Integrating tech into rural programmes

Integrating tech into rural programmes: Lessons learnt along the way

We will remember 2020 as the year when the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns helped move disruptive technology innovations from being ‘futuristic’ to the mainstream. Today, access to and usage of digital technology become a way of life for many and is no longer just a vision. Virtual meetings, virtual celebrations and online teaching have moved from being novelties used by early adopters to large user bases, while there has been a surge in e-commerce. Historically, social impact organizations have shied away from investing in digital capabilities. But technology is now the core engine uniting teams and stakeholders across geographies leading to tangible impact.

At Grameen Foundation India (GFI), our head office and field staff transitioned into virtual workspaces while our change-makers, the Grameen Mittras, have been using technology as part of their core business process for a while now. Our mobile application, Grameen Mittra Connect, with its intuitive interface at the front end and scalable platform with numerous API integrations at the back end, takes financial tools and services to the rural hinterland. The Mittras, women recruited from rural areas and trained and supervised by GFI, bridge the last-mile gap by providing a range of financial and non-financial services, such as goal-based saving, digital literacy, bill payments, mobile & DTH recharge, information on government schemes, solar products, finance, micro insurance services, and even educating women about menstrual hygiene products. While this deep data and digitally driven journey may have just begun, we are learning some lessons along the way.

Keep it simple

This pandemic is not just a humanitarian crisis but also a care crisis. Working women have had to juggle between work and domestic responsibilities constantly. No wonder Madhuri Rewatkar, a 42-year-old homemaker and a Mittra from Nagpur, is hooked to Grameen Mittra Connect. The one-stop app makes her job much easier when she is talking to her fellow villagers.

To have everything from information on loans and bank schemes in one app has allowed me to manage my time better,” she says.

Only when poor people are made part of the mainstream financial systems, can they get access to credit, set savings goals, and so invest, buy assets and insurance, she has realized.

Sunil Kulkarni, Chief Business Mentor at Oxigen, told a seminar co-hosted by GFI recently, that, while the government’s Jan Dhan bank accounts were widely used during the COVID-19 lockdown, there aren’t enough ATMs for everyone to use their accounts effectively, which disrupted the last-mile access.

Intelligent digital platforms can create sustainable impact

Our research tells us social impact can be made with smart social algorithms that can be accessed remotely.  During COVID-19 lockdown, workers in the informal sector were one of the most adversely affected segments. Daily-wage earners had no work, and migrant workers lost their jobs. Helping such people with unconditional cash transfers validated our premise that the right tools and mechanism can create a tangible social impact.

Data is the new currency

Grameen is collaborating with Experian India to test a tool that uses artificial intelligence to create credit scores of customers in the marginalized communities, who do not have a digital footprint. This AI-based credit score will help such people get loans without tedious paperwork and access formal banking products, making the entire system more inclusive. The insights generated by this initiative will help microfinance companies fine-tune their financing products.

“Technology can be a great equalizer when it comes to health care, education – to the point where rich, poor, middle class can all get the same benefits.” – Jeff Greene

When it comes to training or sensitizing low-income people remotely, smart applications able to tap a wealth of centralized content can help increase knowledge at a very low marginal cost. At Grameen, our improved GLeap app does this by creating interactive and engaging course modules on everything improves financial inclusion.

Jayraj Nath, Director of GFI’s tech division, says: “Human-centric design plays a pivotal role for us. At the tech centre, we take pride in our work and stand by the Indian rural women as they strive for financial inclusion and try to energize their community. We believe in the saying that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and are committed to ensuring ease of use in the solutions we provide.”

Simplicity comes at a cost, and we have never been frugal. We have used the Pentaho OLAP Engine, Amazon Redshift Data Warehouse and Elasticsearch Cassandra NoSQL Store.