How Corporates Approach Digital Innovation at the Grassroots Level

Zoho founder and CEO Sridhar Vembu is a corporate leader who is believes that the real power of innovation lies in India’s villages. Zoho Desk, a cutting-edge context-aware helpdesk software, was built and launched in 2016 by a team of 150 engineers in Tenkasi, a village about 650 kms from Chennai. The founder’s vision of harnessing untapped rural talent to create superior quality global software products has set the bar high for established corporates who want to bring their ideas to scale in rural markets. 

Bold initiatives like Vembu’s, the intrepid entrepreneur who left Silicon Valley to set-up base in Tenkasi, have put the spotlight on how rural pockets are the emerging hotbeds of innovation. Vembu’s motto “Made in Rural India, Made for the World” is increasingly resonating across the corporate world.

Democratising digital technology for greater good

Besides developing indigenous software solutions in India’s hinterlands, global corporations are also ushering in a new wave of innovation at the grassroots level to address socio-economic disparities that widen the chasm between the haves and have nots.

For example, tech giant Microsoft has partnered with Indian internet service provider Air Jaldi on an innovative project to provide fast, reliable and affordable broadband access for rural communities. The project, Airband Initiative, has to date provided wireless coverage to 1500 villages, enabling the rural population to have access to healthcare and banking services. The objective of the partnership is to bridge the wide digital divide that continues to exist as a bulk of India’s population in the rural belt lack access to low-cost and reliable internet connection.

HP (Hewlett Packard) India has harnessed science and technology to offer innovative solutions to empower disadvantaged groups living in India’s remote areas. The organisation offers “HP World on Wheels”, a vehicle which is a solar-powered, internet-enabled digital learning lab that offers digital literacy aided by software suites and e-learning tools for students K-12.

Innovating at the grassroots level

Over the years, leading corporates have attempted to solve some of India’s most dire challenges through their CSR (corporate social responsibility) initiatives. For instance, Infosys Foundation, the CSR arm of Infosys, hosts the Aarohan Social Innovation Awards to spearhead innovation at the grassroots level. The awards cover a range of sectors, such as healthcare; education & sports, women’s safety & empowerment and sustainability, among others. Individuals, teams and NGOs are recognised for finding unique digital solutions to accelerate innovation and positively impact the nation’s underprivileged.

Corporates acknowledge that inclusive innovation would be possible only if global organisations consider the rural population as bonafide citizens in India’s growth story. Japanese conglomerate Hitachi launched its Social Innovation Business to enable digital transformation for India’s urban and rural populace. The company leverages its powerful digital capabilities in sectors such as agriculture, power and transportation to ensure the establishment of a sustainable ecosystem in the long run. For example, Hitachi’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) applications has leveraged disruptive technologies to transform the agricultural sector and usher in precision farming. Its AI-enabled software empowers farmers to take the right decisions to optimise crop yields through solutions such as real-time demand forecasting and price forecasting. 

Creating an ecosystem of change

As more corporates apply game-changing digital technologies to fuel innovation in India’s rural belt, it will disrupt the way industries have traditionally functioned. The concerted efforts by established conglomerates to accelerate the rural segment’s financial and educational inclusion in society will pave the way for an ecosystem of change. 

In an era when EdTech has emerged as one of the fastest growing sectors, EdTech leader BYJU’s has partnered with multinational Colgate-Palmolive to offer free lessons through a video tutorial subscription model to children in rural areas. 

In an effort to make largescale financial inclusion a reality for India’s rural masses, Bajaj Finserv has leveraged technology to provide on the spot consumer loans for customers at the bottom of the pyramid.

As these examples illustrate, the digitisation of rural markets has become a significant component of corporates’ growth strategy. Without grassroots initiatives, it would be difficult for organisations to build bottom-up solutions that would lead to the long-term socio-economic transformation of rural economies.

Undoubtedly, sustainable tech-led solutions will lead the way in the post-COVID world. Besides corporates, other stakeholders in the ecosystem should also play a vital role in contributing innovative ideas to make a positive impact on the grassroots community. Only then can a more meaningful roadmap to building a holistic innovation ecosystem be achieved.

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