Updated: March 8, 2021 5:11:57 pm
For Meena Sharma of Hisar in Haryana, the ‘Internet Saathi’ programme proved to be a saviour during what she calls as the toughest time of her life when both she and her husband were injured after a bike accident in February 2019 and bed-ridden. “I’ve been associated with them for the last one year and a half. I started my business of selling fast food in the village after joining the programme,” she told indianexpress.com over a call.
The 37-year-old had never used the internet before even though the family possessed a smartphone. However, thanks to the Google programme, Meena learnt how to use the internet and cook fast food and even set up her own shop.
Though Meena had to shut down her shop during the COVID-19 lockdown, she continued making food at home and offered home deliveries.
Much like Meena, 39-year-old Aasiya Gawande had never used the internet before joining the Internet Saathi programme in 2017. “I had a ‘button-wala’ mobile. At first there were restrictions and people in my family were resistant to women using a smartphone. But once I joined the project, I learnt so many things online, and the mindsets also changed,” Gawande, who lives in a small village near Kolhapur, told indianexpress.com.
Gawande managed to take her learnings from the Internet Saathi project to start an online business of selling papads, chutneys and pickles in her village and nearby areas. “I even do online shopping myself. I have learnt how to do digital payments using Google Pay. We put what we have cooked as WhatsApp Status and our customers see it and place the order,” she said, adding that her work made her quite popular in the village. So much so that Gawande stood in the rural elections and is now the deputy sarpanch of her village.
Krishna Barman from Panna in Madhya Pradesh joined the Internet Saathi program in 2018 and soon launched a soap business. The 27-year old takes orders on the phone itself. “ During the lockdown I started making masks and sanitisers. I learned from the internet how to make herbal sanitisers and masks and we switched to selling these products,” she said over a phone call.
These are just some of the women who have become entrepreneurs, thanks to the Internet Saathi programme, a collaboration of Google and Tata Trust. While Internet Saathi was initially envisaged to impart digital literacy, it is now all set to enter its next phase, that of helping rural women in setting up their businesses.
“Our goal when we started in 2015 was reaching half of India’s villages, approximately 300,000 villages. We have now achieved and benefited 30 million women and have 80,000-plus Internet Saathis. The biggest learning that we have is that digital literacy has assisted women and their livelihoods,” Sapna Chadha, Senior Country Marketing Director, Google India and Southeast Asia at Google, told indianexpress.com.
When Internet Saathi started, the idea was that women who were designated as ‘Saathis’ would go to a village or rural area and help train other women on how to use the internet. These ‘Saathis’ were armed with one smartphone and one tablet each given by Google. The curriculum for internet learning was also created by Google, while the women were trained by Tata Trust. Google will now focus on helping nearly one million women rural entrepreneurs.
As part of the project, Google has also announced a dedicated online resource called ‘Women Will’ platform, which will be offered as a progressive web app. The platform will try and answer questions that many of these women entrepreneurs might have when it comes to setting up their businesses, be it around pricing, government schemes, mentorship, etc. The platform will be offered in Hindi and English at first, it will expand to more languages later on.
“Given our experience with Internet Saathi, we are confident we will achieve this at a good pace. For us to reach 30 million women in five years the pace was better than what we were expecting,” Chadha said.
She admitted that the COVID-19 pandemic had posed challenges for women and there were drops in usage during the crisis, but it also showed that the network and community of women were resilient. “Our goal is to reach across the country, but we will do this in stages. There’s no specific categories of entrepreneurship that we are focused on. I think it will take us time to reach more geographies,” the Google executive said.
While the earlier phase of Internet Saathi was in partnership with Tata Trusts, Google plans to expand its partners as it goes into the next phase.
“What Tata Trust has given us is an ability to scale because of the strength of their network. Now we’re going to need new partners, ” Chadha said. Google is working with the Sheroes community for the accelerator programme, and it will add more partners, though it is yet to take a call on who these will be.
“Ultimately, what all entrepreneurs need is community and mentorship. There will be a focus in the form of accelerators to help there,” Chadha said.
Google is also partnering with NASSCOM Foundation to help over one lakh women farmers or agriculture workers. The company is offering a grant of $500,000 to help with these women farmers. It also announced a $25 million grant as part of its global Google.org Impact Challenge for Women and Girls. The funding will be given to nonprofits and social organisations in India and around the world, which are working to advance women and girls’ economic empowerment.
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