2nd September,  2002

Tech Goes Rural

RANGAMMA of SKS is adept at using her handheld to monitor the finances of eight groups of women of the NGO funds.  Her Job is crucial for SKS because they cannot afford defaults.

There are over  million people in rural India with a discretionary purchasing power of a few thousand crorest between them.  They need technology as much as their urban counterparts and, if you can reach it to them and can keep the tech affordable, they'll figure out how to use it and pay for it.

There was Rangamma, oblivious to he world, desperately searching the Net for Telugu content.  A single mother now, she was born into a dalit family and schooled till Class VII.  Hers is a  heavy cross.  A half hour later, she stunned the audience with a click presentation on Power Point with a handheld to aid her.

She works in Medak, Andhra Pradesh, for SKS, an NGO modeled along Bangladesh's Grameen Bank.  SKS provides micro-finance to groups of women.  Rangamma has to monitor eight such groups.  Because each group has five women, Rangamma has to keep tabs on 40 individuals every day.  SKS operates on wafer-thin margins and defaults may mean a collapse.

So Rangamma has to meet all 40 members daily and update their records for interest, principal and penalties, if any.  She works on  a tight deadline and has to complete all of it in under three hours.  But there's a problem.  Most of the members leave for work early.  So those groups that cannot meet Rangamma before the 8:30 a.m. deadline - there are always one or two - have to defer updating their records.  this failure has cascading effect and penalties have to be levied on those that don't pay up.

To solve this problem, Rangamma decided to visit the members rather than have them visit her.  But how would she carry around the ledgers? That's when SKS figured it'd be a good idea to train her to use handheld devices bought her a Palm IIIC and configured it to meet their requirements.  This involved loading the collection sheets into the devices and synchronizing the data with the PC at their branch office.  In 15 days, SKS figured they had a winner.  Rangamma's productivity was up manifold, and she could also prepare consolidated reports quicker because the Palm does the computing.

"But," points out Dinesh Choudhary, a manager in charge of the project, "at Rs 10,000-20,000 for a good handheld, the costs are prohibitive for an organization that functions as an NGO." Choudhary's dilemma is unique one.  He wants to scale up the handheld initiative, but the costs hold him back. "Where are the sub-$50 handhelds?" he asks. In fact, Rangamma, who earns Rs 5,000  a month, isn't averse to buying one if it is affordable.