Taking IT to the Third World's poorest

Hewlett-Packard is sponsoring i-communities in economically deprived areas to boost economic development through technology....

Hewlett-Packard is sponsoring i-communities in economically deprived areas to boost economic development through technology. Debra Dunn, senior vice-president for corporate affairs at HP, explains how HP has learned to do well while doing good.

One of areas already benefiting from this public/private partnership is the town of Kuppam in the state of Andhra Pradesh, India. HP's philanthropy also helps the company to build markets, test products and hone the global savvy of HP leaders.

What's an i-community?

"Essentially, an i-community is a collaborative engagement with government and non-profit or community-based organisations in a specific area to figure out how information and communications technology can best accelerate economic development in ways sustainable for the community and HP," said Dunn.

There is clearly a philanthropic component on HP's part, but you say it is also tied to business strategy. How?

"In a couple of critical ways," Dunn explained. "When we think long term about where opportunities for growth are in our business, accessing developing markets is very high on the list of opportunities.

"Today our products are probably sold to the top billion people in world, but the top economic tier is getting smaller as a percent of the total. So figure out where growth will come from. It is critical to develop products for people low on the economic pyramid.

"These (i-communities) provide a rich testbed: deep engagement with real customer needs in a different segment of the economic strata. And governments in emerging markets are applying technology as a way to deliver services because that is fundamental to their success long term," she said.

Give an example of how the project has affected the community.

"One of the big services we focus on is agriculture. Kuppam is a pretty remote place and not a lot of resources are available to help improve productivity," Dunn said. "Farmers now have access to an agricultural advisory group via e-mail through the community information centres and can use them to diagnose all kinds of problems.

"They can tap into the village photographer - another thing we have set up - and send in digital photos of problems with crops and get quick turnaround advice."

What impact do you foresee over the next two years of the three-year project?

Dunn said, "There will be more community information centres. More citizens will have direct access, target schools will be more wired, more teachers will be trained. But some of most exciting things will come from the community.

"That is the power of these projects. They get to play with things we take for granted and figure out ways to use them that are relevant to them, while tapping the technical expertise from HP.

"For example, in another project in India, an entrepreneur running an information centre discovered he could use a projector and turn a computer into a cinema. He is charging a few rupees for a service that is highly valuable in the community. So we are helping members of the community unleash their own creativity around what technology can do," Dunn said.

Why the three-year deadline?

"It is important to create some urgency and incentive around milestones and around organisations getting resources quickly so you get traction. We have a lot of people on the ground there. The goal is to get the project to a level where it is sustainable without deep involvement by HP," she said.

What does HP actually get out of this other than potential long-term markets?

"HP also gets some short-term things," Dunn explained. "Employee motivation: Our employees want to be part of a company that focuses on something bigger than making a profit.

"We get a lot of insight into what it is going to take to compete in this segment of the market. We are very much a part of the dialogue in India about trying to provide affordable technology to rural communities, and that provides helpful intelligence for our mainstream business.

"And for the people who actually work on these projects, the development is unbelievable. This stuff is really hard. You learn so much in terms of perspective and being careful about assumptions and about the dynamics in developing markets. It's phenomenal."

Are there opportunities for non-technology companies to get involved in these types of initiatives?

"I think there are," she said. "This market is very much a services-based, shared-use market. The services that will be delivered will be in the health area, entertainment, information - all kinds of things. That is the next ring of the circle: the content-based solutions that would feed these types of projects," Dunn said.

Kathleen Melymuka writes for Computerworld

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