Spearheading rural information technology initiatives

Indian CIOs now play a major role in social upliftment by taking information technology (IT) to rural India. Leading Indian IT managers talk about rural technology implementation challenges and share their experiences in setting up rural IT infrastructures.

Rural IT is no more an alien subject for Indian corporations. Leading companies like ITC Ltd., Sumul and Tata Chemicals Ltd. have been in the forefront of taking IT to India's hinterland. These organizations have managed to successfully overcome the challenges associated with the rural scenario.

Initiated in 2000, ITC's e-Choupal project is an oft-cited example on this front, with a network of 6,500 e-Choupal centers spread across 40,000 locations. To take another example, IT has been a major business driver for dairy farmers in rural Western India due to the initiatives taken by Surat District Co-operative Milk Producers' Union Ltd (Sumul). Indian CIOs have come a long way when it comes to creation of new methods to utilize IT at the rural level. However, there's more at play than just the business need when it comes a rural IT initiative.

Before moving to a rural location in India, a CIO has to come up with a plan to overcome basic challenges like lack of IT awareness, power and connectivity. For example, Sumul is amongst the 12 district unions that manufacture dairy products for Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd., marketers of the Amul and Dhara brands of products. Satyen Naik, manager of IT at Sumul, has taken several IT initiatives for modernization of villages.

When Sumul started its computerization process (between 1985 and 1995), its employees were not familiar with computer operations and were hesitant to use computers. As Naik recalls, Sumul's village society members were initially not willing to adopt the organization's technology initiatives. Today, after successful implementation at various locations, the demand for computerization has gained momentum.

Rural IT implementation challenges

Indian CIOs have no option but to come up with innovative solutions to resolve the hurdles in a rural environment. For example, Mahindra Finance has an innovative rural IT implementation worth a look. The organization is a nonbanking company that focuses on rural- and semiurban-sector finance for utility vehicles and tractors.

Mahindra Finance came up with Project Business Connect to capture customer information in a nonintrusive and structured manner. This information is necessary to track a customer's transactions over the lifecycle of the vehicle. "We follow three processes -- customer connect, customer voice and customer touch. Connect collects information of the customer, whereas the other two processes collect customer details like biometrics, photo and voice," says Suresh A Shan, the national head for business information technology solutions at Mahindra & Mahindra Financial Services Ltd.

According to Shan, power cuts were the biggest problems faced by the organization's rural IT initiatives. "We have only three hours of connectivity at some of our locations. So we have designed our infrastructure in such a way that our IT setup first runs on renewable power sources like solar. If that power source fails, it is backed up by battery power. When both these sources fail, then the setup draws power from the grid. So we are not directly dependant on the power grid for our power supply," Shan says.

Management of multiple locations and keeping track of IT assets is another challenge faced by CIOs. For Vikas Gadre, CIO of Tata Chemicals Ltd., the challenge involved maintenance of PC terminals at various remote locations. Tata Chemicals runs close to 600 Tata Kisan Sansar kendras (TSK) across India. These kendras cater to more than 3.5 million farmers in 22,000 villages across northern and eastern India. The TSKs are one-stop solution shops that provide farmers with access to a wide range of agricultural inputs such as vital fertilizers, seeds and pesticides. TSKs also provide agricultural services such as soil testing, crop advisory and foliar application services.

For a rural initiative, effective end-user training along with skilled manpower to drive the project forward are critical. In this context, finding the right talent pool is another big challenge.

Rising expenses on the 250 terminals deployed at 250 TSKs became a major concern for Gadre and his team. "We realized that maintenance, as well as software and connectivity upgrades, are a critical concern. Also, each TSK's operation was largely dependent on the power supply. Tata Chemicals did not gain the expected benefits from this initiative," Gadre says.

Hence, Tata Chemicals is experimenting on a workaround that takes PC terminals out of the equation. The company is working on a pilot project using handheld devices that connect to the organization's server. "These handhelds will take away the burden of PC maintenance. Additionally, it will provide online inventory accounting at every TSK, print invoices, as well as provide support in terms of accounting and tax-related information. We can use all this information to build a farmer database. We are using these handhelds to innovatively create a farmer's identification card. This will be a bar-coded card, and therefore inexpensive," Gadre says. He adds there are a couple of companies in India that manufacture such equipment at low costs.

Gujarat-based nonprofit organization Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) has taken IT to a different level by giving computer education to rural women. SEWA is involved in vocational training and the creation of full-time employment for rural women. As part of this initiative, SEWA has set up 50 Community Learning Centers (CLCs) across the 14 districts of the state of Gujarat.

"Initially, SEWA members from remote locations had to come all the way to district offices for vocational training. To overcome this problem, we came with a concept of CLCs in remote areas," explains Rushi Laheri, the manager of IT at SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre.

SEWA has served rural populations since 2003. Today, many of its members can operate the Internet and send emails in regional languages. "We downloaded and installed free fonts on our computers. We also use freeware. Apart from this, we have also started using Google Translate," Laheri says.

To overcome the challenge of connectivity, Sewa uses the village resource centre (VRC) operated by Indian Space Research Organization. This service provides very small aperture connectivity to rural locations. Sewa has seven such VRCs with a power backup of a few hours.

The right managers

When it comes to a rural initiative, effective end-user training along with the skilled manpower to drive the project forward are extremely critical. In this context, finding the right talent pool is another big challenge for a CIO.

The prime issue on this front is that technical experts from a metro area will not move to a village. Even if these personnel do make the move, there might be language and cultural issues. Hence, it is necessary to train people who understand the local language and belong to the specific area.

At Sumul, the management decided to give computer training from a reputed training institute. During the training, people were educated about the advantages of computers and their usage. Later, business applications were developed using FoxPro/Clipper. However, these applications were not capable of handling large amounts of data, so Sumul developed an online integrated computerized system (OICS). OICS is a well-integrated package using the Oracle database. A few employees from each department, who had shown interest in IT systems, were trained to use OICS. In turn, these employees helped their colleagues get acquainted with the systems. "Now the users have confidence in IT. Their expectations from the IT department are increasing every day, which is very encouraging," Naik says.

Similarly, Shan has appointed experts for every five locations of Mahindra Finance's rural IT initiative. These personnel are the chief technology officer or CIO for each particular region to ensure delivery of technology and service support. Mahindra Finance is present in 436 locations, out of which 418 locations are part of the initiative.

IT makes a difference

With the success of many more such rural initiatives and the benefits they have brought to semiurban and rural areas, CEOs of many public- and private-sector organizations are shedding their initial skepticism and supporting IT initiatives to pry open nascent markets in the remotest parts of India. And the early adopters of rural IT are upgrading their existing initiatives to further bridge the digital divide.

For instance, Sumul is working on the Village Connectivity Project. This is an initiative to connect all 1,036 village co-operative societies through wireless and leased line technologies over the next three years.

Vikas Gadre says as the TSK concept gets more popular, he has plans to double the number in a couple of years, adding he anticipates an IT team expansion to account for this.

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