturing described and the export activities.

For several of these products, such as soaps, etc. the panchayats are going head to head with companies like Hindustan Lever, but with strong panchayat loyalty and a good quality product it has not been an issue. Also, the panchayats are working off of a lower cost base as they are harvesting local resources and there is minimal investment. The idea is that the panchayat economy only “bothers about itself”. Maximizing scale is not the issues and the objective is not to keep growing bigger and bigger but to sustain the community and reduce reliance on the market. The items being made in the panchayat are largely not for the outside market, they are just for use in the panchayat.

Other Fellows were also doing very innovative things, including a mobile learning lab system. These labs, each equipped with a teacher, venture out across India trying to promote a new spirit of inquiry in youth and adults. The idea behind the labs Idea is to change behavior of how science and math are being taught. It is not just about the subject matter learning but trying to encourage the questioning and curiosity. The teachers are trained to interact with the children in a way that promotes creative thinking. Also, in a great example of holistic problem solving, the model works to remove some of the system inertia by also having night visits for the mobile labs to meet with parents and village leaders to spark curiosity on a mass scale with appropriate materials for them (i.e. medicinal value of herbs, etc.) and inform them of how their children are being taught to learn.

One interesting point of debate that arose and really seemed to delineate the veteran social entrepreneurs from the new generation is in the actual structuring of the social entrepreneurship. What makes a business a social entrepreneurship? Some of the veterans insisted that this type of business means that the company is owned by the producers vs. being private company funded by philanthropic (or other) dollars for the purposes of making a profit. If the business is for profit, what level of earnings reinvestment is necessary to distinguish a social enterprise from any for profit business? This raises an interesting question about whether or not the end impact matters more than how you get there and who finances it? Some argue the greater issue is that to make any impact of scale, the business must be whatever structure is most appropriate for accessing capital. Then this begs the question of where does the ownership lie? Some would argue that a true social business is for the people and owned by the people. What limitations exist within other various forms of ownership? Non profits may not be able to access certain types of private funds while for profits can be shut out of foundation money. In many instances the money required to scale up it comes with a price tag of a 15-30% IRR. Additionally, it was mentioned that it is particularly challenging for social entrepreneurs to get bank loans. As these businesses and business owners endear themselves to the communities they are serving it creates significant ill will if a bank ever has to shut one of these businesses down. Overall, the few days of listening to these Fellows talk brought about more and more questions in my mind about how and if creating scalable solutions to the challenges of India’s poor is a possibility given India’s incredible diversity particularly at the village level and how to unite all of these different parties (including all 350 Ashoka India Fellows) and leverage these individual efforts for something greater.


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