A passion for real solutions

May 11, 2005 Comments Off on A passion for real solutions

Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India

There are few places in the world where making computers more accessible to common folks is front page news. India is one of those rare places.


The front of this morning’s Hindu Times carried an above the fold headline: “Common man’s computer?
about a new low power, easy to use sub $250 computer. The idea itself
is not so striking, as we’ve heard similar things from the likes to
Simputer in the past. But the prominence of the story stands out.
Making technology accessible for the “common man” is clearly a
mainstream national project in India, and a project for which there is
much passion.

Passion is certainly the forte of P.G. Ponnapa, CEO of n-Logue Communications Limited. Less than an hour after reading the morning headlines, I’m sitting across from Ponnapa at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras talking about ways to double the GDP of every village in India. He thinks that he and his team can do it, with the help of cheap, easy to use technology.

An IIT spin off with the goal of getting Internet services into small villages across India, n-Logue provides the technology and backend management for 2000 local Internet kiosks. Each kiosk is run by a small entrepreneur from the village, trained, equipped and wirelessly connected by n-Logue franchise-style. The kiosks don’t just offer Internet access – they’ve also got computer skills training, distance learning for high school exams, consultations with doctors and agricultural support workers and, soon, microbanking. Most of this is delivered using low bandwidth video conferencing (works on 32kbs link) provided by n-Logue. Local entrepreneurs keep it all running by charging small access fees.

The services side of n-Logue – and the IIT group that does their R+D – was the most impressive part of all this. Yes, they have super cheap connectivity and what looks like a good business model. But, according to Ponnapa, they are also investing heavily services that will make the local kiosks into viable – and valuable – assets at the village level. Simple local language distance education materials didn’t exist, so n-Logue created these materials. ATMs are so expensive that banks only put them in large towns, so IIT has invented a cheap ATM for microcredit and small scale banking. And so on.

Certainly, n-Logue is a ‘telecentre support network’ in the truest sense of the word – in trains, supplies and continuously helps on the ground (social?) entrepreneurs succeed in the business of running a village information kiosk. Of course, there are many questions: Where does the local content come from in a centralized franchise? How well does community development and empowerment hook into this model? And are n-Logue centres really succeding on the ground (I saw it all in an IIT lab)? But n-Logue clearly offers much to learn from and build on as we think about the job of connecting and nurturing telecentre networks. Hmmmm.

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