AMOL GOJE

India,

Amol Goje is enabling rural communities in India to participate effectively in the new economy, driven by computers and rapid information exchange. By educating and equipping rural producers with user-friendly tools to access market and crop information to enhance their business, and by simultaneously providing rural schools with IT education and training, Amol is closing the digital divide between the rural and the urban population.

This profile below was prepared when Amol Goje was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.

INTRODUCTION

Amol Goje is enabling rural communities in India to participate effectively in the new economy, driven by computers and rapid information exchange. By educating and equipping rural producers with user-friendly tools to access market and crop information to enhance their business, and by simultaneously providing rural schools with IT education and training, Amol is closing the digital divide between the rural and the urban population.




THE NEW IDEA

Amol helps rural communities increase their productivity and avoid the high transaction costs associated with accessing essential services. He is using information technology both to promote computer literacy and IT-enabled entrepreneurship and to service delivery in rural India. With stimulation from enhanced computer literacy, training, and design of new services, he has launched an IT-led educational and economic development initiative that will allow rural communities to have the same growth opportunities as their urban neighbors.

Amol's strategy is to develop low-cost technological services that are innovative and easy to use, select people with entrepreneurial potential in rural areas and train them in the technological innovation, and then provide these people with a business plan and technical guidance to set up their own service delivery enterprises. This provides rural people with access to improved computer literacy and training and an exposure to IT services. It also uses their expertise to exploit the latent commercial potential of the rural areas to increase the profitability and viability of existing enterprises with the help of information technology.




THE PROBLEM

The Indian economy has grown at an annual average rate of 6 percent for the past decade. A major part of the growth has resulted from the expansion of the service sector, which now accounts for more than 55 percent of the country's GDP. Information technology constitutes an increasingly significant part of the service sector and is projected to continue its current growth during the next decade. NASSCOM, India's main association of information technology companies, thinks that India will employ 1.1 million people and earn $17 billion from IT-enabled services by 2008.

Since urban areas typically have the infrastructure and educational facilities critical for the growth of information technology, much of the IT-led economic growth in India in recent years has been driven by industries located in large cities. This growth has all but bypassed rural India.

Unless special efforts are made to increase the capacity and competitiveness of rural areas, much of the future gains will also be limited to people living in cities. This will not only widen the urban-rural divide but also actually reinforce it, further solidifying current trends in economic development. While development of the manufacturing sector also favors urban areas, the bias in favor of the urban population is much stronger in the literacy and technology-driven IT sector. Lack of understanding about the grassroots experience on the part of implementors has limited the effectiveness of past efforts to close the gap. A poor rural economic model has also led to huge costs for such attempts when they have not been able to achieve sustainability. The impact is nowhere keeping pace with need.

Yet business opportunities await to addresss the underlying needs for accurate and timely information in the rural areas. Interactive communication technologies like email and the Internet can provide a platform to disseminate useful information to villagers and to act as a conduit for sending information about their products, services, and needs to the larger world outside. Against such a backdrop, what is needed is an insight into how information technology can aid economic growth in rural India.




THE STRATEGY

Amol's strategy works along three fronts: developing innovative applications of information technology for practical and sustainable use by rural people, providing training to improve computer literacy outside cities, and equipping rural entrepreneurs to provide their communities with IT-related services.

Amol begins by employing his training as an engineer and a computer professional to produce simple IT innovations whose low implementation and application costs make them sustainable. His unique position as a member of the Vidya Pratisthan Trust's Institute of Information Technology (VIIT) in Baramati, his area of work, gives him the scope to experiment creatively with these technologies. As farmers and other agricultural producers form the backbone of India's rural population, Amol designs these applications to make their lives simpler by reducing manual work, increasing their efficiency in recordkeeping, and helping them do away with middlemen, thereby increasing productivity and earnings. Three of his innovations–an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) System, a Smart Card for rural producers, and use of the Wireless Local Loop (WLL) technology to set up Village Information Kiosks in remote areas–illustrate his approach.

The IVR provides the market rates of various commodities in the local language by telephone; the service ensures that even a farmer lacking in computer training can keep himself well aware of the market situation before he sells his crops. The IVR system is currently implemented in "Marketing Society," a farmers' association for gaining information on rates of commodities and on other agriculture and market-related issues in Baramati. It will soon be implemented at another 47 markets across Maharashtra.

Amol has also already initiated a "smart card" application for the milk cooperatives in Baramati. As soon as a farmer deposits his milk at the cooperative, an entry for the milk collected, the fat content that determines the price of the milk, and the amount that is to be paid to him is recorded on a smart card. The change from a manual system to an electronic one has not only reduced the milkman's dependency on moneylenders–since he can immediately go to the bank to collect his money–but also done away with middlemen who often cheat on the weight or the fat content of the milk. Amol is slowly introducing such applications for other cooperatives, like those dealing in silk and poultry. This increases both the profitability and viability of these existing enterprises.

With the help of the Wireless Local Loop (WLL) services for connecting hard-to-reach areas by wireless Internet, Amol has helped entrepreneurs set up 25 information kiosks with a computer, a Web camera, speakers, and a printer. Through the video conferencing facilities available, people across countries can meet and talk to their relatives and friends. They can get information from anywhere–including essential certificates like caste certificates, birth and death records, and other forms required for obtaining essential government services, loans, ration cards, or even census information. Amol would also like to have information of interest to farmers, land records, rate quotes, and weather reports–provided at the local informal kiosks. Some of these are fee-based services with low rates for all uses but enough earnings to interest local people in establishing these kiosks. Since a major bottleneck to growth in rural areas is the slow delivery of essential government services because of the mountains of paperwork involved and the lack of existing records, this IT effort will help streamline local service delivery.

While these innovations strengthened farmers, Amol is not limiting his efforts to cooperatives and agricultural federations. Amol's second main strategy is to ramp up computer education for school children and others in rural areas through improved computer literacy and the training of paraprofessionals in information technology. For even greater outreach he has also introduced a Mobile Van for computer literacy in rural areas that targets some five schools and 250 students in villages. As a result of continued work in this region, families have become aware of the value of education and are willing to send more children to school and spend more money for education. As such, responses to the bus have been tremendous. His first bus was a donation from Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services (IL&FS) and the next four will be donated by the Goenka group of companies.

Amol's final strategy is to encourage rural people to take up this service delivery as an enterprise. He identifies rural people who exhibit an entrepreneurial bent and provides them with technological guidance, training, and equipment to set themselves up either as computer training centers or as village information kiosks for government service delivery. The people setting up these businesses will be able to charge their clients to make their venture worthwhile and sustainable. This helps bring prosperity to the area, encourages entrepreneurship, assists in slowing migration to the nearest cities for employment, and increases the productivity of the rural population.

Amol has received a major grant from international donors to make the Pune-Baramati area technology friendly over the next two years. Already, people from other states are visiting him to learn what he is doing. He has also formed a large network of like-minded people. For example, Digital Partners, an organization in the United States, has been collaborating with Amol and his team in this effort. They are hoping to work with him to spread the idea to other districts in India and also utilize a similar approach in the other areas of the world where they work. As the director of his institution, Amol has managed not only to create an effective educational curriculum but also to take up the task of creating the educational facility by forming partnerships with leading corporations in India to participate in this work. Two major international conferences in 2001 and 2002–now institutionalized as the Baramati Initiative–have opened doors for international delegations to come and take a look at what is possible in a rural setting. The international grant Amol received was a direct result of the initiative.




THE PERSON

Amol has long been fascinated with technology and computers. Born in Aurangabad, a small city in Maharashtra famous for its heritage sites, Amol grew up in a middle-class family. His father, a government employee with the agricultural department, fostered his son's early interest in farmers and agriculture. A good cricketer in college who represented his college at the state level, Amol was also part of the school-cleaning camps and heritage walks. He supported himself in college by doing contract electrical work on and around campus.

After receiving his degree in electrical engineering, Amol started a small enterprise in maintenance work. Witnessing the information technology boom that was then arriving in India, Amol decided a computer education would be a good career move.

While he was earning his master's degree in computer science, Amol realized the existence of the great rural-urban divide, particularly the lack of good, trained teachers. As a consequence of the paucity of teachers in semiurban areas when Amol became a full-time teacher in 1992, he taught in five colleges, working from morning till night every day. In 1998 he joined VIIT, his current place of work, to build up the institution and give rural IT education a boost. In three years he succeeded in making the institution self-paying and opened up the avenues of computer literacy to the rural districts of Pune and Baramati. In 1999 he took advantage of a government order that declared that everyone in the state of Maharashtra should be computer literate. Amol accelerated his computer literacy program, went from village to village looking for entrepreneurs interested in setting up computer learning centers, and trained some 15,000 people. He helped entrepreneurs get bank loans, set up the centers with technological know-how, and identified people who were willing to teach. It was then that Amol started seriously thinking about issues of sustainability and about using IT for economic growth and enterprise development. Attending an international conference in Washington, D.C., on making the voice of rural people global through connectivity helped him to vet his ideas with senior international officials. His idea to make rural communities IT savvy took its current shape in 2001. Supported in his work by his physician wife, Amol lives in Baramati with her and their 3-year-old daughter.