Magazine

Technology, The Poverty Fighter


A fascinating technology revolution is under way in India. No, we're not just talking about that nation's success in software and outsourcing work. Rather, it involves an explosion of projects that are making creative use of technology to deliver basic goods and services to India's 700 million poor, most of whom live in isolated villages. It's a movement that both Western aid agencies and corporations should back more aggressively -- and not out of a sense of charity. If some of the experiments in India can reach a large enough scale, they could prove vital in spreading true grassroots economic development to the two-thirds of the world's population that lives on less than $1 a day.

Indian technology-for-the-masses projects are appearing in endless varieties. Entrepreneurs are developing handheld computers costing as little as $200 that enable villagers to conduct financial transactions or obtain crop information. Karnataka state has computerized records for 20 million plots of land and is making them available for pennies to farmers who need them to secure credit. Rural medical clinics equipped with solar panels are beaming X-rays to hospitals more than a thousand kilometers away via satellite and enabling doctors to consult with patients over video-conference lines. Scientists who have left prestigious U.S. labs are devoting their energies to adapting Wi-Fi telecom systems to provide cheap connectivity over long distances. Spurring these projects are investments by both government and companies to dot India's vast countryside with thousands of computer kiosks.

As with any startup, many of these projects won't become financially sustainable, especially since they are aimed at the poor. What's encouraging, however, is that several show signs of becoming commercially viable, meaning they can be ramped up and used as models in other developing nations without requiring constant infusions of aid. Indian Tobacco Co., for example, has funded more than 4,000 computer kiosks that enable farmers to sell everything from seeds to soap over its Web site, e-Choupal. Encouraged by such projects, the World Bank and an Indian software association plan to make as much as $1 billion available for grassroots technology businesses. Corporations should also step up such investments. By promoting local innovation and entrepreneurialism, the tech-for-the-masses movement could not only stimulate economic development in the countryside but also help find the key to turning the world's poor into the next major source of global growth.


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