Finding an edge
May 24, 2005 Comments Off on Finding an edge
Ever since Accra, I’ve been looking for an edge … an edge somewhere between the two poles of the telecentre world.
At one end of the spectrum are simple entrepreneurial models for spreading and sharing access to communications. The Indian public call office (PCO). The Grameen village phone. The woman on the streets of Accra (or anywhere) who simply shares her cell phone, for a small per minute mark up. At the other are public good initiatives aimed directly at learning, economic opportunity and community empowerment. The MSSRF knowledge centres. Community multimedia centres. Community-based learning centres.
Both ends of the spectrum offer a great deal in their own right. However, my sense is that something interesting can happen when one actively combines – or finds the edge between – both models. Last week in Delhi, I found a number of people playing with this edge.
The first was Rakesh Khanna of TARAHaat, a group helps village entrepreneurs set up a ‘franchised business-cum-community centre’ called a TARAkendra. Housed within Development Alternatives, an NGO with a long history in social enterprise, TARAHaat is focused on both creating livelihoods and bringing info access to the village level. They provide training, systems and content to help entrepreneurs set up TARAKendra kiosks. The TARAkendra operator in turn offers skills development and electronic services to the people in their village for a small charge, saving people time and money they would have spent getting them from far away towns and cities. Over time, this is meant to create a sustainable small business for the entrepreneur and better access to information and opportunity for the local community.
Satyan Mishra, CEO of Drishtee Dot Com Ltd, is taking a similar approach. Drishtee has provided kiosk packages, training and support to over 300 small scale entrepreneurs in six districts across India. The Drishtee outlets provide skills training and e-mail access. They also are strong – and aim to get stronger – at providing electronic access to district government (e.g. driver’s licenses and public grievances) and to financial institutions (e.g. insurance providers).
Visiting a village about 1.5 hours from Delhi, I had a chance to see one of the Drishtee kiosks in action. I listened in on a basic English class, with about a dozen young students doing exercises in with the teacher. As the class went on the background, I met briefly with the kiosk owner. He told me that he was doing well with services like taking and processing digital photos for passports, and that he hoped to make a good living from it. He also told me that he felt that he was doing something good, something that was recognized in his community.
Looking at both TARAHaat and Drishtee, I was happy to have found others who want to play with the social enterprise edge of the telecentre world. Yet, I left my meetings with both men filled with more questions than answers. How do we make sure that entrepreneurial experiments stay rooted in, and interconnected to, the development side of things? When and where do entrepreneurial telecentre models make sense instead of purely public good models, and how and when do you mix them? And, most interestingly, the question called out my Microsoft India colleague Ankhi Das: can we use these kiosks to help new money and economic opportunity flow into the village, or are we just offering services that help money flow out?
My sense is that many people are already trying to grapple with these questions as they relate to telecentres… and that others, like the fair trade and coop movements, have grappled with them before. Maybe one of the useful things telecentre.org can do is help focus this reflection, bringing together people with a common commitment to finding the social enterprise edge in local technology. I don’t know what would come of this, but having met folks like Satyan and Rakesh, I know that it would be something interesting.