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Gram Vaani opening up to the CSR world

Thanks Samhita, for carrying this fantastic feature about our work with Merck and the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood. Original link

The story

Anil Kumar, a school teacher, uses it to express his discontent over the electricity crisis in his district. Nidhi Chaudhary, a school student, uses it to share her poems. Birbal Mahto uses it to raise concerns on growing unemployment and migration. Vasudev Turi uses it to question the government on why it has still not delivered on its promise to provide free medicines.

You could be forgiven for thinking that these individuals belong to the educated and empowered class of proactive samaritans who diligently use Facebook to generate awareness, spread their word and drive campaigns and outcomes. In fact these individuals belong to remote districts of Jharkhand – a state marked by poverty, poor infrastructure development and inaccessibility. The device they use is their modest mobile phone, the platform a voice-based social media that works without internet!

Enter Gram Vaani, a social enterprise that has made this innovation possible.

Deeply concerned about the widening digital divide in India, where 70% of India’s population was muted into silence because of lack of affordable technology and was excluded from reaping the benefits of the ‘Information Age’, Aaditeshwar Seth, a professor of computer science at IIT Delhi, founded Gram Vaani in 2009. Since its inception, Gram Vaani has been able to impact more than 2 million users in over 15 Indian States, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Namibia and South Africa.

The business

Gram Vaani has developed a unique technology to cater to the needs of low income and less literate population – the Gramin Radio Inter Networking System (GRINS), a radio system that enables local communities to run their own operations, manage content and interact with the community through telephone calls. Gram Vaani has also developed a suite of IVR based applications that can be layered upon GRINS to make it more interactive.

For example, consider the Mobile Vaani – a voiced based social media platform. Using this application, the user can tune into the radio using his mobile phone and can leave a message, make an announcement, report a grievance or any pertinent local issue, report malfunctioning of government schemes and listen to others responses. Gram Vaani partners with other social organizations to source information and advice on various issues. In Jharkhand alone, Mobile Vaani processes 2,000 calls a day on topics ranging from folk songs, poetry, health, agriculture etc.

MobileVaani is an adaptive platform and can be effectively deployed to perform various functions such as market products in remote rural areas in innovative ways, usethe data generated on the network to provide market research insights, run awareness campaigns on various social issues, conduct research studies etc.

Gram Vaani charges the client a fee for its product to cover costs incurred on licensing, hosting and maintaining the technology and has designed different pricing models for different functions and clients. Given its low cost of communication and a large user base, the per user cost to the client is relatively low compared to other commercial solutions.

A pertinent example of how corporates can use the Mobile Vani platform to achieve their CSR objectives is presented by Gram Vaani’s partnership with Merck, a global pharmaceutical giant.

The partnership

Merck for Mothers, a three-year, $10 million commitment to reduce maternal mortality has partnered with Gram Vaani to deliver its model in Jharkhand, a state with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in India.

For Merck for Mothers, Gram Vaani has deployed its Mobile Vaani technology to empower women to review the quality of services and care they get when they go to private clinics for treatment. The long term goal is to use this data to build a public forum where local communities can rank and audit health providers and guide themselves to the best source of healthcare. Through the platform, Merck is also able to educate expectant mothers and their families about the care options available to them and connect even the most remote of the areas to the nearest healthcare delivery system.

Benefits of partnership

To the company

A catalytic partnership

It would not be an exaggeration to say that but for Gram Vaani and its partner, White Ribbon Alliance, the program would have struggled to find an appropriate partner. When scouting out partners for its global program in India, Merck approached the who’s who of the IT industry to help them develop the appropriate solution and delivery model, but was disappointed. It then came across Gram Vaani, a small, under the radar enterprise that had successfully demonstrated the marriage of technology to development needs.

With an established reach of more than 15 districts and 20,000 users in Jharkhand and in depth understanding of the local communities, Gram Vaani brought to the table not only the technology but also the network, tools to monitor impact in real time and the intelligence from the field to deploy it in the most cost effective and catalytic way.

To the social enterprise

Enhanced credibility

For GramVanni, there could not be a bigger validation of their mission and model than to be entrusted to run a global program that has had very successful lineage and that aims to impact the lives of at least 100,000 women in Jharkhand over a period of 3 years and to reduce the maternal mortality rates by at least 25% in that period. The partnership has helped to reinforce Gram Vaani’s credibility and effectiveness on a global stage.

Long term engagement

Compared to short term projects and pilots, companies such as Merck have the ability, mandate and the resources to award long term projects. This endowed Gram Vaani with a consistent revenue stream, stability and the capability to plan ahead. Long term commitments are also ideal to generate reliable data to track, monitor and measure impact.

Non financial support

The association with Merck has also provided Gram Vaani with non financial support, a valuable but short supplied complement. From time to time, Merck seconds its employees to volunteer with Gram Vaani and help them improve their operations and business development strategies.

The lessons

A mature CSR program

Companies in India often develop cold feet when considering working with social enterprises as part of their CSR programs, mainly due to the revenue generating nature of such enterprises and the margins involved. They sometimes fail to understand that a model that has a commercial underpinning and is able to self finance its operations (by ploughing back the revenues into the organization) is sustainable in the long run and free from crippling dependencies on external donors and funders. The issue is compounded when the enterprise offers technology based solutions that sound abstract and vague, compared to tangible initiatives such as building hospitals and schools

However, having worked extensively in the global ecosystem, Merck was appreciative of Gram Vaani’s model. Considering that Merck successfully runs the program in Asia and Africa, it has the benefit of extensive experience and learnings gained from these countries. As such, it has realized that willingness to devote time, money and people to nurture partnerships with social organizations is an integral pre requisite for the program to succeed.

Assess the ‘fit’

Gram Vaani believes it is essential that companies invest considerable efforts in understanding the mission and vision of their CSR implementation partners and see if they align to their own values and requirements. This is imperative to avoid mismatch of expectations and efficient delineation of roles and duties to ensure smooth functioning of the partnership. Just like Gram Vaani, even Merck believed in harnessing the power of technology to reach the excluded and affect change. The due diligence process systematically assessed Gram Vaani’s principles, modalities and suitability for their global program. The same can be said of the social enterprise. While adaptability and flexibility are valuable traits and offerings can be tweaked to suit the client’s needs, it was of paramount importance for Gram Vaani that Merck’s mandate was closely linked to their activities in the social vertical.

Be prepared to provide evidence of impact

Investing in and institutionalizing M&E processes cannot be overstated. During the course of its many partnerships, Gram Vaani has been asked time and again to provide evidence of the impact it can create. Whether through its real-time impact monitoring tools or through undertaking smaller pilots or through a catalogue of similar projects in the past, Gram Vaani manages to convince its clients of its ability to reach the remotest parts and people of India, touch their lives and give them a voice.

Conclusion

The partnership between Merck and Gram Vaani has amply demonstrated how companies and social enterprises can work together to realize a common vision by using more advanced and innovative models to affect change. This partnership hopes to foster synergies between the corporate and the social sector through technology that can bring about transparency of government, rationality of markets, universal access to information and availability of better health facilities to under served and excluded people.