How technology is empowering women in rural India

From financial literacy, healthcare, and entrepreneurship, to education, technology is changing the lives of women in rural India, bringing new solutions and innovations.

How technology is empowering women in rural India

Wednesday March 08, 2023,

9 min Read

Paalaguttapalle, a small village in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district, was severely impacted by successive droughts between 2010-15, leading to a slowdown in crop productivity.

To support women in the village and their families, Aparna Krishnan, a resident of the village, formed a group of women to start stitching eco-friendly, pure cotton bags. Aparna promoted these bags on social media and used WhatsApp to sell the bags across India.


Friends of Paalaguttapalle

WhatsApp has been central to their enterprise. Customers send their orders on WhatsApp and on the website, including images of the patterns they want. The women artisans use WhatsApp to share a prototype image, colours for the bags, and any details that need to be discussed over WhatsApp.

Aparna and her team, who call themselves Friends of Paalaguttapalle, assist women artisans online and help them tell their story and engage with customers. From procuring the material to making the prototypes, ensuring delivery deadlines, and maintaining quality control is completely handled by the women in Paalaguttapalle.

The group has sold over 50,000 bags till date, and has supplied to many conferences, events, and functions across India. It has customers in countries such as the US, the UK, and Canada as well. They have also started making preservative-free pickles using traditional recipes.

The business has helped the village sail through difficult times and enabled women to lead self-sufficient lives.

Paalaguttapalle has shown the ability and enterprise of a village, and what is possible today even for remote villages, given the transformational power of technologies like WhatsApp.

In April 2022, Union Minister Smriti Irani announced that nearly 20 million women are certified to be digitally literate in the country under the PMGDISHA programme dedicated to digital literacy.

The Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan (PMGDISHA) aims to empower people in rural areas by training them to operate computers or give access to devices like tablets, smartphones, etc., send and receive e-mails, browse the internet, access government services, and undertake digital payment, among others.

Tech for entrepreneurship

During the pandemic, women farmers in Kashmir working with Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) used WhatsApp to create an alternate ‘supply-chain’ to expand their markets and sell local produce (apples and cherries) to customers in Gujarat. They saved time and effort, connecting with the right set of buyers, and were able to facilitate successful transactions.

A WhatsApp spokesperson says, “One in two Indians own a smartphone today, more than half the population has access to the internet, and data costs are among the lowest in the world. WhatsApp is often the first digital gateway for millions of Indians, especially in semi-urban and rural parts of the country--it can be operated using even basic smartphones.”

Mann Deshi, a women’s empowerment non-profit started by Chetna Gala Sinha, is empowering thousands of women to be financially independent. Sinha started the Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank in Mhaswad village in Satara district, Maharashtra, a cooperative bank run by women for women in 1997, one of the largest in the state.

Mann Deshi works with WhatsApp to offer technology solutions. Small enterprises that ran tailoring units for school uniforms were left with loads of fabric during the pandemic, but no food on the table for their families. They decided to turn the fabric into masks to continue their livelihood.

They created videos and circulated it among community members using WhatsApp. Soon, there were several, small groups of women, operating and coordinating the mask making activity within their villages.

These women made 10 lakh masks within a few months and sold them in cities. These are great examples of skill building and digital and financial inclusion at a time when the world was closed for business.

Deshi has also launched India’s first regional WhatsApp Chatbot to drive digital literacy and financial literacy in Marathi language. The chatbot allows women associated with the Mann Deshi Foundation to freely access its modules on financial literacy, digital literacy, and the Deshi MBA by simply sending ‘Hi’ to the WhatsApp number +91 8623875478.

The MBA modules are sachet sized and have simplified business for small and medium entrepreneurs, helping women up-skill themselves on the simple and user-friendly WhatsApp platform. The coursework is interactive, and the assessments are in a quiz format, leading to a certification from Mann Deshi and the National Skill Development Corporation of India (NSDC).

“We partnered with banks to provide loans to women to buy smartphones. They used this to access technology. Our chat provides financial literacy and women can use the helpline to register their business, or for routine tasks like paying their electricity bills,” Sinha tells HerStory.

With the launch of doorstep banking, women are taught to use micro-ATMs, how to swipe cards and use QR codes for their business. A digital bus tours villages with a tablet, micro-ATM and ATMs for women to practice on, and learn to use a digital wallet.

At the heart of the S4S Technology in three states–Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Odisha, is a business model that deploys village-level sourcing and processing operated by women farmers turned micro-entrepreneurs (MEs). It has introduced them to a solar-powered dehydration system, with a solar conduction dryer that can process 45+ different food and requires no electricity. This is deployed at farms to reduce food wastage at source. Farmers can store produce for a long time as the shelf life is increased to a year without the need for cold storage. The processed produce is made fit for the customer at the central facility and supplied as food ingredients to the food and beverage industry.

Tech for healthcare

In Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, there are close to 1,700 children with developmental disabilities, informs Dr Shruti More, Founder of Samphia Foundation.

During the pandemic, with each passing week of no intervention and therapy, families found that the children were lapsing into their pre-therapy routine. In December 2020, almost eight months after the lockdown was imposed, a Therapy on Wheels programme, India’s first mobile van therapy unit, was launched by the Samphia Foundation in Himachal Pradesh. The foundation continues to use WhatsApp to connect with people and volunteers.

Tech for change

In 2016, IIT Bombay launched the Dungarpur initiative that transformed the lives of Rukmani Devi Katara and other women in rural Rajasthan. Married at 13, life would have taken a different turn for Rukmani if she had not started a self-help group (SHG) in her village encouraged by the Rajasthan State Rural Livelihood Mission.

The Dungarpur initiative launched its SOUL project in conjunction with Rajeevika and the district administration and trained women like Rukmani in assembling and familarising with solar panels.

The presidents of four clusters—from Antri, Biladi, Jhontri, and Punali—signed an MoU with IIT Bombay to start manufacturing solar panels and lamps. The entity was named Dungarpur Renewable Energy Technologies Private Limited (Durga Energy). Rukmani, who is now the CEO of Durga Energy, started off as an employee visiting houses in her village, and climbing tall ladders to install solar panels.

“So far, 40,000 solar study lamps have been distributed, five lakh solar panels installed, and one lakh torches and 50,000 lanterns manufactured. Each Solar Saheli earns somewhere around Rs 8,000-16,000 a month,” says Rukmani.

In Pendagaon village in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad district, Savita Dakle is empowering women farmers in rural India by connecting them on Facebook. With little support and a lot of determination, Savita applied for a membership with the village group, Seva Samta, and joined it. Armed with just a Jio phone and rudimentary knowledge of social media, she began by training 200 women in her village to use the phone and Facebook. She manages two Facebook groups that has over a million farmers from all over India.

“The community of women farmers now discusses everything related to farming--from tips and tricks of sowing and harvesting different types of crops to pricing them in the market,” she says.

Adopting technology and challenges

According to a 2022 Nielsen study, India has 646 million active Internet users and rural India registered a presence of 352 million internet users, which is almost 20% higher than urban. Also, female users’ growth in the last two years is a whopping 61% as compared to male users who grew at 24%. One in every three female internet users in rural India is actively using the internet. 

The WhatsApp spokesperson says, “The overall literacy rates, societal norms, and lack of familiarity towards technology could be some of the inhibiting factors and challenges to the adoption of technology, especially in the rural parts of the country.”

However, he believes that simple and easy-to-use features like voice notes, video calls, and the ability to create WhatsApp groups and communities make WhatsApp a preferred messaging platform, especially to combat the challenges of lower internet connectivity, and inaccessibility of other platforms.

Deepthi Ravula, CEO of WE Hub, Government of Telangana’s incubator for women entrepreneurs, says that practical handholding mechanisms have helped women understand and adapt to technology, especially in rural areas.

“We start with having our meetings on a WhatsApp video call to graduate to large virtual sessions on Google Meet. Just this basic step, which seems so normal, has given women the confidence to use their smartphones in a better fashion and has opened their minds to adapting to other tools,” she says.

She takes the example of Keerthi Priya, founder of Nurture Fields from Suryapet, who has used help with technology to install a factory unit worth Rs 80 lakh. From creating two to three SKUs in a month, the entrepreneur now has over 25 SKUs, which has enabled her to tap into multiple market channels.

While accessibility still remains a challenge, Deepthi says WE Hub has enabled entrepreneurs to take upskilling classes digitally, look at applications for accounting processes and ensure every unit has a budget earmarked for introduction of machinery.

Edited by Megha Reddy