Dealflow | July 14, 2023

Deal spotlight: A social media platform for India’s poor

Jessica Pothering
ImpactAlpha Editor

Jessica Pothering

ImpactAlpha, July 14 – The founders of Delhi-based Gram Vaani had a vision for giving India’s rural poor a greater voice and agency. They launched a voice- and mobile-based social media platform in 2008 to enable rural communities to share and collect relevant local information, in their local languages.

Fifteen years later, the model has evolved as technology has changed, but the company’s purpose is the same: to provide community-driven content to people rarely given a voice in media and mainstream society. Gram Vaani reaches three million people in eight local languages with information on healthcare, agriculture, worker rights, child development and governance. 

Gram Vaani’s mobile app is growing, but in-person engagement through partner organizations and programs remains core to the model.

“This is not expected to become the next Facebook. It’s targeted for local people and for the people themselves to be the agents, says Mahesh Yagnaraman of Acumen India, which led Gram Vaani’s latest equity round. Media Development Investment Fund reupped in the round. Yagnaraman declined to comment on the size of the round but said it’s a “sizeable deal” that will give Gram Vaani two years of runway to add new partners and programs to its platform. 

Engaging women and youth

Acumen backed the media company as part of its workforce development investment strategy because of Gram Vaani’s workforce-centered “channels.” The company has a youth-focused channel that posts work opportunities and helps migrants access information and government benefit schemes and resolve disputes. Yagnaraman says four million youth have signed up. “The engagement is building very fast.” 

Gram Vaani also supports women’s workforce engagement, which is very low in India (about 30%). Its focus on women is one reason in-person engagement through partner programs and organizations remains a core part of its model.

“Women in rural India don’t have access to mobile phones, so voice is still a very strong piece,” Yagnaraman says.

Grievances aired on one of its channels helped female factory workers secure better bathroom facilities. Another channel provided a forum for female healthcare workers in the rural state of Bihar to speak openly about the sexual and reproductive health products women in their communities are using.

“I visited that project before we invested. It was moving to see the level of candor and transparency with which women could communicate freely and safely about those issues,” says Yagnaraman.

Revenue growth

Gram Vaani generates income through grants from development agencies and foundations for its sector or demographic-specific programs, ads, and from companies interested in its market insights—for instance, agriculture companies interested in learning about local pricing for their products.

“Gram Vaani can get feedback from 850 users in three weeks. No market research company can do that,” Yagnaraman explains.

Capital from the equity round will help Gram Vaani grow these revenue channels. Yagnaraman says the hope is companies and organizations will start seeing these communities as customers rather than beneficiaries.

“They could use [Gram Vaani] to first engage, rather than just pushing their products,” he says. “Gram Vaani doesn’t want one-way content, it is meant to engage.”

Taking risks

Acumen has known the Gram Vaani team for years: Vijay Sai Pratap was an Acumen fellow. Media is nevertheless unfamiliar investment terrain for Acumen. A few successful exits in recent years makes it possible for Acumen to take new risks in pursuit of its impact-first investment mission, says Yagnaraman. “Those exits allow us to put money into companies many mainstream impact investors wouldn’t.”