Speak up, rural india

Speak up, rural india

Gram Vaani, as the name suggests, aims to give voice to rural India through technology-based solutions. A social venture, it began as a technology company to provide radios to community radio stations at highly competitive rates. Today, it offers a range of services to enable rural communities to voice their opinions and report on development-related activities. Its team profile has changed from just technical staff to include journalists and people with experience of having worked with non-governmental organisations.

“There are branded products in the market. But the rural centres and the urban poor cannot afford them. We felt their need”

Mayank Shivam, one of the three founders of this New Delhi-based company incubated at Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, was working with McKinsey & Company but had always dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur. During a stint in Amsterdam in 2008, his friend Dr. Aditeshwar Seth called him to discuss his research. He was working on a product that would be relevant for social development in India and wanted a business plan. Based on the business plan Shivam designed, the duo managed to raise seed funding from the US-based fund, Knight Foundation. This was used to set up the office and kick start the venture.

Community empowerment
Gram Vaani was started with GRINS – Gramin Radio Inter-Networking System, a radio automation system for community radios. Currently, the interaction between the government and the people is one-way. The government announces schemes that various agencies are supposed to implement. But there is no feedback from the people as to whether it is relevant and if it is being implemented as planned.

Community radio service is a vision of the government to enable two-way communication. Operators like Gram Vaani provide solutions to enable this communication. The government had a target to establish 4,000 community radio stations by 2012. This gave Gram Vaani a huge market to capitalise on.

Snap Shot

Gram Vaani
Founders: Mayank Shivam,
Dr. Aaditeshwar Seth, Parminder Singh
Year: 2009
Core business: Mobile news, community radio, website for citizen-government dialogue
Investment: Seed funding from Knight Foundation, U.S.
Incubated at: IIT Delhi

The company priced its assembled product competitively so that community centres could afford the equipment. “There are branded products in the market. But the rural centres and the urban poor cannot afford them. We felt their need,” Shivam points out. However, the reality is that there are only 120 community centres as of now. And so Gram Vaani found its market severely restricted. Simultaneously, it also realised that merely providing hardware was not enough. The need of the hour was to educate masses and more importantly, Gram Vaani needed to set up media centres.

Crowdsourcing for news
As the media centres were set up in the main office, the nature of the team also underwent a shift to include journalists and those with NGO experience. The news service is localised, covering a radius of 20 kilometres of a village. Locals can call the agency and report any event or news which would then be verified and broadcast.

“The news here is very different from that in the mass media. These reports are typically those about corruption, leakages and human rights violations. In the first 40 days of our launch in August 2011, there were 60,000 calls, showing the need for such a service,” points out Shivam.

The other service started by Gram Vaani is Mericity.in, which is a monitoring system for garbage cleaning in the city of New Delhi. The local contractor reports to the Municipal Corporation through the website on whether the garbage has been cleared from a particular locality. The people in the neighbourhood can login to the site and verify this, or raise a complaint if the work is not to their satisfaction. “We wish to expand these services to other cities too. In this, the other players are mostly NGOs or social ventures and they are more like collaborators than competitors,” he explains.

Future vision
Enabling every Indian to voice his or her view and interact with the local elected representative for transparency in spending money for local development – that is the objective Gram Vaani works towards. The company sees itself more as a platform player now, rather than a technology player. And through these two platforms, the company aims to reach out to a million people.

Gram Vaani’s growth focus is going to be in mobile news and by taking Mericity.in to other geographies. In the short to medium term, Mericity.in will be deployed as a customised application for civic agencies such as the Municipal Corporation for a fee. In the long term, it will be developed as a citizen engagement platform with registered users. The user base will then be leveraged for targeted advertising.

In case of mNews (mobile news), advertising, market research for companies targeting the rural consumer, who is tough to reach through traditional media, and licensing content to mainstream media are some of the sources of its revenue.

With expansion in mind, the current team of 10 will be increased conservatively. “We plan to double the technology team and take in three to four more people with project management and a journalistic profile,” says Shivam. The company will also partner with local NGOs for localising its services and providing domain expertise in various aspects related to the developmental issues of the country.

As for GRINS, the market expansion plans include exploring international markets. Currently, the organisation has a presence in Africa. Resellers who provide technology and sales support in east-Asian countries and the Middle East will be developed.

With a host of initiatives, the company has grown from seeing no returns in its initial two years to currently registering a 100 per cent growth. It first saw this growth trend in 2011 and intends to sustain the same for the next four years. In fact, the funds from Knight Foundation are still available for further growth. But shortly after this timeframe, the organisation will seek more investment.

Learning from experience
For the founders of Gram Vaani, this journey has helped them grow as individuals. One of the greatest lessons for Gram Vaani was that of market understanding. Considering the promised potential of the community radio stations and the reality on the ground, there was a clear message that one cannot always predict external circumstances. Additionally, the team learnt that technology was just one of the means to resolve the social development issues of India. The problems that rural India faces are more complex in nature and addressing them requires changing the existing mindset.

Shivam voices this view as he says that democracy can be effective only if there is citizen participation. His dream is to enable this by providing the people with the necessary platform to be able to voice their views. He has also found that entrepreneurship itself is a different ball game from being an employee – and the accountability is that much higher. Social entrepreneurship especially requires the entrepreneur to stretch himself to the maximum. And he is ready to take this commitment, head on.

Concept in Brief

Enabling citizen participation in governance

The central government, realising the need for two way communication with the people on the street, floated the concept of community radios so that villagers and the urban poor can also express their views on government policies, their implementation and impact. Gram Vaani was floated to provide the hardware solution for the radio stations at an economically viable cost. But working on the ground, the founders realised that just providing the technology was not enough. The company expanded its operations to include local content aggregation, validation and its publication. In addition to that, it also started a local website to enable the municipal corporation in New Delhi to interact with its local contractors for garbage cleaning as well as enable residents to update the status of the same. With the existing mindset, the complexities on the ground are many, but Gram Vaani has a vision to empower the citizens to participate actively in governance.

Meera Srikant has been working with publishers and publications since 1993, writing and editing articles, features and stories across topics. She also blogs and writes poems, novels and short stories during leisure. Writing for The Smart CEO since 2010, she is also a classical dancer.

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