The Social Media Network Saving Lives, No Internet Needed

A social media enterprise is helping remote, offline populations in India connect to crucial information, one phone call at a time.

(Photo: Gram Vaani Community/Facebook)

Apr 7, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Esha Chhabra is a journalist who covers social enterprise, technology for social impact, and development.

At one of India’s most prestigious tech universities, IIT Delhi, assistant professor in technology for development Aaditeshwar Seth has been spearheading a social media network for the country’s rural and largely poor population—no Internet required.

Using non-data feature phones, his Delhi-based enterprise Gram Vaani is connecting India’s remote populations in Jharkhand and Bihar—two underdeveloped states—to critical resources such as information on women’s safety campaigns, health programs, and farming techniques. In the process, Gram Vaani also collects data on the country’s hard-to-reach populations, making it a valuable tool for international NGOs, foundations, social enterprises, and corporations.

A native of India, Seth moved back to his homeland from Canada in 2008. “The inequity hits you immediately,” he says, looking back. So he decided to explore a critical question in his research: “How do we build technologies for the marginalized communities to voice themselves?”

With a $200,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, Seth established Gram Vaani in 2009. The social enterprise uses radio and mobile phones to inform and connect India’s poor. Operating community radio stations, however, became a challenge largely because of bureaucratic hurdles such as the long wait time to get a license from the government to operate, according to Seth.

Access to mobile phones, meanwhile, has only been growing in the country: India today has 970 million mobile phone users, even in the most impoverished and hard-to-access areas. Realizing it was the perfect platform, Seth developed Mobile Vaani, Gram Vaani’s flagship product, which uses the popular “missed call” system in India.

Users simply dial Gram Vaani’s number in Bihar or Jharkhand and the call goes dead; within a minute, the user gets a call back with a greeting in Hindi that's quickly followed by the latest news including weather, virus outbreaks, immunization requests—all public messages that would otherwise be relayed via television or Internet-based social media in urban parts of India. For instance, the Bihar Mobile Vaani number is currently urging listeners to beware of the risk of malaria as temperatures increase each day. “Watch out for symptoms of fever, chills, weakness,” the network says in Bihari English.

But it’s not a one-way dialogue. Users can also dial in and record their own questions and concerns, which are published on the network and addressed by other community members who use the service, or by Gram Vaani’s own staff of editors. Today, Gram Vaani gets 10,000 calls per day across 26 districts in Jharkhand and Bihar; the average call lasts an estimated eight minutes and the network has grown to include 800,000 users.

Seth notes that Mobile Vaani tackles three serious gaps: absence of popular media in remote areas (i.e., television and radio stations), lack of transportation, and literacy barriers.

Moreover, it’s become a platform to instigate change within communities. In one example, resident Om Prakash of Jharkhand reported three malaria cases within a week in his village on the Mobile Vaani platform. He blamed authorities for not creating enough awareness; shortly thereafter, an ambulance was sent to his village to treat people and spray for mosquitos.

In another scenario in Jharkhand, a man named Farkeshwar Mahto was trying to direct attention to the lack of clean drinking water in his village. The government didn’t respond to requests and the local press showed little interest in publishing a story on it. Finally, Mahto called Mobile Vaani and the network worked with a local media partner to get the story attention. Soon after, the government showed up with a new water well for the community.

Gram Vaani initially raised equity investment in 2013 from the Indian Angel Network, Media Development Investment Fund, and Digital News Ventures to scale its efforts. However, Seth acknowledges the journey has been a challenge since. His primary customers have been nonprofits or international organizations, so revenue streams are limited. For now, Gram Vaani is continuing to fundraise and makes money through data collection, surveys, and advertising for third parties.

But Seth remains optimistic, knowing that the social sector is a low-risk market and there's scope for immense growth. GramVaani is a tech-based company with a massive untapped market of nearly 750 million users; two-thirds of India is rural and only 20 percent is connected to the Internet.

“The technology was the easiest part,” he says. “We had to go beyond that and then become a media company.”