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Mobile Communications

Rohit Pandharkar (Asia) - Social Innovation: Using Mobility for Employment in India

The mobility rage

On an average, 13 million mobile phones are being added to the Indian telecom network every month. To set the context, this means within 2 years India will have more phones added than the total population of US. While these numbers are staggering, internet penetration in India is just 12% compared to that of 93% in the US. This shows the large gap in internet literacy. Due to this asymmetric internet vs. mobile reach growth in India, this is a period where a lot of internet based services can actually reach the masses if translated over a mobile based ecosystem. What is a need for the society has become an opportunity for businesses to leverage this whitespace- leading to social innovation.

Over last couple of years, India has seen social innovations in the mobility space that allow people to: seek employment over a voice based mobile service, get primary health related consulting over a phone call, learn language from a phone tutor or open a bank account with no credit history or address proof. In particular, we would like to focus on mobile based employment.

The problem:  Digital divide

India has traditionally had an unorganized employment sector for the blue collared workers. For this audience, the internet divide is too wide to get enrolled and noticed on an online employment forum. It’s too difficult for a carpenter in India to access a computer and get internet connectivity to get himself listed on a forum. This being the constraint, they are left with word of mouth publicity for their work availability. On the other hand, most of their employers are likely to have internet access.

The low feature phone magic

In such a peculiar situation, a low feature handset comes in handy to bridge the gap. Given a chance to get them enrolled on a widely known employment forum, blue collared workers such as drivers, carpenters, painters, maids, waiters, office boys etc. would prefer to opt for it. A toll free 1800-X number with an interactive voice response system (IVR) may serve the purpose. However the woes don’t end there. India has 18 languages and multiple dialects within each language, making an all-encompassing reach difficult. No artificially intelligent voice recognition system can fully interpret all the dialects. Hence, a mixed voice instruction and key press based system needs to be put in place. Beyond that, revenue collection from the mobile based subscriber becomes a problem, since they mostly have a prepaid connection. As an answer, a talk time currency based charge comes in.  At the front end, these job seeker profiles collected over the IVR system are entered into a database which are listed in an online forum where the white collared workers can browse and hire them at a cost equivalent to a day’s wages for the person they are hiring. Saral Rozgar (Mahindra group) and Babajob are the two leading voice based employment players in India. Both of them have struggled initially to finally come to a robust system to get the complete ecosystem up and running. These two, together are creating thousands of jobs in India and are still in their nascent stages.

Social Impact:

Unemployment actually connects with many other social issues in India. Being an unemployed man with a family can lead to higher crime rates, unhygienic situations for his family and perhaps lack of food and lack of education for the kids in the household due to unaffordability.  It can also lead to family discord, substance abuse and many other social evils. Hence, creating employment for one person in the family in turn alleviates so many other problems. The impact at a scaled up level is significant and has the potential to change the social fabric of the blue collared worker segment.  Hence, a mobility based employment network platform for job seekers brings in a lot of power, for a cost as little as Rs.30 per month (about $0.5 per month). Millions of jobs alerts get sent over phone SMS and a few hundred thousand have been getting jobs repeatedly through the system. The impact of these jobs created on their families, is not easy to measure. All it needs is leveraging mobile mass, and business will for social innovation.

By Rohit Pandharkar, Deputy CTO, CanvasM Technologies Ltd.

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