After digital literacy, not-for-profit entity FREND is encouraging financial autonomy
When women are given opportunities to learn and innovate, they blossom and take charge of their own lives. There could be no better example than the story of Aasiya Gawandi from Agar village of Kolhapur district, Maharashtra. The internet beckoned her to learn many skills, start an enterprise, become a mentor and leader in her community.
Gawandi learnt to make the nutritious Rajgira ladoos, from the internet, and started selling them locally. Soon she and her friends discovered several other snacks as well, including popcorn. In fact, thanks to the web, the women learnt how to pop the corn, which grows in abundance in their village, and experiment with different recipes.
It was at this juncture that the Foundation for Rural Entrepreneurship Development (FREND) stepped in and helped turn their interest in snacks into a business. It had earlier made the women digitally literate and taught them online accessing skills. Now it was charting a route for them to gain a lasting livelihood from their skills and the information they had gleaned from the net.
FREND is a not-for -profit entity launched by Google and Tata Trusts in 2017. Today, the organisation can boast of helping an army of 69,600 Internet Saathis in 2.51 lakh villages spread across 18 States find opportunities for earning their own livelihood.
To achieve this, FREND classifies women entrepreneurs into four categories. “Aspiring entrepreneurs are those who want to enter into the field of entrepreneurship where they can explore various options for the business they want to do; nano entrepreneurs do business on and off as and when there is a requirement or the time permits; micro entrepreneurs have established businesses and draw a monthly income; while high potential entrepreneurs run full-fledged businesses,” explains Neha Barjatya, the Chief Internet Saathi at FREND.
According to Barjatya, for each of these categories the organisation provides livelihood opportunities through varied models and approaches, including the ‘business in a box’ model, enterprise development (which involves tie-ups with other companies or voluntary organisations) and the mentorship model. “We create income opportunities for Internet Saathis by opening up the network to other like-minded organisations to drive further socio-economic upliftment in rural India,” she says.
Printer pilot project
One of FREND’s innovative initiatives is the Printer Ajivika Yojna. Here an Internet Saathi is assisted to start her own printing facility service for the community she lives in. Barjatya says that the project was conceived due to the demand for low-cost printing facilities in rural areas. People have no access to such a service when they need to print documents and other papers. FREND began with a pilot project in Andhra Pradesh where 30 Saathis were offered printers and the opportunity to convert it into an enterprise. The initiative worked and has since been replicated.
FREND’s other interesting project is in partnership with UNICEF christened ‘Smart Betiyaan’ across 300 villages in eight blocks of Shrawasti and Balrampur districts of Uttar Pradesh where gender indicators are extremely low. The programme helps to form a network of girls who are trained to act as social persuaders within communities. They take up crucial socially relevant issues such as child marriage, child protection, gender disparity, health, nutrition, and education.
Does digital literacy help rural women? Barjatya notes that an impact study conducted last year revealed that over 90 per cent of women felt the internet had positively changed their life and attribute this change to the programme initiated by FREND. Besides, the villages where the programme took place saw the rise of new businesses, with the women using their newly acquired skills to kickstart unique ventures. “Entrepreneurs are seeing substantial financial gain from their Saathi inspired businesses. The average monthly earnings generated are over ₹4000,” adds Barjatya.