Entrepreneurship | June 12, 2018

Civic tech startups in India seek to reprogram government

Lou Del Bello
Guest Author

Lou Del Bello

Mumbai, June 12 – The scale of India’s 21st century cities and towns presents a coding challenge of the first order. By 2030, half of India’s projected population of 1.5 billion people will live in cities.

From sanitation to revenue management to property rights in informal settlements, “There is a whole range of issues where citizens need to engage with governments, where there are massive inefficiencies, or where the system is broken,” says Omidyar Network’s Roopa Kudva. “The size of the opportunity makes it financially very attractive.”

The Civic Tech accelerator, hosted by Omidyar Network and Village Capital, is looking for “ventures leveraging technology and/or physical community-building to connect citizens with government and/or one another in order to advance civic outcomes.” That could include startups that make government data accessible, facilitate problem-solving, make public services more efficient and promote citizen engagement itself. Applications are open for the six-month incubator.

If until recently IT and engineering were the go-to careers for the new generation of ambitious young Indians. Now, those passionate about tech want to make an impact too and India is emerging as a promising laboratory for civic tech, along with Uganda, Kenya and South Africa.

“We have India’s best minds going into startups today,” says Kudva. “A lot of money is flowing into startups and we have government policies that are favorable to startups.”

India’s growing pains

India’s booming cities are stretching the capacities of public agencies. Bureaucracy, silo mentality and in some instances corruption are stifling urban development. Streamlining those inefficiencies is what software and sensors are supposed to do.

For example, Samagra has developed technology to monitor the usage and condition of public toilets, an essential service to maintain health and the environment in poor urban areas. Samagra’s flagship investment program, “Adopt a loo”, is aimed at finishing the refurbishment of over 5000 toilets in the next two years, providing sanitation to over 250,000 people.

“We developed a technology which tells you how the facilities are being used, how many people use it, how much water do they use, if water is available or not,” says Samagra director Swapnil Chaturvedi. By providing information that is essential to run the service properly, Samagra helps improve user satisfaction, and users “are more inclined to pay for the service.”

Samagra was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2014 to improve the performance and maintenance of public toilets across slums and other impoverished areas, where nearly 100 million Indians live. The facilities, often built with sub-standard materials, need maintenance the government is reluctant to pay for. The technology increases quality while reducing the cost of toilet maintenance and increases revenues for operators, sustaining a vital service.

Transerve, an Omidyar-funded “hyperlocal information” company, started in 2010 helping municipalities map their tax collections, which generated money to reinvest in public services. The company now offers services for water supply and sanitation, and drone technologies to aid land ownership programs. It serves cities in several states, including Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Goa.

“There are almost 7,900 cities in India, so it’s a huge market to cater to, says Transerve co-founder and director Amarsh Chaturvedi. “The problems are diverse but we feel that with technology like ours we can address those issues proactively, and help create citizen-centric infrastructure.”

That technology platform generates revenues not only from public services contracts with governments but from “infrastructure companies, real estate organizations, and even agri-tech companies,” Chaturvedi says. Transerve has customers in Africa, the Middle East and Europe, as well as India.

Civic tech, combined with “govtech” represents a $400 billion global opportunity, according to the accelerator organizers. (Govtech describes products and services sold to the government to improve governance or public services.) The accelerator program will include four-day workshops in Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai with partners, customers and investors.