Gram Vaani Community Media was founded in 2009 by a team of young professionals with an aim to build citizen-driven media platforms that give communities a voice of their own. Working at the interface of technology, media and development, Gram Vaani is a social entrepreneurial organization that builds technological solutions for the development sector.
In India, the internet penetration is 6%, while the penetration of radio, cable TV and telephony is 41%, 33% and 29% respectively. Therefore, Gram Vaani believes that their technology can help provide people living in remote areas with limited connectivity (and who are therefore excluded from the ongoing information revolution), access to critical information services. Their work builds upon several years of research on the use of voice-based technologies and on the development of innovative processes to engage citizens and different stakeholders.
Most of the technologies developed by Gram Vaani tend to be voice-based, so that they can be used by even poorly-literate populations in villages and slum areas. It works with existing infrastructure in rural areas (so does not require large capital investments in new infra) and is participatory in nature, thereby closely involving the community it is being deployed in.
Some of their products include, GRINS (Gramin Radio Inter Networking System): Automation system for community radio stations; mNews: Grassroots mobile-based news; and vAct: Urban citizen engagement platform. They combine and customize their platforms to suit community needs. Their open-source solutions have won international awards.
Gram Vaani’s technologies are provided to organisations that would use them to maximize social benefits. This being their first consideration, price points are adjusted for the client’s ability to pay when social benefits outweigh the client’s financial strength. As a result, they have sold and deployed technologies with individuals who were interested in sponsoring technology for their home villages, with organisations having few full time employees but a large pool of unpaid volunteers, with emerging projects in conflict affected areas like Afghanistan, and many others, who would not be able to purchase comparably customized technology at market rates.
“It is hard to quantify the huge financial value of community generated media, especially when it delivers many social benefits as seen in Jharkhand and Afghanistan (with mNews). As a result, pricing proportional to benefits delivered would be an unfair proposition for any single client. By working with multiple partners within a geography, we would be able to spread this benefit out, while also remaining financially viable as a business,” says Co-Founder, Aaditeshwar Seth.
Gram Vaani has over 25 NGO clients for GRINS, including Development Alternatives, The Restoring Force, Barefoot College, Radio Active, Deccan Development Society, TERI, etc.
Clients of their voice applications include Sesame Workshop, iMedia Associates, Satark Nagrik Sangathan, Delhi MCD, and several private players who have set up voice services in their rural communities.
Their customers can be categorized to include (1) Rural consumers, to whom they provide easy access to information that is customized to their needs, and vertical-specific applications like distance education, agriculture consulting; (2) Corporates, with an aim of accessing the rural market, to whom they provide a platform for reaching out to the rural consumer in a targeted manner and, importantly, measure the impact of their initiatives; and (3) Government and development agencies, to whom they provide a platform for a more coordinated and targeted information dissemination of their campaigns (e.g., national rural employment guarantee scheme, AIDS awareness programs) and get feedback on their effectiveness.
Their activities are supported by the Knight Foundation, USA and FITT, IIT Delhi and their partners include Nomad Networks, PATH, and the University of Washington.
Gram Vaani Community Media is based out of IIT Delhi and presently, is located inside the campus as one of the units of Technology Business Incubation Unit. It was founded in January 2009 with a team of 3 people, which has now grown into a team of 9 people.
Aaditeshwar Seth was a PhD student at the University of Waterloo when he came up with the idea of building voice based technologies to create a social media platform at the bottom of the pyramid. He reached out to his old-time classmate from school, Mayank Shivam, and to a serial entrepreneur, Parminder Singh, to build a business model behind the idea. Mayank had trained as an engineer followed by an MBA and several years of rich consultancy experience with McKinsey Inc. Parminder too had trained as an engineer and had opened several companies in the rural ICT space. Together, the three co-founded Gram Vaani in late 2008 and started operations in 2009, with an initial team of five, together with Balachandran C. and Zahir Koradia, old friends and associates of the co-founders.
“We were motivated by the tremendous empowerment and accountability impact that Internet-based social media tools such as Facebook and YouTube had had in the developed world. How could we build similar tools for rural populations of developing countries such as India, where there were significant literacy challenges, social-cultural factors influencing the participation of citizens, poor Internet connectivity, and empowerment differences? Voice-based participatory technologies such as community radio and video seemed appropriate, and this motivated us to work in this space,” Aaditeshwar tells YourStory.
With an initial grant of USD 200,000 from the Knight Foundation of the US, they are now close to break-even, selling their technologies and services to non-profit and government organizations working in the use of ICTs for the bottom of the pyramid populations. They are also building self-sustainability models for the various services they are running.
However they had their challenges while starting up, such as dealing with the complexities of technology design for challenging rural environments and the careful understanding of community dynamics to ensure that technologies can lead to development.
“Maturity of the eco-system of funding agencies, partner NGOs, government bodies, to appreciate the role that ICTs can play in development, was initially a major challenge. However, we are witnessing a much greater interest in our work at Gram Vaani these days than three years back!” Aaditeshwar concludes.