The definition of the internet for people like you and me, who live in the ‘connected’ parts of the country, equals to necessity. But for those living in rural areas, the internet is an exotic medium that they believe is beyond reach. However, programs such as Internet Saathi – a joint initiative by Google and Tata Trusts – is aimed exactly at bridging that divide between the rural and the urban, the male and the female.
The Internet Saathi program started in 2015 with the ambition of bringing digital literacy in rural areas. In its third year, the initiative has reached 140,000 villages in India, and in the next few years targets to cover 50 percent of the Indian villages. One of the accomplishments of this program is that there has been a positive change with the help of the medium of the internet. This is in turn is helping villagers improve their own knowledge about the world, and also learn better methods of farming, milk processing, and entrepreneurship.
Internet Saathi and how it works
As part of the program, rural women are trained with the basic skills of device use, and are introduced to the medium of internet. The idea is to initially make them comfortable with the use of technology. Aiding in the process of digital literacy, Google and its partners in the project begin with spreading awareness about the internet, and its potential benefits. After basic skills are taught, the program identifies potential ‘Internet Saathis’ or trainers who go forth and train more women in the given region.
The women are provided with a budget tablet, a smartphone, and data connection to teach the basics of device functioning and internet use. These Internet Saathis, once fully trained, are then assigned various projects where they can travel to the next village and train more women.
In a country like India, where women face a lot of restrictions when it comes to education and finding jobs, it is interesting to see how a program like this is empowering women to become entrepreneurs. It was during a visit to a village named Karandi (50km from Pune), where I got the chance to talk to these Internet Saathis, and learn about their experiences in the journey towards digital literacy.
Internet helping rural women turn entrepreneurs
When you enter Karandi, it is far developed than you would probably assume a village to be. There are proper roads and permanent houses, one primary school, and a local library as well. This made me see whether the program is actually penetrating the right regions or not. However, I later learnt that the reach of the program is at the far interiors of the country, and Karandi is just one of the stops.
At the small village, there are some 20-30 women, each with a story or an experience to share. Of these, Vandana Poddar is the Internet Saathi who learned the basics of internet, and taught women of her village to explore the medium for their benefit. Some of them have learnt newer recipes to cook, while some have learned to sow seeds in a better manner so as to improve the farm produce.
However, in addition to the usual knowledge acquisition, what the women in Karandi have also learnt is the use of the internet to learn about business technique. It is not necessary for everyone to be a successful businessperson, but it is possible to be a good entrepreneur, and internet has helped these women to become such entrepreneurs.
“We used the internet to learn about the right way to make potato chips at home. First, we didn’t know how to do it right. Now we all are able to produce potato chips and also sell them in our village. Earlier potato chips were not sold all year around in Karandi. It used to be a seasonal affair. But after we learned about the techniques from the internet, it is easy for us to make and store the chips. We have started our little ‘Shri Krisha Wafers’ business. It has also given the women of the village a source of income,” says Vandana.
Women of the village are primarily uneducated and depend on their husbands. With the introduction to the internet, a lot of areas have opened to them, allowing them to add to the family income and become more confident. One of the women told us how she learned to design sarees by watching videos on YouTube, one learned the right way to make the sugar syrup for Chikkis, while another learned DIY jewellery. Some of them also do online shopping, as Vandana reveals.
Internet is becoming a substitute for education
If one looks at the internet use of an average non-tech person in the urban regions, it is limited to using internet for communication or social media. Sure, we use apps, services, know how to use email, are on social networking websites sharing pictures and videos. But amidst this, there’s no learning happening. And if there is, it is not usually passed on.
“The use cases of the internet in rural areas are very different as opposed to what we are used to. We take a lot of things for granted which is actually transformational for the people here. What we have observed here is that women have started using internet for solving their needs such as education, finding job opportunities, upscaling themselves. Internet has almost become a substitute for the education that they never had or have been deprived of. They are getting more informed about governmental benefits which they had never been aware of. We have seen people getting the thrust of entrepreneurship. Women are coming together to learn and create handicrafts, learn about running beauty parlors, and their income levels have also gone up.”
To overcome the barrier of language or device literacy, voice search is one of the methods which the women are using to simplify things. Most of the women prefer learning through image or video, and not heavy text.
The roadblocks to entrepreneurship
We, as urban citizens, are less likely to come across discrimination when it comes to technology. Most of us own personal smartphones and are fortunate to have access to the internet and the skills to put it to use. However, in the rural areas, making people aware and comfortable about the concept and usage of internet is a challenge.
Neha Barjatya, Chief Internet Saathi, Google India, explained how reaching out to the villages in India had been a difficult task initially. Right from identifying villages and potential Internet Saathis, to seeking approvals from the panchayats and family members of these rural women, there are a lot of challenges to be overcome before there is a certain level of comfort among the villagers and the women to learn and incorporate the learnings in everyday life.
However, things are on their way to change. “Back in 2015, when we looked at the statistics in terms of internet usage, 1 in 10 users was a woman. And it was the worst gender ratio and that’s when we decided to come up with the Internet Saathi program with the objective of bridging the online gender divide and helping the women in rural India not only get online, but also make the internet more useful and meaningful for them,” says Barjatya.
“One of the biggest barriers in bringing internet to rural women was the perception. People believed that the internet was a bad influence, it was not meant for them. Second, access was also a barrier. People did not have smartphones. Even the households which had smartphones did not allow women to use them, and most importantly, there was no one to help them or train them. So we had to make our training more meaningful for the rural women.”
“Initially, not too many women were coming for the program. We then realized that in rural areas, the distance was a big problem. So we thought if they are not coming to us, can we go to them. We started this pilot in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh, where we started with this little cart with the idea of taking the internet to the women. The cart contained internet-enabled devices and a trainer who would go from household to household. The response was better. Slowly we evolved, and we came to the model that we are at today where we identify women within the villages, train them on how to use the internet and then we give them two devices which are internet enabled and these women on a day-to-day basis will go to their neighbours, and neighbouring villages, and help other women get online,” explains Barjatya.
Right now, the initiative has reached 140,000 villages across 13 states in India. According to Google, about 13.5 million women have benefited from the program. Going forward, the goal of Google, Tata Trusts, and its partners is to reach 300,000 villages which will cover 50 percent villages in the country.
The change that the initiative is bringing is also reflecting in terms of actual numbers. As Google reveals, in 2017, the female-to-male ratio of internet users in rural India has improved to three in 10 last year. This resonates with the latest Internet in India 2017 report released by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), and market research firm IMRB Kantar. Out of an estimated 918 million rural population, there are 186 million users who use the internet. In comparison, out of 455 million urban population, 295 million use the internet.
Watch: Google Internet Saathi program – #DayWithASaathi at Karandi village
If one looks at the female-to-male ratio in terms of internet users, there are a total of 143 million internet users who are female, this translates to just 30 percent of the total number of 481 million. However, female internet users have increased when compared to last year. Urban India witnessed a growth of 9.66 percent in female internet users while in rural India, the growth is recorded at 14.11 percent.
Disclosure: The correspondent is in Pune for the #DayWithASaathi interaction on Google’s invite. Google took care of her travel and accommodation in Pune.