Sectoral Challenges and ICT Solutions
The artisanal and micro-entrepreneurial industry in rural India are primarily home-based cottage industries and their workforce includes the members of the family, who often use existing indigenous skills which have been passed down the generations. Largely unorganised and fragmented in character — they often exist in areas where unemployment and under-employment are widespread. Conventional, low cost and low tech with consequent low productivity and output, many agricultural and pastoral communities depend on their traditional craft skills as a secondary source of income in times of drought, lean harvests, floods or famine. Many such crafts are the sole domain of the women in the household providing them social and financial independence without having to leave their homes.
Existence in a fast evolving knowledge — driven universe has caught many rural women “offline’’. And the rapid control that ICT(Information and Communication Technology) deployment in an increasingly market-driven economy is exercising in their lives — is only exacerbating the information darkness and causing further marginalisation. While many have adopted modern techniques; most of the traditional clusters have witnessed gradual decay and decline due to wide ranging factors and conditions. Since the early seventies, several NGOs and civil society organisations have been: organising rural women into cooperatives/collectives, helping them build skills and capacities, providing them much needed credit and taking their products beyond the local markets. When questioned about the challenges being faced by such women’s groups and whether solutions could be found by using ICTs, this is what practitioners from across the country had to say:
1. Outreach — reaching out to isolated clusters
Building intra community connect is vital for pulling together the producer base; and this becomes critical for aggregation of produce, achieving production scale and expanding markets. Similarly, connecting the disparate clusters to the lead organisation in order to gain operational efficiencies in critical areas like logistics, inventory management, contract management and payments is fast becoming an imperative. With isolated clusters in remote locations both the above mentions, become difficult. The use of ICT, it was felt, could help to address the challenges in such outreach and cohesion building within the organisation.
2. Market linkages — understanding market sensibilities & marketing
The biggest factor for the decay of traditional clusters is the lack of product orientation to market demand; and their inability to understand and link with mainstream markets — national and international. Lack of connectivity to markets and customers often leaves artisans unable to understand customer sensitivities and adapt their traditional skills to fashion products as per market demands. It also leaves them unable to tailor their marketing, especially messaging and pricing: to suit the market demand and gauge customer satisfaction. In the absence of appropriate market linkage several of these livelihood options cease to be remunerative and are consequently abandoned by the artisans. What to sell, where to sell and how to sell become more apparent to these communities when ICT based marketing platforms and apps are introduced.
3. Training and Knowledge Management
Training and knowledge sharing for improving production and management skills are required to be done on a continuous basis — both for market orientation of products and for value addition through streamlined processes. Secondly, most cottage industries are often confronted by shortage of labour as the training of non-family members is not feasible or profitable. So intra-community training to graduate these family outfits to sustainable micro enterprises requires training of non-family members. An added woe is, that most indigenous techniques and skills are rarely documented formally; so when the concerned livelihood is abandoned by family members the tradition itself is lost.
Enlisting the support of remotely based technical agencies for design innovations and interventions, and for continuous skill and technical upgradation: becomes easier when ICTs are used both to create and disseminate information and training through instructional videos and to provide hand-holding through live streams.
4. Paucity of funds & lack of understanding in Government schemes
Most of these micro industries, even those supported by NGOs, face a dearth of capital as they have poor linkages with mainstream financial institutions and there is a lack of understanding when it comes to available government schemes. While most of the women’s collectives are keen to deploy such ICT solutions for use by their members and perhaps by the larger communities as well, the paucity of funds is proving to be a major issue. Making funds available for ICT deployments through banks, foundations and CSR initiatives — would need to be actively encouraged.
Rural women have been quick to realise the power of ICT and the benefits it can bring them. So despite the usual constraints of frequent power cuts, poor signal strengths, costs associated with handsets and connectivity, language and literacy issues and lack of training, women have taken to using ICT especially social media wherever and however they can. They have come to recognise that ICT saves them time, effort, travel and energy. Whether under peer pressure or influenced by their children, they are happy to be part of the new digital economy and being able to access wider markets without leaving the security of their home villages or flouting socio-cultural norms.
From the now ubiquitous mobile-voice telephony to the more sophisticated mobile apps and social media platforms, ICT in its various avatars is now a ‘General Purpose Technology’ like electricity with the potential to drastically change society through its impact on existing economic and social structures.
In creating addressability for these women, ICT has proved to be both a social leveler and an economic enabler.