Tuesday, October 16, 2007

ICT for the bottom of the pyramid


 “Achieving sustainable human security is a priority task. Knowledge connectivity within & among countries will help to achieve this goal. This is why we should make 'Mission 2007: Every Village a Knowledge Centre' a success.” M. S. Swaminathan

ICTs have become, within a very short time, the building blocks of a modern society: a society which cannot sustain itself unless the benefits reach the bottom of the pyramid. This paper discusses the wide spectrum of ICTs used in diverse applications. This is presented in light of the benefits to the lower strata of the society. This is followed by a study of the challenges faced in the successful implementation of ICT projects: challenges that arise due to the complex nature of the problems faced by the poor. Evaluation of these problems helped arrive at long term sustainable strategies for strengthening the bottom strata of the society.


ICTs are used as tools to perpetuate equality, improve awareness & foster economic growth at a micro level, to empower the society at the grass-root level.

1.    Radio: The inherent strength of radio broadcasts lies in its reach to remote areas, leading to increased local business, agricultural productivity & formation of civic organizations. E.g. National Institute for Disaster Management in Mozambique distributed Freeplay radios to the flood victims.

2.    Television: TV has a considerable potential for education & development. E.g. Krishi-darshan broadcasted by Doordarshan provides weekly farmer’s workshops.

3.    Telephones/Mobiles: These can be extensively used for information flows like better prices for outputs & inputs, easier job searches, reduced mortality rates for livestock & poultry and better returns on foreign-exchange transactions. E.g. Grameen hand phones in Bangladesh.

4.    Computer & Internet: Telecentres can provide a range of ICT-based services for generating income e.g. telephony, desktop & publishing services, e-mail etc. E.g. APC Women’s Network Support Program set-up telecentres to work against the ‘feminization of poverty’.

5.    Storage devices: These effectively disseminate knowledge on diverse topics with the help of video & audio content. E.g. Abantu Project in Kenya used self-teaching CD-ROMs to be more cost-effective than sending people to training courses.

6.    Video/Tele Conferencing: It is effective in imparting training courses, seminars & workshops on specific applications. E.g. SibDev Project in Russia enabled participants to discuss issues related to small business development with specialists from the World Bank & IFC.

7.    Satellite Communication: SatCom provides sophisticated broadcasting networks. E.g. SAPNET Project in collaboration with ISRO provided distance learning, telemedicine & e-governance through a television channel called MANA TV. 

8.    Webcasts: Net-casting delivers updates using interactive broadcasting. E.g. NIC provided live webcast of Summit of Asian IT Ministers, Hyderabad, on government initiatives to use ICT to boost socio-economic development.

India is a land of stark contrasts where dire poverty & booming IT industry coexist in the same sphere. The ICTs discussed above find direct application in several initiatives bringing vital information at the doorsteps of the poor.

1.    Agriculture, Fisheries & Animal Husbandry
·         Information from agri-databases related to drought management, water management, crop yields, market prices, knowledge of modern farming techniques, land records, consultation with experts.
·         Issuance of SMART cards for easy billing & payment leading to reduction in payment time.
·         Management of animal population, animal diseases, milk route transportation, milk procurement, proper weighing, cattle feed utilization & other veterinary services.

2.    Disaster Management
·         Administrative & technical assistance for preparedness, response & mitigation efforts.
·         Wireless & satellite networks, GIS for providing early warning signals.

3.    Education
·         Vocational training, e-learning to enhance employment avenues.
·         Skill & sexuality education targeting adolescent girls from rural areas.
·         Connecting schools on Intranet & Internet, by providing them computer lab to facilitate IT education.
·         Setting up kiosks/e-Kendra’s within 2-3 kms. of every household to provide connectivity to the common man.

4.    Livelihoods
·         Information portal & community information centers that provide information on job vacancies
·         E-Enabled local farmer’s cooperative societies.
·         Community based women organizations to promote inter-city direct sales of products made by artisans & skilled workers.
·         Providing a platform for IT jobs.

5.    Health
·         Health insurance, immunization coverage.
·         Computerization of all health related data, providing health cards.
·         Mobile vans with primary diagnostic & testing equipments.
·         Telemedicine support using satellite system/ high speed fiber connectivity, online scheduling of appointments with patients, comprehensive EMR with unique patient identification & online diagnostic test reports.
·         Use of mobile devices like PDA for data capturing, data transmission & report generation.
·         Braille text reading through computers for visually impaired people.

6.    Rural Water Supply & Sanitation
·         IT tool to create an interactive water-map of the village.
·         Maintaining lists e.g. amount of water available from each water source, water quality testing results, maintenance work done & required.
·         Estimates of water demand, future monthly water budgets & amount of community need met through rainwater harvesting systems.

7.    Women Empowerment
·         Computer literacy for data entry jobs.
·         Software for accounting & MIS services to SHG of rural women involved in small savings & credit (Microfinance).
·         Intranet portals & web-based partnerships in the local language for rural women.

8.    e-Governance
·         Interactive web portal to interact with all government offices.
·         Consumer resource & grievance redressal system.
·         Comprehensive data-bank covering a wide variety of information/future plans on the locality.

9.    Culture, Tourism & Heritage, Development
·         New markets for skilled artisans engaged in production of various traditional handicrafts.
·          Online systems to integrate cultural information & provide an interactive interface.

10.  Environment & Natural Resources Management
·         Forest-fire forecasting using GIS & remote sensing for sustenance of tribal communities.
·         Computer based repository/network compiling of traditional knowledge, helping in conserving & utilizing natural resources.
·         ‘Centre of Excellence’ providing knowledge management for clean energy, energy efficiency and issues related to mitigation & adaptation of climate change.

The list is endless. A representative list of well-renowned ICT projects is compiled in the APPENDIX.


ICT addresses the specific needs of the less privileged, often-overlooked section of the society under several dimensions as listed below:

1.    Social:
·         ICT builds ‘farmer relationships’ by enabling inter-communal information flows despite geographical impediments.
·         Radio broadcasting & tele-centres offer health information in local languages, thus promoting family welfare.
·         Improved knowledge & awareness will reduce the structural inequalities by including a broader spectrum of the society & achieving gender equality.

2.    Educational:
·         Digital literacy with a pro-poor focus imparts the skills required for equal participation in the knowledge economy.
·         E-learning, adult literacy programs & women’s education enable e-inclusion of the low-income households, cultural minorities, peri-urban & rural areas into the mainstream economy.

3.    Economical:
·         ICT facilitates economic re-integration for sustainable national development.
·         It enables access to new markets & provides the economies of scale to collective farming.
·         It provides sustainable livelihood leading to poverty alleviation.

4.    Financial:
·         ICT enables mobilization of financial resources through microcredit.
·         Health micro-insurance schemes provide protection against health hazards.
·         Card services, ATMs & Internet banking protect the poor from the clutches of local moneylenders.
·         It facilitates building of alliances involving PPP thus promoting investments in the infrastructure & reducing the cost of access to the under-served communities.

 5.    Informational:
·         Trading infrastructure provides real-time price & market information enabling price-discovery.
·         ICT raises awareness about the current affairs, trading, education, health, entertainment & weather.
·         Contextualization through local content development provides relevancy & meaningful use of the available information by the poor.

6.    Technological:
·         Farm extension services disseminate information to increase productivity by improved farming techniques & remote crop diagnostics.
·         Desktop & publishing services remove the need for villagers to travel great distances to make photocopies of land documents etc.

7.    Environmental:
·         The early warning systems contribute to enhanced security for fishermen.
·         The up-to-date local weather forecasts help the farmers to make informed decisions about their crops.

8.    Political:
·         ICT enhances transparency in governance by processing transactions without human intervention.
·         It empowers the citizens by increased accountability & easier redressal of grievances.
·         E-Panchayats foster democracy by equality in benefits & informed decision-making by the poor.

9.    Organizational:
·         ERP provides comprehensive assistance with all aspects of farming throughout the lifecycle of the crop & in the procurement of certified seeds.
·         ICT enables a low-cost channel for rural distribution.
·         Information availability enhances customization according to a community’s or an individual’s needs & preferences.
·         Multi-stakeholder alliances & partnerships lead to sharing risk & enhanced synergies of rural SMEs.

10.  Cultural & Psychological:
·         ICT promotes change & transformation by emphasizing on modern ways of living.
·         Cultural websites help strengthen the indigenous knowledge of little-known tribes.
·         Computer graphics act as a form of cultural expression. 
-     ICT strengthens awareness & self-esteem and provides advisory services to support the process of critical thinking & problem solving capacity in times of need.


 Samaikya Agri Tech Pvt. Ltd. is no longer in operation & the project has been abandoned...
Swayam Krishi Sangham had discontinued using smart cards in the cooperative sector…
 In SITA an internship program was created half-way though the project…
Theft of copper piping encased the phone lines in Nigeria & reduced the ability of people to access the Fantsuam health telecenters….

As evident from the incidents above, not all ICT projects are success stories!! Modern technology often carries a halo effect in the settings in which these projects are conducted. Many projects show signs of faltering, following the initial enthusiasm of a novel initiative. WHY??
1.    Awareness: The illiterate class does not recognize the potential benefits of ICT due to economic, educational & socio-cultural barriers.
2.    Mindset Management: Community un-acceptance & employee resistance hinder the implementation of ICT projects.
3.    Politics:  Legacy systems & organizational inertia work against new processes.
4.    Relevancy: The information content may not be suitable for the target population. 
5.    Financial Sustainability: Significant external funding is required to replicate most ICT projects. New projects require startup funds both to cover the cost of community development work & subsidize initial operations.
6.    Operational Hiccups: There is a pressing need to incorporate ongoing monitoring into project operations. ICT project should strive to streamline operational standards & establish management controls to ensure quality control.
7.    Accessibility: Remoteness & infrastructural limitations hamper access to ICT.
8.    Scalability: Sudden increase in the number of planned transactions per day may pose problems.
9.    Partnership: Finding organizations & partners that truly complement & enhance a project can be difficult.
10.  Technical Challenge: Unreliable electricity & communications infrastructure and physical deterioration render the networks unreliable & inaccessible. The need for skilled IT support in rural areas can prove to be a deterrent.
11.  Infrastructure: The geographic coverage & cost of technology needed to access the Internet (e.g., computers, servers, modems, telephone lines, telephone usage charges) requires considerable training in computer & internet use.
12.  Job Placement: ICT projects are confronted with the need of pro-active skills-training to respond to job market needs.


A successful ICT project must ensure productivity & profitability for the community. It should be based on effective partnership between the four key stakeholders:
1.    Public sector: Governments
2.    Private sector: Multi-national organizations wishing to expand their markets
3.    Informal sector: NGOs, advocacy groups, think tanks
4.    Community: Target audience

The essential components of project execution are discussed through 6C Implementation framework:
1.    Competency: Government should recruit recent ICT graduates as well as train the existing staff. It should partner with NGOs having special links to the “grassroots” & special interest groups to spread computer literacy.
2.    Capital: Government should use Franchise-based model so that the cost of establishing the infrastructure for voice & data connectivity is borne by the private partner. 
3.    Cyber-laws: Government should implement laws to address issues like data privacy, authentication & access control, legal recognition to electronic records.
4.    Connectivity: Well-architected communications networks are required at the district, mandal & village level.
5.    Citizen interface: Information needs to be adjusted to the cultural context, local languages & capacities of the users.
6.    Content: The application content should translate end objectives into visible results. 

Community acceptance
Usage time, Satisfaction level, Understandability, Presentation
Service delivery
System up-time, Speed, Reliability, Security
Improvement in productivity, Efficiency, Portability
People employed, No. of e-trades executed
Good Governance
Participation in democracy

Information infrastructures with the right architecture can assure seamless integration of all entities, based on satisfying the minimum network/technical requirements:
1.    Broadband internet access to transfer data from the server.
2.    Encrypted VPN, password protection for secure access to maintain data confidentiality.
3.    Data warehouse to support business applications.
4.    Flexible, scalable, real-time, local content, user-friendly interface.

A model for integrating rural areas:


Fishbone Diagram: The potential causes of distress are analyzed to understand the depth of the problems faced by the poor. 

ICT application for poverty alleviation may appear contradictory to the proposition of utilizing ICT for sophisticated uses. But these are compatible & complementary, because a nation with a digital-divide between the haves & the have-nots cannot sustain in the long run. ICT can be implemented at the grass-root level by following the simple dictum:

KISSSS: Keep it Simple, Supportable, Sustainable, Scalable.

Tows Matrix: ICT For The Bottom Of The Pyramid
The analysis of the challenges helps us to identify the strengths & weaknesses of ICT projects & how the external opportunities & threats can be utilized to derive long term sustainable solutions.
        Internal Factors

External Factors
Access to innovative technology
Government support
High initial capital requirement
Weak existing infrastructure
Training requirement
Continuous monitoring for successful execution
Booming IT industry
Customized Information provided in local languages
Vast untapped sector
Employment generation
Use local government network to digitize remote areas.
Run a promotional campaign to project a new techno-savvy image of rural India.
Economies of scale to overcome high initial cost.
Collaboration with private players for win-win proposition.
Mindset Management
Security & data privacy
Natural Disaster
Technology can be used to overcome data security fears.
Involve NGOs in conducting workshops on ICT benefits to enable mindset change.
Informal sessions (Stage-plays) to familiarize the rural masses with potential benefits of ICT.
R&D & adoption of best practices for successful implementation.


ICTs can be a panacea for the ills that beset the poor. Diverse technological applications, novel initiatives targeted at the right audience, collaborative relationships & well-executed projects are bound to strengthen the bottom of the pyramid.
The potential for change in the next ten years is immense, as the IT industry seeks solutions to our society's problems: solutions that must raise awareness, empower the poor, increase productivity, generate cost savings, provide healthier lives & better governance.
Effective ICT projects that encompass these objectives will help us march towards the United Nations MDGs that serve as a roadmap towards the next decade of human development on a global scale.


1.    The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, Eradicating Poverty Through Profits: C. K. Prahlad
2.    Engendering Information & Communication Technologies Challenges & Opportunities for Gender-Equitable Development: The World Bank
3.    Information Communications Technology for Development: United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
4.    Empowering the Poor: Information and Communications Technology for Governance &  Poverty Reduction: Roger Harris & Rajesh Rajora
5.    Information and Communication Technologies and large-scale poverty reduction Lessons from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean: Panos London (2005)
6.    Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) For Poverty Reduction? Richard Gerster And Sonja Zimmermann
7.    The Women Information and Communications Technology Project (WICT), Kenya: Tameezan wa Gathui
8.    Including the Excluded- Can ICTs empower poor communities? Towards an alternative evaluation framework based on the capability approach: Björn-Sören Gigler
9.    ICTs for Poverty Alleviation: Basic Tool and Enabling Sector : Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA)
10.  ICT for Development Contributing to the Millennium Development Goals: InfoDev ( Information for Development Program)
11.  Information and Communication Technologies for Disaster Risk Reduction: Mandira Shrestha and Sushil Pandey
12.  http://informatics.nic.in e-Governance Bulletin from NIC
13. Mission 2007: Every Village a Knowledge Centre
15.  www.ict4rd.net.in  Application of ICT for rural development



APC: Association for Progressive Communication
ATM: Automatic Teller Machine
CD-ROM: Compact Disc – Read Only Memory
EMR: Electronic Medical Recorder
ERP: Enterprise Resource Planning
GIS: Geographical Information System
ICTs: Information & Communication Technologies
IFC: International Finance Corporation
ISRO: Indian Space Research Organization
MDG: Millennium Development Goals
MIS: Management Information System
NGO: Non Government Organization
NIC: National Informatics Centre
PDA: Personal Digital Assistants
PPP: Public Private Partnership
SAPNET: Society for Andhra Pradesh Network
SHG: Self Help Group
SibDev: Siberian Development Net
SITA: Studies in Information Technology Applications
SME: Small & Medium Enterprises
VPN: Virtual Private Network

- Varsha / Tanima
(Awarded at Expressions'2007)

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