Gram Vaani: Social Networks for the Global Poor

Unfinished health care clinics and schools being completed across India. Widows of deceased migrant workers receiving their due compensation. Farmers accessing information to increase productivity. Fishermen sharing weather information.

India’s poor are finding a voice—or more accurately, a social media platform to share it—on Mobile Vaani, the largest voice-based social media platform in the world.

Mobile Vaani is the flagship product of  Gram Vaani, which is building a family of technologies to empower the global poor. After just five years, Mobile Vaani has reached over 800,000 households in India. Gram Vaani’s other products, including a suite of community engagement tools, have reached 2 million users in India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Namibia, and South Africa.

“The vision behind Gram Vaani is to build technologies that empower people at the bottom of the pyramid,” co-founder Aaditeshwar Seth, a computer scientist-turned-entrepreneur, said in an interview.  “People who currently do not have a voice, whose stories don’t get told or profiled in mainstream media, they should actually be able to bring out their problems, their issues, their demands.”

Mobile Vaani’s simple, low-cost system allows users to post and receive social media messages using voice, on basic mobile phones, allowing them to bypass the Internet. More than 90 percent of India’s 833 million rural population lack access to the Internet and as many as 450 million are illiterate. Mobile Vaani estimates that roughly 65 percent of the poorly-literate/low-income population in India are unlikely to have access to the internet in the next decade, but 40 percent of those already have access to mobile phones. (See also “Giving Voice — and Business Advice — to African Fish Farmers”)

The widow of the deceased migrant worker is a case in point. Unsure of the whereabouts of her husband who had migrated to Delhi for work, she placed a call to the Mobile Vaani network and told her story. A person in Delhi reached out to her via Mobile Vaani to inform her of the details of her husband’s death. The story, published on Mobile Vaani’s network, reached the director of the state’s Department of Labor, who prompted his government to pay the young widow the compensation she was due.

The idea for the firm was sparked in 2008 when Dr. Seth won a Knight Foundation competition for software that first-time users of community radio could easily operate. Gram Vaani received a $200,000 grant to prototype its solution.

In 2013 Gram Vaani raised a $500,000 equity investment round to expand its team, move into new markets and grow its call volume. Investors included the Indian Angel Network, which made its first social venture investment, and Digital News Ventures, the seed-stage equity fund of the Media Development Investment Fund. In 2014, the Economic Times, India’s leading business newspaper, named Gram Vaani among 14 startups to watch in 2014.

Gram Vaani partners with non-government organizations, international development agencies, universities, and corporations. Gram Vaani provides the technical infrastructure; its partners provide the content. It has worked with Merck and the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood to allow women to use Gram Vaani’s voiced-based platform to review the quality of care they get from clinics. Its campaign with Oxfam around violence against women in India reached 400,000 households and generated 400 messages from the community.

Mobile Vaani platform has become the voice of rural Indians, according to local journalists. “Villagers, long neglected by the government and media alike, have finally got a platform where they can discuss issues regarding health, unemployment and education without fear and be reasonably confident of receiving a reply from the concerned authorities,” wrote one reporter.

Investors and international partners recognize Gram Vaani’s indisputably large potential user base and increasing ability to share their stories. With the investment round in hand, Seth stated, ”We are touching 2 million users already but that is only the tip of the iceberg.”

IMPACTS

Financial

Gram Vaani reaches 800,000 households across 12 states of India.

Social

A Gram Vaani campaign with Oxfam around violence against women in India reached 400,000 households and generated 400 messages from the community.

Disclosure

One of a series of impact profiles produced in conjunction with the Case Foundation’s new publication, “A Short Guide to Impact Investing.”

Disclosure: Dennis Price is a consultant for Media Development Investment Fund. This post was originally published in October, 2014.

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