In 2009, Aravind Sitaraman, the then managing director of Cisco Systems (Cisco) in India, started laying the baby steps to champion an emerging markets’ strategy at the global networking company’s India office. Sitaraman, an innovator in his own right with 54 U.S. patents, was always socially inclined. Within Cisco, he led several social projects including ‘Feed a child’ and ‘Adopt a school’. In 2009, he led ‘Project Samudaya’, an initiative to manage flood relief activities in Karnataka, by enabling villages through technology. “The impact technology can have on development has always been very clear. Some key services like education, healthcare and skills development can be delivered by the use of technology, and this can certainly improve the quality of life in rural India,” says Sitaraman. In October 2010, he was appointed as the president for Cisco’s Inclusive Growth with a clear mandate to not only redefine network technology to create inclusive impact, but also to build an ecosystem around the technology through partnerships to actually deliver those key services in rural India.
It is important to set the right metrics. One year ago, we asked ourselves: is it possible to reduce the cost of education to US $1 per child. We’re almost there today.
Sitaraman believes that the three key elements to make this division work is establishing partnerships with governments and service providers, deploying human capital on the ground in rural areas and creating an affordable business model for the paying customer (in most cases the government or government agencies). A point to be noted here is that the technology itself is only an enabler. It requires an emerging markets-focused effort to keep in mind the presence of electricity and connectivity problems, and the importance of ease-of-use. Sitaraman says, “It is important to set the right metrics. One year ago, we asked ourselves: is it possible to reduce the cost of education to US $1 per child. We’re almost there today.”
Today, the education service facilitated by Cisco Education Enabled Development (CEED) platform is running successfully across four schools in Bichali, Talmari and Tungabhadra villages of Raichur, Karnataka to teach English for students of standard seven and eight. Teachers appointed by Everonn, an educational company specialising in technology-enabled learning, are delivering supplementary courses remotely through the CEED platform to these students thrice a week. These teachers become a critical lifeline in enhancing the education quality in remote areas, which otherwise would be devoid of high education standards. In emerging countries, economic growth is often lopsided and organic trickle down benefits take a really long time to reach a major portion of the population. Inorganic means are, therefore, required to accelerate this development.
In October 2011, the company launched its technology to enable healthcare services as well. In the first pilot in Shimoga, Karnataka, the healthcare solution connected primary healthcare centres (PHC) were set up at Kuppagadde in SorabaTaluk and Guttiyadehalli in ThirthahalliTaluk to McGann hospital in Shimoga city. Patients visiting these PHCs had their vitals checked by the paramedics/nurses at the centre, while the doctor at the McGann district hospital provided consultation and diagnosis in real time. It was an environment where patients and doctors can meet each other virtually through video without having to commute long distances.
“If I had a magic wand, I’d enable the whole country with these education and healthcare solutions. But in reality, we need to make this work through partnerships,” says Sitaraman. In addition to deploying the technology solution on the ground, it needs to get its partner network in place. Be it hospitals like McGann or educational companies like Everonn, the partner company providing the service needs to be in the loop over the long run. People from rural India have to be provided jobs to work in their local centres and this also aids in the job creation process. There is also potential to spur entrepreneurship, which will further the cause of inclusive growth.
In addition to education and healthcare, skills development and creation of a marketplace is crucial. Sitaraman says, “Often, these ingredients are non-optimal in a heavily rural economy. At the same time, large-scale migration from rural to urban centres places a huge burden on the cities often causing them to crumble under the magnitude of demands. Therefore, it is essential for emerging nations to build infrastructure that will enable a distributed model of development, where services normally available in the urban areas are accessible by those in the rural areas.”
While enabling a single village is advantageous to that community, it does not bring in inclusive growth. Cisco is convinced that it is all about making this model scalable, replicable, granular, modular and measurable so that the entire nation can benefit from it. Sitaraman adds, “I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to create a new ecosystem of partnerships and human resources that can then be delivered in an affordable manner. I am convinced that the adoption of technology is the only available tool to achieve our inclusive growth goals.”
President, Inclusive Growth
The quality of life in rural India is not bad. It is the unavailability of basic services like healthcare and education that is causing migration to urban India. The quality of life certainly comes down for these people as they make the move. Is it possible to establish a distributed model to deliver these services remotely so that the rural population becomes fully serviced in their own areas?
Technology and building a partnership ecosystem are the only ways to achieve inclusive growth. Deploying human capital on the ground in rural areas is going to be crucial.
Establishing scale and doing that fast is a huge worry. If Sitaraman can mimic the implementation of these ideas at the rate at which cell phones and its necessary infrastructure were deployed, it can change India.