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Tech for good: Solving complex social problems through innovative use of technology

DECCAN CHRONICLE
Published Nov 14, 2019, 3:40 pm IST
Updated Nov 14, 2019, 3:40 pm IST
As social issues continue to rise, is it about time we started directing technological disruption towards rural areas?
For instance, pathbreaking start-up Bharat Rohan is using hyperspectral imaging and drones to provide early predictions of pest attacks to prevent crop loss. (Photo: Representative)
 For instance, pathbreaking start-up Bharat Rohan is using hyperspectral imaging and drones to provide early predictions of pest attacks to prevent crop loss. (Photo: Representative)

In a significant feat, India has emerged as the second-largest start-up hub of the world. Its advancements across all fields of business can be attributed to large-scale technological adoption. Today, we can use the internet and its applications to order food to our doorstep, get a cab in a matter of minutes or even find the perfect house to buy/rent. 

Amidst such massive progress, most of us fail to notice that a major part of the technological disruption has occurred in the urban parts of the country. While tech adoption has solved a lot of our problems in large cities, why has  technology not catered to the real problems that two-thirds of the Indian population living in rural areas is facing? Has technology, then, failed 70 per cent of Indians? 

 

Major problems plaguing Indian society

Today, if we look beyond the urban set-up, we will find that rural India is facing major issues such as lack of access to healthcare, energy, education, and best-practices for agriculture – the main source of income for thousands of rural dwellers. 

For instance, while only 6 out of 10 Indian schools have access to electricity, 31per cent of our teachers do not hold the required degrees. Apart from this, teacher absenteeism, lack of sanitation and poor infrastructure continue to impact the Indian education system. As a result, a major chunk of our students remain poorly skilled and do not get access to full-time jobs. 

 

From an agricultural perspective, factors like extreme fragmentation of land, lack of access to good quality seeds and agricultural inputs like fertilizers and irrigation, and slow adoption of machines are hindering growth potential. While the adoption of relevant technology can solve these problems, farmers in low-income states cannot afford these solutions by themselves. 

Similarly, the state of healthcare in low-income areas is abysmal as access to high - or even good quality services - is scarce. A 2012 study found that in rural areas, only 37 per cent of people were able to access in-patient facilities within a 5 km distance, and 68 per cent were able to access out-patient facilities. Another study estimated that there exist a scant 10 healthcare workers per 10,000 Indians. Affordability and accountability of the available services is another matter of concern. 

 

All the aforementioned issues and their dire consequences beg the question – as social issues continue to rise, is it about time we started directing technological disruption towards rural areas? 

Tech for good is tech for all!  

Fortunately, several entrepreneurs have identified the gaps in India’s current development scenario. These social-sector entrepreneurs are creating actionable plans and tech-backed solutions for the country’s most concerning social issues. For instance, pathbreaking start-up Bharat Rohan is using hyperspectral imaging and drones to provide early predictions of pest attacks to prevent crop loss. Similarly, revolutionary start-ups such as Garv Toilets are using technologies like IoT and RFID to create smart, unbreakable toilets for the rural population.

 

Another start-up, Aduivo, who is also the winner of Unconvention 2016 has developed a point-of-care reagent less device using NIR to access and monitor skin and soft tissue infection in a cost-effective manner. Moreover, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) are being leveraged by several start-ups to create applications in prediction models and personalized learning, which is a massive step ahead in providing quality education in remote areas.

As far as technological disruption is concerned, a paradigm shift is underway. The social sector in India is set to witness stellar growth in the number of start-ups and the required solutions will continue to arise. Technology, finally, will cater to those who need it the most. However, so far, the pace of disruption has remained slow. This makes it necessary to understand what’s hindering the growth of our social sector. 

 

Overcoming challenges in the social sector 

The challenges preventing the promising sector from achieving its full potential are quite easy to identify. These primarily include:

· Several social sector start-ups face regulatory issues as they lack awareness about government norms and policies. So constant awareness has to be generated through summits and forums like Unconvention.

· Commercialization and adoption of innovations are difficult.

· Taking product innovations to market requires high touch mentoring, incubation, GTM strategy, access to clinical testing and validation, and much more. Currently, not a lot of incubators do that.

 

· There is a long gestation period for hardware start-ups to convert a prototype into a product because of manufacturing and certification barriers. 

· Unlocking partnerships with various stakeholders like the government, CSR heads, think tanks, etc. is required for startups to scale. Incubators like Villgro are pioneering such partnerships.

Due to these issues, start-ups with the most promising and technologically-advanced solutions are unable to scale up and create the impact that they envision upon conception. 

 

These challenges can be addressed only through the conducive collaboration of various stakeholders of the start-up economy. This is where social-sector incubators and accelerators come into the picture. Such incubators identify start-ups with the most potential and offer them funding, handholding, mentorship, capacity-building and more. Such programs foster the growth of disruptive start-ups and ensure that the benefits of innovation reach the bottom of the pyramid. 

Moreover, social sector incubators devise corporate engagement strategies for start-ups along with lucrative go-to-market strategies. By enabling the most relevant corporate partnerships for start-ups, these incubators help start-ups boost social impact and democratize innovation. This also helps them create a sound sales strategy, helping them scale up and achieve organizational goals. 

 

Going beyond just funding, incubators give start-ups the wings that they need to thrive in the competitive business landscape of the country. Thus, they ensure that technological adoption and disruption is more inclusive and that grassroots issues are met with effective, long-term solutions. This will not only uplift the lives of our rural population but also help the country emerge as an economic superpower sooner than expected.

-Srinivas Ramanujan, COO, Villgro Innovations Foundation

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Deccan Chronicle and/or other staff and contributors to this site.

 

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