In Conversation with Unmesh Sheth, Founder of Ektta, Platforms for Positive Change
There is no doubt that throughout the developing world there is a significant technological divide that challenges efforts aimed at promoting equality of opportunity. Because so many of India’s poor do not have access to communication technologies, they remain at the bottom of an unfavorable learning curve, unexposed to the tools practically required to thrive in today’s economy. Interestingly, this lack of understanding or accessibility to technology seems to extend up the base of the pyramid and affect those who are actually trying to help the underprivileged. Unmesh Sheth, founder of Ektta and President of Silicon Valley based Indians for Collective Action (ICA), made this realization during his time spent with Indian NGOs, trying to find a way that that ICA could work with them to create an impact.While learning about the barriers that these NGOs were presented with, Unmesh found that many lack efficient ways of collecting and organizing data. Without systems that ensure real-time, accurate data collection, the NGOs were having a difficult time maximizing and assessing their impact. With this deeper understanding of the challenges facing the Indian NGO space, Unmesh founded Ektta as a project of ICA.
Ektta seeks to accelerate the impact of non-profits and NGOs by providing systems for easy data collection, organization, and analysis. They are in the process of releasing three products: EkttaConnect, EkttaCommunity, and EkttaApps. Using open sourced software, Ektta provides clients with a cloud-based platform to improve membership outreach, manage existing members, and determine the best way to serve their needs. The platform is designed to improve the efficiency of field workers by allowing easy mobile integration, app development, data synchronization, and wireless use.
We had a chance to connect with Unmesh Sheth and have him answer some questions on his organization and the important role it plays in development work.
Q: What is the significance of the name Ektta?
I really wanted to name my organization “EmpowerBOP,” but the BOP (Bottom of Pyramid) concept is still not known to everyone and my wife objected to labeling it as such. Instead, we really looked hard into what value we provide, and it comes down to enabling communities and social organizations by providing appropriate technology, to make them self-reliant. We also removed the word Empower, as after deep thinking I also realized that we are more of an enabler, and do not necessarily empower. Ek=1 Ektta (with two “t”) is word for unity in Hindi. The word Ektta was born as the ultimate result is to unite communities.
Q: As a very new company, what challenges have you faced?
It is critical that we are laser focused on following Ektta’s mission. Our beginning was in Silicon Valley, California, and that restricted us from being in front of any organization in developing countries that might want to use this platform. To address this issue we are building minimum viable products (MVP) based on our working experience with SEWA, SEWA Rural, Armman, and many other NGOs . We plan to have a roadshow in the Spring and Summer of 2013, where we want to demo MVP in 5-10 cities to get further feedback and validation. In the long run, we hope we can attract likeminded social organizations or entrepreneurs to lead customer implementation and development. Partnering with these visionary NGOs can help us scale our services.
Q: What do you think is the greatest opportunity to work with phones as you work to reduce the digital divide?Unless the organization is aware of the communication needs and data associated with their members, it is difficult to bridge this gap. For example, there is a tremendous capacity shortage for blood in India. Mobilizing voluntary blood is a difficult job involving intensive campaigns, motivation, and considerable resources. We can enable the “mobilization” problem, however, before I reach out to a potential donor, I must know the donor’s specific blood type and other attributes, and what region the blood is needed from. There are many social enterprises that can claim they have this application. However, how many can claim that they can scale to any number of groups? How many can claim that their services can be affordable by any blood bank, rural healthcare delivery organization and volunteer organization? We need to go beyond small-scale implementation and provide affordable solutions for everyone.
In the last 3-4 years there has been amazing innovation from mainstream platforms (Google, Amazon, and Open Source like) that appropriate technology that the BOP can benefit from. In addition, full range of voice-based services such as 2-way voice, group voice, record/playback, broadcast (example, Awaaz.de, CGNet Swara) can help bridge communication. I am also very excited to see the emergence of cloud-based services like KooKoo and Plivo.
Ektta would like to take the benefit from both and bring a solution that is simple, elegant & powerful. For example, from Open Source & start-up partnerships we can benefit from offline storage for mobile. The tremendous accomplishments in the smart phone/tablet space finally allows organizations to make these devices affordable. From Drupal we can gain flexibility (without tying expensive clouds like Salesforce.com), with Google’s apps we can transition to use apps without learning the typical complexity of menu driven apps, and Amazon can be a great cloud provider. On the other hand voice focused services further excites me. These allow us to build on top of the services, which can truly be a real value creator. It is not sufficient to give these services to social organizations, as they don’t know what to do with it! Because Ektta uses a membership based approach, we are aware of data, contact, and activity. This helps us use these services more effectively.
Q: What is your vision for Ektta?
Ektta’s vision is to enable communities and social organization by providing appropriate technology, to make them self-reliant. We would like to have a major implementation completed in year 2013 for EkttaCommunity. For EkttaConnect, we would like to start 2-5 trials.
Q: What is one piece of advice you would give to someone looking to become a social entrepreneur?
Not every social enterprise is created equal. I am happy to see that many young professionals are interested in building their own social enterprises. It is true that most try to put a social mission ahead of profits, but I don’t think that this is sufficient. My experience with charitable organizations has shown that if solutions are not co-created with the community, no amount of money can achieve their mission. In fact, it may create substantial negative results that the original funder may not even be aware of!
Needless to say that you must be in this for a long haul, and must be laser focused on developing the right solution. Though I am not qualified to say this as we are a young organization, I believe things will start to fall in place if the solution is designed for the true benefit of the community.
Finally, just like every enterprise, you must have a clearly defined funding model. Each individual should have clearly identified needs, rather than wants, and means to meeting these needs during their journey! Development is a bit trickier than service in this area!
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