In the Yemmigannur village of Andhra Pradesh, a unique problem presented itself to a business. Like many villages in India, this one, too, adhered to old customs and rituals. A particular caste assigned to clean toilets made their displeasure clear when the business’s internal staff was made in-charge. This was their job, and it was not right for this business to take that away from them.
If it wasn’t casteism, then political interference loomed its ugly head to pose a challenge. If not that, then an orthodox culture resistant to change it direly needed.
‘We have to pick our battles.’
In 2009, Ravi Machani, as group leader of the Young Business Leaders Forum, invited Dr Abdul Kalam to the 50th anniversary of the Indian auto-component industry. During the evening discussions, Kalam lamented about India’s ‘unfinished business’: rural India’s lack of development against a sprawling urban India that’s devouring the nation.
‘There were 600,000 odd villages in India. If one entrepreneur could take up just one village, it could make a big difference to that village.’
Before the IT boom in Bangalore, India was somnambulating through the 20th century, barely a blimp on the map. When IT came, it ravaged the nation, being a changer and a catalyst to other changes. The Indian landscape began to mutate, and continues this chaotic evolution towards 21st century progress. However, rural India has largely remained in its slumber, oscillating between desperately struggling and just surviving.
Rural India hasn’t caught up with the rest of the rural world, either neglected or exploited. Isolated from the urban mindscape, it just exists as an incomplete reality.
If this economic boom of urban India could be replicated in, at least, one of those 600,000 villages, it could set a domino effect of development.
Ravi Machani suddenly found a cause.
Introducing the IT sector into rural villages was a stretch. It was far more practical and feasible to bring Business Processing Outsourcing (BPO) into villages.
So, the seeds of IndiVillage were sown in Yemmigannur, Andhra Pradesh.
Rural women have very few opportunities. It’s a truism we’ve come to casually accept. IndiVillage isn’t just an endeavour to help bring 600,000 villages into the 21st century, but a tool to usher in a disruptive change in the social fabric of Indian villages.
‘70% of our employees in our BPO are women. It’s the rural women who need to have these opportunities.’
IndiVillage first began a hunt for employees based on qualifications, but changed its tactics to contain attrition. Because of the unique challenges a rural environment presents, businesses need to adapt to the culture and needs of the villages. IndiVillage decided it was going to hunt for employees from its schools: mothers of students.
‘‘We pick up people who want jobs that will pay well. We don’t look for qualifications anymore. The children go to the school, and the mothers come to the BPO. We don’t have the attrition that we normally get in a BPO. We’ve given flexible hours, and most of them are not employable anywhere. Most of the rural men in the village are earning about 3000-4000 rupees per month, and our rural women are earning well over that.’
Being a largely orthodox and traditional village, the idea of women working for as alien a concept as a BPO was one that created friction. Yet, cottage industry enterprises didn’t bring the kind of consistent profit required of development, so the need to establish BPOs was monumental if the village was to see substantial development. With family meetings, discussions with village elders and negotiations, the employment of women eventually increased from 30% to a staggering 70%.
IndiVillage centres its cause around children. With schooling for nearly 300 children, it’s cementing the future of the next generation of villagers. The mothers of these students earn good money, and are exposed to a unique environment that allows them to encounter people as customers and clients, and bring home more income. IndiVillage calls this its soft-landing technique. It’s a win-win situation for the village, children and women, and it’s taken all kinds of tact, sensitivity, wit and passion to strike this balance.
The employees, being mostly women, have flexible hours. When they had issues with long hours, IndiVillage cut their working hours to 6. It’s a learning process that kick-started in 2009, and still continues today.
‘It’s been a good five years for us. We’ve had stable operations. We’ve made money, we’re debt-free, we’re in a good spot for very good business, and we make good profit. We’re definitely among the more profitable ones. This may have something to do with the wages in rural India being less than urban areas, but it doesn’t matter.’
The next step as IndiVillage gears up to enter its fifth year is to expand franchises of IndiVillage, or help young and earnest entrepreneurs set up their own BPOs in villages.
An entrepreneur who wants to start his own BPO in a village gets all the mentorship and support from IndiVillage possible. From investment challenges to logistics and infrastructure, IndiVillage vows to help entrepreneurs get their management and resources spruced up and ready to function for their BPOs.
‘We’ve had people interested, but not anyone acting on it, yet. After the 5th year we’ll venture out into the second location. This is not the most difficult business to run, because you’re raw material are people.
‘The most precious resource for any business to do well is management. If you have good management, you’ll figure it out… We call it LUCK: location, understanding, chances and knowledge. Figure out all those things out, and you have more things working for you than against.’
It’s essentially this formula that has made IndiVillage a success story with still greater ambitions.
‘Things were a lot easier, smoother, results were much faster.
‘We’re up to global standards in terms of QCD: quality, cost and delivery, in that order. We satisfy, we’re financially viable.’
The employees at IndiVillage BPO do a wide range of work from data digitisation, online circular processing, accounts, data entry, search engine optimization to offering cloud computing services.
IndiVillage still has its fingers in more than one curry pot. Besides setting up a BPO, it engages in other handicrafts, education and agricultural programmes. So, there’s a holistic nisus towards impacting many aspects of the village together. For their organic farming project, subject-matter experts are called all the way from Hyderabad and Karnataka for training programmes and knowledge-sharing exercises. It’s a give-and-take process where local knowledge of agriculture is infused with modern agriculture to provide culture-specific solutions to farmers.‘We try to help them wherever we can.’
Dr Abdul Kalam wanted each and every one of those 600,000 villages to reflect this development, where a rural India would finally be seen as a financially viable entity, without its culture having to lose its rustic flavour and knowledge. This was a dream: to see development tailored for rural India.
‘Villages need an anchor entrepreneur.
‘Most people don’t realise this, but these are profitable businesses. It’s for a good case, and it helps everybody.’
IndiVillage has an outreach office for volunteers and sees a number of people visiting the village over a period of 1-6 months. The work done by volunteers varies from logistics in management to setting up an entire computer lab.
But, we still have thousands of village just sitting their brimming with unique and obscure potential that’s not being tapped. This potential gets further over-shadowed by the sensation and controversy that surrounds urban development. Against high-speed rails and prestigious technoparks, the village becomes an ignored majority.
‘Even to this day 60% intellectual work that comes to India still goes to Bangalore. As a country, we’re still so under-developed that there’s a long way to go. We have a different type of employment potential in rural India. Pure talent, dedication, their loyalty… people underestimate rural India a lot.
‘It’s really good fun. It’s a high. Once you go there and hang out, it’s just pure fun. It’s hard to explain; people are simpler, you know.
‘It’s a different kind of fun.’