On the 20th Foundation day of DEF, 16th December 2021, Director and Founder, Osama Manzar talks about the inspiration, founding pillars and the journey that has been laid on them over a span of 20 years and also talks about the tasks ahead for the next two decades.
It seems like 20 years is a long journey. Someone asked me what after 20 years, I feel like changing the name to Digital Disempowerment Foundation. The job is certainly going to change. I would like to share here that the social sector or social entrepreneur journey looks very flashy on the screen or data sheets, which isn’t possible without investing your life in it. Every toilet looks clean, but you need to find out who keeps cleaning it before you go and use it. Writing the story of a clean toilet has a lot of journeys that go around and that journey is never alone. There are different phases for it. I would like to introduce my pillars of strength, the board members, many of whom have been with us for a very long time: Amir Ullah Khan, Rajen Varada, Shaifali Chikkermane, Madan Mohan Rao, Amithabh Singhal, Shobi Kedlaya and Natasha. These are the people who made this organization. You cannot tell the story if you cannot walk the journey. You need to walk first and then talk.
And these 20 years of journey have been through connecting 1000s of locations across 140 districts in about 11 countries. Many recognise DEF through its well known awards: the Manthan Award, the mBillionth Award, the Social Media for Empowerment Award, eNGO Challenge, eNorth East Award, because of which we have a database of more than 10,000 digital innovations and best practices from all over South Asian countries. I want to tell you how it all started in 2002, when we registered DEF on 16th of December. It actually came into being with no background in technology. I was a physics graduate by spending 8 years without studying. So, you can imagine that I was trying getting out even without a degree rather than being inside. But our perception was that when we traveled the country, we saw the beauty in poverty. Unfortunately, aesthetics, knowledge and depth of wisdom in poverty has not reached the outside world. They are the consumers of the beauty of those who rule the world and that is only based on flow of information. In 2002 we realized strongly that digital is the communication infrastructure which, if not adopted, ensures that the stories from these rural areas remain alive at the base of the pyramid and they will never come up. And to write that story, we started the Digital Empowerment Foundation because we have to listen to and know about their stories and they have to be brought on top of the pyramid. So, DEF was never a digital foundation but a communication based organization which uses digital as a tool and a medium. As you can see, digital is not a technology. Digital is life, medium, new thought, marketing and everything. As Amir mentioned, digital is less technology and more life. But in that life, who controls and uses it? Whose story doesn’t carry? These are the important aspects and that’s the background of our journey and we never departed from that pillar of strength that we are working to tell the stories of the poor of the poor under health, education, finance, livelihood or finance pillars. So, when we talk about digital health, what we see is; can the poorest get health recommendations without going to the doctor instead of getting treatment wherever he lives. When we think of the poor getting a job or livelihood; is it possible for the jobs to reach him rather than him searching out for jobs? When we talk about transactions of money, can they do those themselves without a middleman taking over and accessing control over these transactions. When we talk about a shirt, pants or a dupatta made by the most beautiful people on earth who earn the least money, that money and wisdom doesn’t reach them and we see how a reversible supply chain is possible through digital media. This was the inspiration. Every grassroots NGO which works at the grassroot level who knows the most about the community, is never used by anybody to serve the community. Can they be digitally empowered so that they continue their work digitally and also receive the funds digitally for their work. We have built 6000 websites for NGOs at grassroot level without payment in the last 20 years. We work in 20 clusters and train around 50000 artisans about using Facebook, Ecommerce so that they market their own products rather than be victims of middlemen. As a part of field visit, we will be visiting Pochampali where the weavers are using the tower to access the internet through which they are getting benefits from government entitlements although they are entitled to benefits which they haven’t been able to receive. They are entitled to their own pension and health which they aren’t getting. This is because there has been no means to reach people in remote places except digital. Today, even to get a ration, bio metric is a must and if the biometric doesn’t recognise me as Osama Manzar, I will not get the ration which I am dependent on. This is not a joke. There are 500 million people who depend on ration come only through biometric. But how many would think that this would be a digital barrier? It sends a message that “if you are not digital, you won’t get food and you won’t be able to sleep”. 100,000 people in Rajasthan were declared dead because in their pension scheme, they were declared dead. Who will talk about them? This is a digital story of poverty. These are the inspiring things for which we exist and we cannot reach to all people. Someone was mentioning that everyone has mobile phones. But the truth is that almost 80% of women in India do not have mobile phones. If we are saying that everyone has mobile phones, it means that we haven’t yet seen the world. These are very modern things. 70% of India do not have internet connectivity. We don’t see this because all the things we do are on virtual platforms. Our friends that we talk to also have smartphones, have access to the internet and watch TV. If you look outside to see who is not connected to the internet, you will be surprised. People pay Rs. 250 to get a printout in a village. In urban areas it is easy to convince people to pay Rs. 1.5 for a printout. So, these are the costs of the poorest people who are dependent on digital, but not available to them. For them, it is the non-negotiable infrastructure that is required. During the pandemic, 320 million students were unable to access education. The government just stated that from here on the classes would be online. But it doesn’t mean that the internet has reached there. How can they study? Teachers were seen going door to door carrying smartphones to encourage children to read something out. They are not teaching, instead they are recording to show it to the school administration that they have completed their job and they get paid full salary. Anganwadis cannot distribute food and nutrition to the children unless they aplan how much they need, receive and all the data updated. But they haven’t been given devices or connectivity to do this. Who will work for them? And the story goes on. 20 years is nothing. 20 years of the internet to the world has only brought 3.5 billion people connectivity. Another 3.5 billion are still not connected of which 1 billion is from India. To see the bigger picture, no work has been done so far! If all of you start DEF, still another 20 years won’t be enough to connect 50,000 villages which have no telecom tower and here we have declared that we cannot live without digital. That is the inspiration, infrastructure and thought process on which this entire organization was built. The business plan and the concept of DEF is “the poorest person on the edge of information”. Little that we know that after 20 years, those who have mobile phones will be on the edge of information owing to misinformation and those without phones would also be on the edge of information owing to lack of information. Both would be on the edge of information. So, as of now, we are going to be working with people who are not connected and also with those who are connected. Because, as Amir said, our job is double; to tell you what is right information, what is wrong information; what is misinformation and what is Mr. Information; what to take and what not to take. This is the job that we are tasked with for the next twenty years.