By Osama Manzar
Osama Manzar travels by road through the coasts of Chirala in Andhra Pradesh and makes visits to several digital interventions of Digital Empowerment Foundation that are making a difference in the lives of weavers, village folks and fishermen of Chirala. Here is the diary…
Chirala is a municipal town in Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh. Chirala is driven by the word Chir which means saree as Chirala is a hub of large textile and handloom weaving clusters where cotton silk sarees are weaved; mostly driven and influenced by the Ikat designs of Pochampally. Chirala earlier used to be known as Kshirapuri and nicknamed as mini Mumbai or Chinna Bombay. It is a coastal town with beautiful beaches attracting tourists from Hyderabad, Vijayawada and Ongole to its two famous beaches called Vadarevu Beach and Ramapuram Beach.
At Vadarevu Beach there is a big fishermen’s village of about 2000 fishermen, mostly Christian. They are poor, active, busy, and happy. In the middle of this Vadarevu beach’s fisherman community, there lives a 25-year-old Ruben with his wife, brother, brother’s wife and two children and parents. They are a well to do poor family. In their house campus at some point of time about four years back, they provided a space to Digital Empowerment Foundation to erect a 100 feet tower to make a wireless connection to the internet. With that started the journey of Ruben with DEF. Their aims aligned and they decided to digitally empower the most marginalised communities – in this case the fisherman community of Vadarevu beach of Chirala.
Although Ruben has a B.Tech degree, his degree is not apparent from any of his knowledge base. But Ruben is a humble, innocent, proactive, honest, and extremely hard working individual. He does not speak any language other than Telugu and he serves at least 100 people everyday who visit his digital service center. We call this center “Smartpur Spoke Center”.
The Smartpur project works on a hub and spoke model. Active in 10 districts across 7 states in India, the project has one hub centre in each district and 9 spoke centres in each district translating to 10 hub centres and 90 spoke centres. The hub centre has more digital infrastructure and a bigger space than spoke centres. The hub centre also helps in connecting the spoke centres with DEF’s head office in Delhi. So it works as a monitoring buffer as well. Each of the 100 centres, hub and spoke both are run by entrepreneurs.
All the 100 Smartpur centers across India are built and are functioning on the principles of making the internet reach to people through community-established internet connectivity using frugal methodologies of wireless-community-networks. Local enthusiastic risk-taking youth are trained to take responsibility for serving the local community members. They provide all kinds of digital services such as e-governance and mobile banking.
The Smartpur entrepreneurs are supposed to help local citizens gain access to government entitlements, digital financial services, online education and offline classes as well in some cases. Additionally people can seek admission to go through digital literacy, digital skilling, digital entrepreneurship, look for jobs through online access, get their Aadhaar updated, apply for pensions, gain access to ration through the new online system, and so on. Recently, most of these centers including Ruben’s have offered tele-health services too by simply video calling a doctor and getting them to talk to walk-in patients to clear any of their health doubts. A nominal fee is charged for these services, this empowers the community further because it removes the charitability factor and gives them the power to question and ask for their service to be of good quality. This model also helps Ruben earn money while serving the community. So it makes it sustainable in the long run.
Ruben, initially, about 4 years back, came forward and offered his premises to erect a wireless tower for DEF to provide internet connectivity to serve the fisherman community members. He did not know that DEF was also looking for a person who could act as a digital entrepreneur to run a local digital center to serve the community. DEF asked him to make some suggestions on who would be interested in serving as a SoochnaPreneur (Information Entrepreneur) for the Smartpur project of DEF. Ruben very hesitantly proposed himself saying he is an engineer and he can be given the offer and opportunity. For DEF it was more than enough a criteria that the interested person is passionate and genuinely wanted to serve the community and was ready to put his neck into the game.
DEF provided Ruben laptops, printers, biometric reading devices, and rigorous digital and entrepreneurship training. The training is based on a social entrepreneurship model which would in turn enable the entrepreneur to serve the community. He has rented a small 50 square foot place for the digital services that he offers, and there is usually a long serpentine que of the people who want a mix of digital services like Aadhaar update, application for pension, payment of bills, withdrawal of money through Aadhaar linked banking, application for any government entitlements including those announced during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, photocopy, scanning, lamination, job applications, and so on.
Ruben is very popular in the area, every household knows him, and there are a group of young boys who are all inspired by Ruben – they extend all help to Ruben – perhaps they also find a purpose in helping Ruben run his center successfully.
Seeing Ruben’s little shop on the street that leads to the beach from the main part of town is inspiring. People step out with 10, 20 and 50 rupee notes in their hands and they queue up outside his little shop to get their work done. Over the years Ruben has become more efficient, however, the footfall has increased so much that there is always a long queue outside. He can’t afford to leave his shop unattended; he believes in providing his clients with a high quality and efficient service. The fee he charges for the digital services is extremely low and that’s what attracts hundreds everyday. The footfall is so high that even though his margin is low he ends up earning enough money.
People visit his centre for all digital related services- they book their train tickets through him, they withdraw money from his centre as it acts like an ATM through Aadhar card. They also visit the centre to find out if any new government schemes have come and Ruben helps them with all the documentation and forms and applies for schemes for them. A unique service which he provides is Aadhar updation- the license to update Aadhar cards is not given to many and Ruben through his hard work over a long period of time now has the license. He says “people from 10 kilometers away also come here to get their Aadhar updated. It is not so rare but the others charge more money. I only take a nominal fee so people come from far away to get their work done here.” So apart from serving the fisherman community he is also serving people from outside his village and community.
Ruben has an average earning of about Rs. 25,000 per month, and his customer base is always increasing. So much so, that Reuben has decided to take a separate bigger space at the monthly rate of Rs. 3,000. When asked why, he said he doesn’t like that his customers have to form long queues in the heat, so he will have an indoor waiting room for them in the new centre.
Ruben is the perfect example of the social entrepreneurs or SoochnaPreneurs that DEF trains and mentors. DEF is like a stepping stone for Ruben, his ultimate aim is to be a service provider and DEF’s aim is to provide digital services to people from underprivileged communities. The aim of the organisation and the entrepreneur are the same, so his centre has become a huge success.