[Year in Review 2019] From a startup improving the lot of dairy farmers to apps that help the dyslexic and blind learn better, read the top 20 social stories

Small steps lead to big impact. And when several small steps are taken together, the impact grows manifold. SocialStory brings you a selection of the top 20 stories we carried through the year and hope they inspire us all to do more in 2020.

No act too small, no step too bold. The history of social change is the history of millions of actions, small and large, coming together at critical points to create an impact.

There are many individuals and organisations out there working tirelessly for the betterment of the society and inspiring others along the way. 

SocialStory has compiled a list of people and entities who took the path less trodden to lend a helping hand to those who need it the most and motivate us to do more. 

With this organisation’s help, Indian army veterans are becoming entrepreneurs

Life after serving in the army can be as challenging as a battle. The transition from a military to civilian life is not easy, and not everyone can make it work. 

Participants engage in activities at the workshop.

The Indian Armed Forces have approximately 75,000 personnel in the Army, Navy, and the Air Force, who relinquish their uniform every year. Most of them are between 35 and 45 years old, and possess multiple skills, technical prowess, and a lot of knowledge - in computers, engineering, supply chain, logistics, and satellite communication.

I Create India is a non-profit organisation that is focused on helping these retired army personnel adopt entrepreneurship for their life’s second innings. The organisation does this by organising five-day workshops called ‘Aspiring Entrepreneurs’ on a monthly basis across India with a view to create awareness about entrepreneurial skills. It also conducts mentoring sessions to help veterans prepare and execute business plans. 

How this startup is working to improve the livelihood of dairy farmers in India

Dairy farming is a major source of income for a staggering 121 million farmers in India, with total production touching 176 million metric tonnes in 2018. However, farmers are struggling to earn a livelihood due to the unavailability of quality fodder and high cost of cattle feed. This has, in turn, been affecting the quality of milk as well as the health of cows and buffaloes, causing a streak of economic losses.

Nikhil Bohra, Founder and CEO of Krimanshi.

In an attempt to change this scenario, 31-year-old Nikhil Bohra founded Krimanshi in 2015 to convert food and agricultural waste into low-cost feed and fodder for dairy farmers. This is done by putting together a collection system to gather fruit and vegetable waste from juice shops and local markets. The resultant matter is then processed by adding certain salts, and pulverising the mixture to obtain feed. 

In the last four years, the Jodhpur-based startup has helped over 500 farmer households across Rajasthan to increase milk production and reduce veterinary costs, while generating value from 100 tonnes of waste. 

Meet the man who made it to the Forbes 30 under 30 Asia list for his solar startup

We are all aware of the numerous benefits of solar energy. It is clean, reliable, and renewable. Today, India is harnessing the unlimited power of the sun at a very fast pace. The country's installed capacity stands at a staggering 31.696 GW as of October 31, 2019. Commercial and industrial buildings are utilising most of this energy, with households accounting for only nine percent of the total rooftop solar capacity, according to Bridge to India, a renewable energy consultancy firm.

Simarpreet Singh, Founder, Hartek Solar Pvt Ltd.

Hartek Solar Pvt Ltd was started in 2017 by Simarpreet Singh to encourage people to adopt solar energy. The Chandigarh-based company offers small-scale solar solutions, and is fostering a culture of community-driven clean energy through its customised residential rooftop solar kits. Simarpreet and his team have already installed more than 300 solar kits across residences in Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh over the last two years. 

These 20-year-olds developed an app to help students with dyslexia learn better

Dyslexia is the most common learning disability. It makes reading - perhaps the most important part of school education - difficult. This is why children with dyslexia often do not get high grades, though this has nothing to do with their intelligence.

Team Team Augmenta11y

Presently, there are nearly 3.5 crore children with dyslexia studying across various schools in India. To solve this problem, four students from Mukesh Patel School of Technology Management & Engineering, Mumbai, have developed an app to help dyslexic children learn better. 

Tushar Gupta, Mudita Sisodia, Schezeen Fazulbhoy, and Mitali Raju are all in their 20s. The recently-launched Augmenta11y, available for free for both Android and iOS users, helps children with dyslexia read books using the camera on their phone. The app makes use of Augmented Reality (AR) to show the text in a dyslexia‐friendly format, and has several other customisable features that make reading much easier.

Meet Namrata Jain, the first woman from Naxal-hit Dantewada to secure the top rank in UPSC exams

The Dantewada district in Chattisgarh is infamous as a Maoist region and has seen many uprisings and turbulent times in the past decade. Home to 5.5 lakh people, alcohol-fuelled domestic violence and rampant unemployment have also affected growth and development in the region.

Namrata celebrates in her village after clearing UPSC.

Amid such certainty and low educational standards, Namrata Jain, a resident of Dantewada, became the first woman from the region to clear the UPSC exams and secure an impressive All India Rank 12. Despite the limited opportunities in the locality, she refused to give up and found refuge in an online distance education programme to help realise her dream of becoming a civil servant and serving the community. 

These two brothers from a village in Haryana are converting cow dung into biogas to power their factory

In Kunjpura village, located in Karnal district, Haryana, Aditya Aggarwal (31) and his older brother Amit Aggarwal (34) run Tee Cee Industries, a steel plant set up by their ancestors in 1984. Along with this, they also run a gaushala that houses 1,200 cows that can no longer produce milk. The cow shelter was manageable but running the steel plant was turning out to be expensive because they spent a whopping Rs 5 lakh every month on electricity. But the brothers struck upon an idea. 

Aditya Aggarwal (centre) along with his elder brother Amit Aggarwal (right) and younger brother Anuj Aggarwal (left) at Amrit Fertilizer biogas plant.

Why not run the factory on the biogas produced from cow dung from the shelter and other gaushalas, along with bio and agri-waste like sewage, farm waste, etc?

This led Aditya and Amit to start Amrit Fertilisers, a biogas project, in 2014, without any government support. The brothers started off with the production of organic fertilisers by collecting organic waste, including sewage and cow dung, from farmers. Later they began using methane gas, a bi-product of the process, for various purposes like cooking and other activities.

Today, their biogas plant is spread over 5,500 square feet, and has produced 18,25,000 units of electricity using 36,500 tonnes of cow dung. The duo has also delivered around 73,000 tonnes of fertilisers to more than 1,000 local farmers.

How this 22-year-old is providing free supplementary education to children in villages of Tamil Nadu

Poverty, availability and accessibility are the three main reasons children drop out of schools in India. A study conducted by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) reveals that 62.1 million children are out of schools across India. The 2011 Census estimated the figure at 84 million - nearly 20 percent of the age group covered under the Right to Education Act (RTE). 

Ganesh Rao and Krutika Rao.

With an intention to resolve this at the grassroot level, Krutika Rao and her father, Ganesh Rao, launched Tamil Nadu-based Nukkad Pathshala in February 2014. The non-profit CSR initiative aims to prevent children at nukkads (corners), in villages, from dropping out of school by offering quality education for free at after-school learning centres.

Today, their initiative has scaled up to 38 centres across Tamil Nadu: Salem, Coimbatore, Namakkal, Thanjavur, Tuticorin, Trichy, and Udumalpet, and has positively impacted the lives of 1,500 students.

Meet the husband-wife duo that is upcycling old army uniforms into trendy bags

According to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, India generates a whopping 1.5 lakh metric tonnes (MT) of solid waste every day, of which only 54 percent is processed scientifically. The rest is either burnt or finds a place in landfills and scrap shops.

Sepoi co-founders Siddharth Jaiswal and Suchi Jaiswal.

Many a times, objects with high perceived value also land up in junkyards. Imagine the sight of an Army uniform discarded in a heap among other odds and ends – this would not only undermine the dignity of the armed forces, but also whittle away their legacy, spirit, and valour. 

Mumbai-based Sepoi is striving to address this by upcycling old and worn-out army uniforms into bags. Founded by husband-wife duo Siddharth Jaiswal (34) and Suchi Jaiswal (33) in 2018, the firm collects used army uniforms and turns them into trendy designer laptop bags, backpacks, and handbags with the help of rural women and artisans. Despite having a lean core team of four, Sepoi has sold over 110 bags in the last one year, and has saved many army uniforms from reaching the garbage dump.

How Nayati Healthcare is providing prompt medical attention to lakhs of pilgrims in Uttarakhand

Situated 11,000 feet above sea level in the Tehri-Garhwal hill tracks of Uttarakhand, with the majestic Neelkanth peak forming an enchanting backdrop, Badrinath is one of the most pristine and sacred places in India. 

Niira Radia, Chairperson and Promoter, Nayati Healthcare.

An average of seven to 10 lakh pilgrims visit the place every year. However, many of them tend to suffer from ailments like joint pain, vertigo, fever, diarrhoea, headaches, and respiratory congestion due to the steep and arduous ascent. With very few fully-equipped hospitals in the region, access to healthcare for pilgrims and residents remains a far-fetched dream. 

Niira Radia’s Nayati Healthcare stepped in to address this issue and introduced a fleet of 17 mobile medical units with 140 paramedic staff. Since its inception in 2012, the units have helped over four lakh pilgrims recoup from various illnesses, free of cost. 

This 27-year-old’s startup is merging design education with practical skills to create social impact in Indian villages

In 2014, when Vinay Varanasi was in his fifth year of architecture at MS Ramaiah Institute of Technology, Bengaluru, he got an opportunity to work with a professional architect. As part of his internship, when Vinay sat down to work on some plans, he realised he knew nothing about the practical implementations of drawing techniques; he only had theoretical knowledge. 

Vinay Varanasi, the Founder of Unbind Education.

The criticism of the supervising architect hit hard, and Vinay started questioning his own skill set and confronted doubts about his career as an architect.

Pressed to address these questions, Vinay, in 2015, alighted upon the idea for Unbind, a design education startup, to serve two major purposes - bridging the gap between design education and practice, and creating social impact through design.

In the past four years, Unbind has conducted over 120 workshops, from single-day sessions and two-day maker space festivals to weeklong immersion programmes. The startup has worked with over 450 students from institutes across the country to curate different design experiences for them.

This Noida-based spacetech startup has helped 20 million farmers with satellite data and ground sensors

India may have made a mark when it comes to space activities, but Vikram Sarabhai's vision is not forgotten. ISRO and several spacetech entrepreneurs are using space-based applications for the betterment of society and the nation. Noida-based company Skymet is an ideal example

Jatin Singh (left) standing along side a sensor.

Over the years, unpredictable and irregular weather conditions have caused unprecedented loss of capital and produce. This, in turn, has caused inflation in food prices and led to an increase in farmer suicides. Accurate weather predictions can go a long way in mitigating this crisis.

To solve this issue, Skymet has installed over 7,000 Automated Weather Stations (AWS) to generate real-time weather and crop monitoring data to extrapolate weather parameters in the near term. Besides weather information, real-time weather-based advice is also available. This allows a farmer to make time-sensitive decisions regarding crops, irrigation methods, pesticides, fertilisers, etc. 

Founded by Jatin Singh in 2003, Skymet is now present across 20 Indian states, mostly in the western and southern parts of the country. 

Former naval officer is teaching farmers and students to employ hydroponics for better food security in India

The average size of cultivable land in India has been shrinking year on year in the recent past. The arable land holding in the country decreased from 1.15 hectares in 2010-11 to 1.08 hectares in 2015-16, according to the tenth agricultural census prepared by the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare.  

Lt Cdr CV Prakash

Hence, there is a burgeoning need to turn towards other alternatives to grow crops. Hydroponics is one such solution, as through this approach, plants can be grown just by using minerals, nutrients, and water instead of soil. Despite the multiple benefits hydroponics offers, it is yet to pick up pace in India.

Enter Lt. Cdr CV Prakash, a former naval officer, who is on the road to transform this scenario by spreading awareness and conducting training sessions on hydroponics for farmers and students alike. In the year 2008, he set up PetBharo Project in the Dharwad district of Karnataka to engage people in soil-less cultivation of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Since then, he has taught more than 10,000 students to grow crops under this methodology.

How this Varanasi-based startup is enabling rickshaw-pullers to embrace EVs

At a time when India is constantly struggling to breathe clean air due to rising pollution levels, electric vehicles (EVs) hold out some hope. Not only do EVs help cut down carbon emissions, they also reduce the consumption of fuels and facilitate the growth of employment in alternate sectors.  

Naveen Krishna, Founder of SMV Green Solutions, with a woman driving an e-rickshaw.

Though there has been an increasing shift towards eco-friendly transportation with the introduction of EVs in recent years, marginalised communities in transport, such as rickshaw-pullers, find it difficult to obtain funds and service support to access this sustainable option. 

To address this gap, SMV Green Solutions, a Varanasi-based social enterprise, is looking to promote sustainable transport among rickshaw-pullers by enabling them to transition from hand-pulled vehicles (tricycles) to electric rickshaws.  Founded by Naveen Krishna (37) in 2015, the startup helps rickshaw-pullers switch to EVs through a spectrum of support strategies – from mobilising the community and assisting them to access micro finance, to handling the purchase and delivery of the three-wheeler, fulfilling the registration process, obtaining insurance, and training them in steering the vehicle. 

The venture has lent a hand to more than 1,200 rickshaw-pullers across Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in transitioning to e-rickshaws thus far. 

How Young India is fuelling the future of stem cell therapy and signing up to save lives

Stem cell donation is a treatment for blood-related illnesses like leukemia, lymphoma, and sickle cell anemia. But, with very few individuals signing up as donors and the probability of finding a match being a dismal 0.0008 percent in India (against a lean 16 percent abroad), fatalities are mounting year on year.  According to a report published by the US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, there are only three crore registered stem cell donors across the world, with Indian donors numbering 3.6 lakh.  

There is a lack of awareness about stem cell donation in India.

However, in recent times, there has been one small break in the clouds — a number of youngsters, non-governmental organisations, and medical professionals have come forward and are working to spread awareness about stem cell donation and motivate a larger number of people to register as donors. 

How this 21-year-old is honouring the legacy of his uncle, Javed Abidi, in the disability space

Javed Abidi was one of the pioneers in creating a cross-disability movement in India, encouraging people with different disabilities to work on common and collective solutions. He passed away in 2018, but the light that he shone and the memory of his passionate activism is fondly cherished by individuals not only in the disability space but across India. 

Young Shameer and his uncle Javed Abidi.

His nephew, 21-year-old Shameer Rishad, is honouring his legacy by taking his work forward through the launch of The Javed Abidi Foundation (JAF).

Launched in March 2019, JAF aims to effectively implement the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (RPWD) Act of 2016, which was one of Abidi’s unfinished agendas. Further, the foundation strives to bring youth together, foster friendships, and create a community where individuals and youth with disabilities know their rights. It trains them to be young leaders in the disability space, and effectively enable change.

How Amazon India is promoting inclusivity by employing People with Disabilities at its silent stations

According to Census 2011, of India’s 121-crore population, as many as 2.68 crore people have some form of disability. But, only one-third of them are employed. Not only are they deprived of livelihood opportunities, but their alienation from the industry also takes a toll on their social life as well as their caregivers.

Individuals with speech and hearing impairment loading a truck at Amazon's silent station.

In a mitigation measure, the country’s top online retailer Amazon India is now intensively pursuing its inclusive workplace policy. The ecommerce giant has been setting up “silent stations” across Mumbai since 2017, where all the operations and package deliveries are handled by individuals with hearing and speech impairments. That is not all — Amazon India has also modified the infrastructure and other facilities in the stations to meet the needs of the differently-abled and ensure their safety and comfort.

Meet the Class 12 students who are developing an app to make mental healthcare accessible and affordable

An astounding 970 million people across the globe suffer from one form of mental disorder or the other, according to a report published by Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in 2017. And, India accounts for nearly 15 percent of the number, which translates to 145 million people.  

Ankur Samanta and Aditya Uchil.

A major issue despite the high incidence of depression, autism, schizophrenia, bipolarism, and anxiety, among other disorders, is the lack of accessibility to mental healthcare caused by a shortage of qualified therapists, the high costs associated with treatments, and the social stigma surrounding mental health.

Two 17-year-old Class 12 students, Aditya Uchil and Ankur Samanta, are attempting to eliminate some of these barriers with the help of Virtual Reality (VR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). The duo are in the process of establishing their startup, VerapAI, which will offer a platform that will integrate a virtual therapist, apart from live therapists, for the treatment of mental health problems.

Meet the 26-year-olds who turned a college project into a startup that is empowering the deaf

Founded by 26-year-old industrial designers Nupura Kirloskar and Janhavi Joshi in 2015, Bleetech focuses on breaking barriers between the hearing-enabled and the deaf by leveraging design and science. Their key offerings are two technological interventions: BleeTV, a free Android mobile application and web portal hosting a pool of content in Indian Sign Language (ISL), and BleeTV Library, which is a similar platform with content curated especially for children.  

Jahnavi Joshi (left) and Nupura Kirloskar, the Co-founders of Bleetech Innovations.

There are 29 lakh people in India who are differently-abled, according to the 2011 Census. Of this number, around 12.6 lakh have a hearing impairment of one form or the other. In the four years of its existence, Bleetech has already impacted the lives of over 12,000 deaf individuals through its digital platforms, and is now looking to reach out to a large section of the deaf community.

The humble revolutionary — IRMA's Prof Bhatt remembers Dr Verghese Kurien on National Milk Day

How many of us remember the Amul advertisement jingle? Especially for the 90s kids, those quirky tunes are nothing less than a trip down memory lane. The brand’s nostalgia-inducing stream of advertisements, encouraging little ones to have a glass of milk every day, is likely to stay strong and sharp in memories, for years to come. 

Professor Hitesh Bhatt - Director Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA)

But, very few might know the story behind the origins of Amul and the story of Dr Verghese Kurien, the man who started the ‘White Revolution of India’ and who’s credited with efforts to uplift the milk production sector of Gujarat. 

On the birth anniversary of the Indian visionary, Professor Hitesh Bhatt, Director of the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA), shares Dr Kurien’s long journey towards creating this impact.

How Annie, a Braille device developed by Anand Mahindra-backed Thinkerbell Labs, is helping the blind learn by themselves

At Rajyakrit Netrahin Madhya Vidyalaya, a school for the visually impaired in Ranchi, there are 24 students - aged between six and 18. They were being taught Braille for about 60 minutes every day by two teachers. This means that a student would receive only five minutes of personal attention, and the rest of the time was spent either waiting or attempting exercises. This teaching method was clearly inefficient, and a waste of productive time for both teachers and students alike.

Team of Thinkerbell Labs.

For many years now, Braille has empowered the visually impaired in many ways, but with some hand-holding from a teacher or some other external agent. However, the problem with having to learn from an external agent is that students will not be able to learn confidently on their own. 

Identifying this problem and the belief that Braille is a self-learning process led to the birth of Thinkerbell Labs in 2016. A project of BITS Pilani called ‘Project Mudra’, Thinkerbell Labs was started by Aman Srivastava, Saif Shaikh, Sanskiriti Dawle, and Dilip Ramesh. The Bengaluru-based startup makes Braille literacy devices for the visually impaired to help them learn Braille on their own. Its flagship product, Annie, helps in early schooling of visually impaired students with its gamified audio lessons over a Braille-based hardware.

(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)