How India’s start-ups are taking on the pandemic to help rural communities?

Innovative business tactics and thoughtful collaborations, all powered by various technologies, saw a groundswell of social enterprise startups pivoting to work with smaller towns and villages in 2021.

Krishna Reddy G lost his diabetic father to COVID-19 during the first wave. Travelling from their village to nearby Tadripati in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh to pick up his diabetes medicine, his father fell ill and within days, was gone. The sudden loss sent Krishna into depression. But months later, after witnessing people in the nearby villages struggling to procure essentials in the midst of the pandemic, Krishna decided to create something in his father’s memory.

Krishna and long-time colleague Paramesh Gandlu left their Big Tech jobs and founded KarryNow in April 2021 to create a seamless line of transportation between villages and nearby towns. Through multiple experiments with village leaders and word-of-mouth grassroots marketing, KarryNow was able to scale up quickly. Since its inception, the startup has partnered with 130 villages across the State.

In the same ‘quick commerce’ realm of KarryNow, Chennai-based Boonbox has also stepped up to deliver essential goods and provide rural aid to rural areas; the startup had already established a considerable and trusting network across Tamil Nadu, and 15 other states.

Meanwhile in Gujarat, vegetable farmer-vendor Sarojben from Bhuteshwari village of Gandhinagar district was eager to make profits from a bumper harvest of produce which she started selling in February 2020. But then the lockdowns brought about transport shutdowns and endless red tape of permissions to sell vegetables at Agriculture Produce Market, Dehgam, which closed for many days.

Refusing to give up, she approached Padma Shri awardee Reema Nanavati’s NGO Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), which partnered with WhatsApp to facilitate an end-to-end effective business model, connecting women farmers to customers in urban areas without physical contact. The goal was to ensure that farmers get market rates for their produce, and to create a business model that is easy to understand by everyone involved.

Future forward

While the pandemic highlighted the massive digital divide between urban and rural India, technologists (startups, incubators and Big Tech) have been working diligently to close this gap, choosing to work with neighbouring villages, explaining why India was named the third largest startup ecosystem in the world — just this year, Indian startups bagged a record US$36 billion in funding this year alone.

WhatsApp partnered with a number of NGOs including SEWA, MannDeshi and Robinhood Army to foster more skill-building and create more hyperlocal entrepreneurs, without overwhelming people with hordes of technical lingo. WhatsApp is also kicking off its own startup incubator in 2022.

The Rural Access Coalition is the result of a union between three rural-tech startups (last-mile distribution company Frontier Markets, agri-tech firm HESA and social impact company 1Bridge) to collectively uplift the post-COVID depreciating infrastructures across Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Rajasthan and Karnataka.

Hyderabad-based cybercrime startup Cyber Jagrithi has been creating awareness in Telangana’s villages about general digital hygiene and vaccine misinformation, given the spread of fake news about COVID-19 and the increasing number of online scams.

Law and justice platform Agami pivoted to fill the information gap that existed in rural communities, creating that currently has 845 initiatives across 30 states. The system is a central hub for people in cities to find and support rural COVID responses.

A growing online presence

Krishna is certain that the solution he and his partner Paramesh came up with would not be possible without the current state of Internet penetration across the country; a model like this would not have been viable 10 years ago.

“In our early research we found that around 60% of the villagers in Anantapur use smartphones while a large portion of the rest use a keypad phone,” says Krishna. “Through our chats with residents, we found out that a vernacular app would best serve everyone, so at the end of December 2021, we are launching the app officially.”

Similarly, Reema explains, “For the informal working women sector, innovation is a coping strategy for survival. Part of that is using more technology they are already comfortable with and for millions, in our context, this meant using WhatsApp. We started with a WhatsApp group with farmers working near Ahmedabad and potential customers. This helped connect the two and create an enterprise. Now, the model has evolved to see 200 vegetable growers selling directly to customers.”

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