What happens when the world’s poorest women have a wealth of information at their fingertips?
In 2015, Trickle Up and Tata Communications joined forces to bring mobile technology to women living in ultra-poverty in the resource-poor and most marginalized sections of Jharkhand and Odisha, India. The MPOWERED pilot project (Mobile Connections to Promote Women’s Economic Development) built innovative new tools to bolster sustainable livelihood options and support the journey of women and families out of extreme poverty.
In 2020, Trickle Up and Tata Communications have again come together to expand MPOWERED in order to bring the benefits of connectivity to more women and families.
MPOWERED demonstrated that smartphones, especially when coupled with effective coaching, can help women gain access to information that can boost the productivity and profitability of their livelihoods. 1800 women were selected as participants and 1000 were provided smartphones, depending on factors based on their inclination and ability to learn new technology. Most of these women had never touched a phone in their lives, let alone interactive smartphones with touchscreens.
Through trainings at individual and group levels, the participants began to learn phone functionality, starting with basic calling and texting. Many of these women had relocated to live in their husbands’ community upon marriage, finding themselves separated from their support systems. Mobile connectivity allowed women to get in touch with friends and family residing far away from their homes. They gained confidence and pride as they reconnected with, strengthened, and even grew their support networks.
Mobile connectivity also gave participants greater access to emergency healthcare services and family services. Healthcare workers, doctors, and Anganwadi centers—government centers for childcare and health services—were now just a call away, making families safer and more secure.
Trickle Up’s Graduation Approach supports women in establishing viable and sustainable livelihood options to bring financial stability to their households. Staff and coaches work closely with each participant to work out their needs, assets, and inclinations and align these with a market analysis. Participants then venture into agriculture, livestock rearing and small businesses. MPOWERED made smartphones a pivotal tool in this journey. Trickle Up developed a mobile livelihoods coaching application that puts interactive guides for best practices for cultivation and livestock rearing directly into the hand of participants. It also included a money manager that gave participants better understanding of their livelihood costs and profits. This application became a source of real-time, on-demand information and guidance between in-person coaching visits, helping to reduce errors and increase outputs.
Smartphones allowed participants to easily reach vendors, thereby reducing the cost of travel and time. They also used their phones to connect to their bank accounts and to stay updated with new information and alerts about government programs and entitlements.
Towards the Future
On February 5, 2020 in New Delhi, India, Trickle Up, Tata Communications, development sector professionals, and three program participants came together to look back at the journey of the MPOWERED pilot, to reflect on challenges and triumphs, and to announce the expanded second phase of the program.
“It has been an emotional journey for me, and a very satisfying and encouraging experience,” said Sadanandan C. Thondieri, Vice President of Corporate Services for TATA Communications. “To the entire Tata Communications team, MPOWERED has been a great learning opportunity.”
MPOWERED is best illustrated and contextualized by the entrepreneurial women working to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. The event therefore featured an interactive session between the audience and three MPOWERED participants—Mungli Lohar, Ratni Kumar, and Sairendri Ekka. The women spoke about their respective journeys, from being selected as participants to becoming small business owners. They proudly and confidently answered audience questions, sharing their inspiring stories of resilience and determination.
Mungli is a successful participant that raises livestock and runs a market eatery in Jharkhand. Her comfort with a smartphone led to her selection as an MPOWERED peer teacher, known as a Smart Sakhi. However, she struggled in getting other participants to attend trainings, as they all work and manage household chores. Not bowing to obstacles, she started teaching them at their own convenience and now works with 20 participants of her community. She started visiting the women at their farms and taught them when they took a break. If she met them on roads, she would teach them while walking, or in their homes. Mungli is now regarded as a community leader.
Due to an inability to save, Ratni found herself isolated from the self-help group in her village in Odisha. However, as a participant, her journey changed and she made a profit of INR 20,000 by selling her goats. Today, she uses her phone to gain access to the market to grow her business as a vegetable vender. Her business is now mobile—she travels to sell vegetables in different markets, both close and far away from home.
Coming from a family of ten, Sairindri’s life was one of scarcity. However, thanks to her new link to the outside world via her smartphone and a better understanding of the importance of information, she was able to take advantage of government social entitlements when tragedy struck. When elephants destroyed her home in Odisha, she received a house under the government housing scheme, a ration card, cooking gas connections, and access to other programs. Now, her son is studying in school, her daughter is in college, and her husband is no longer a migrant, focusing on agriculture with her at home.
The success of MPOWERED has encouraged both TATA Communications and Trickle Up to see the project into its second phase. This phase will bring in 1000 new participants from Jharkhand and Odisha and focus on using technology to build small business enterprises. The mobile application will be upgraded to cater to these enterprise initiatives as well.
Trickle Up is looking forward to the future of MPOWERED and helping 2800 women on their journey out of poverty.