January 2016 | Philip Chacko

Net gains are cooking

The clean cooking and internet awareness programmes that the Tata Trusts runs with its partners in Gujarat are a reflection of the organisation’s intent and impact

Chetnaben Shah was more than eager to know about this supposedly fantastic thing called the internet. Her daughter, a working woman with knowledge of such modern wonders, was less than eager to tutor her. “She was dismissive whenever I broached the subject,” says Ms Shah, “She kept asking me what I was going to do knowing about the net.”

The bicycle is the chosen mode of transport for the 'internet saathis' 

The way it turned out, Ms Shah did not need her daughter’s help. Remarkably, she has gone from being internet illiterate to becoming an internet educator in quick time, a leap made possible thanks to a programme run by the Tata Trusts in partnership with Google India in the Indian states of Gujarat, Jharkhand and Rajasthan. “My daughter marvels at how far I’ve come,” says Ms Shah, a resident of Kodinar village in Gujarat’s Junagadh district.

Ms Shah is one of about 400 members working in a trailblazing initiative known as ‘internet saathi’ (saathi means friend in Hindi). Launched in July 2015, the initiative is aimed at getting rural communities to understand and use the internet. Ms Shah and her saathis, all of them women, are ‘trained to train’.

The required skills are imparted to the saathis and they are equipped with tablets and smartphones. They are then sent out on especially designed bicycles to spread what they have imbibed in the neighbourhood. “I used to cycle when I was younger but I kind of lost the knack; now I’ll have to learn it again,” says Ms Shah.

The internet saathi initiative is a component of the comprehensive innovation and social entrepreneurship programme that the Tata Trusts is concentrating attention on and dedicating resources to. Another is a project to promote clean cooking appliances as a substitute for the traditional — and extremely harmful — mode of using biomass and firewood as cooking fuel.

Tata Trusts' partnership with Google India is a force of change in rural Gujarat. Watch now!

Blended into these two programmes are activities in health and hygiene, solar power use, children’s education, women’s empowerment and, importantly, livelihood opportunities. The goal is to create a model that drives behavioural change in the community, and the preferred instrument to achieve this are the women federations that the Trusts has built a relationship with.

“We go into a village, recruit people who don’t have many income-generation prospects, train them in sales and entrepreneurship, give them products and get them to sell these socially relevant products to the community,” says Gaurav Mehta, who heads Dharma Life, the implementation partner of the Tata Trusts in Gujarat. “Everything that’s required for the model to work has been organised: the supply chain for the products, the training protocols, the marketing methodology, etc.”

Once the cause is identified, the products that can work in that space are decided on. For instance, for indoor air pollution and health-damaging rural kitchens — the reason for the ‘black roofs, black lungs’ blight that kills close to a million Indians every year — clean cook stoves and induction cook tops are sourced and sold as solutions. The social entrepreneurs are the last-mile connecters to the community. They are the change agents.

These entrepreneurs are selected from, and with the help of, the women’s federations. Enablers such as Motiben Chawda are crucial to the success of the venture. A go-getter who is the chairperson of a federation of about 8,000 women, Ms Chawda was tapped by the Trusts and Dharma Life for the clean cooking project. She was reluctant to commit herself and she had her reasons.

Children take part in a drawing competition in Kodinar village in Gujarat

“I had doubts initially,” she says. “I had been involved in distributing some 3,500 of these clean stoves in an earlier programme with another agency and it had not gone well. The stoves were of poor quality. The Tata people kept after me and finally I and a few other federation members attended a meeting they had organised in Ahmedabad. You could say we were convinced.”

The Tata Trusts name and the organisation’s sterling reputation ensured goodwill for the initiative, and this translated into progress on the ground. But there is no dearth of challenges, particularly in the clean cooking project.

The overarching objectives of the Trusts are to build livelihoods and to endeavour for causes that enhance the well-being of the community. Ultimately, though, it is impact that counts for most, and that is best gauged by the words and voices of the community.

“I’ve never had a paying job in my life and I’m a social entrepreneur now; making money on my own is such a joy,” says Jyotsna Barad of Girdevli village. “My work has given me exposure to the world outside, to people and challenges, to new experiences. I have earned the respect of villagers.”

On the boil

  • There are 200 social entrepreneurs involved in the programmes that the Tata Trusts operate in Gujarat. All of them are women.
  • Under the ‘internet saathi’ initiative, launched in July 2015, villagers are taught the basics of the internet: how to use a browser, open an email account, learn about social security schemes, livelihoods, education, health, etc.
  • Each saathi has a bicycle with two tablets and two smartphones. There are 100 such saathis on bicycles.
  • The clean cooking project encourages villagers using biomass and firewood to switch to clean cooking stoves and induction cook tops to reduce fuelwood consumption, health problems, etc. The social entrepreneurs sell these products through demand creation and market building.
  • 50 villages have been covered in the clean cooking programme and 50 more are expected to be pulled into it over the next three months.  
  • Packaged with the two programmes are activities in health and hygiene, solar power use, women’s uplift, children’s education and livelihood opportunities.
  • The overall objective is to create a model that drives behavioural change in the community and improves the quality of life, and the preferred instrument to achieve this are the local women’s federations.

This article is part of the cover story about the Tata Trusts featured in the January 2016 issue of Tata Review:
Philanthropy fine-tuned
The Tata Trusts has — through integration, use of technology, advocacy, partnerships and more — set course for a renewal aimed at deepening the impact of its numerous charity endeavours
Read the complete articles, and more, in Tata Review
'The Tata Trusts will have to keep renewing itself'
Ratan Tata, Chairman, Tata Trusts, talks about the trusts' evolving philanthropic approach, future growth and priority issues facing India
A flavoured solution
A unique public-private partnership involving the Tata Trusts has ensured that thousands of tribal schoolchildren enjoy wholesome meals
Food way forward
Tackling malnutrition in India is a pressing need, and one of the focus areas for the Tata Trusts
In search of that creative edge
Innovation in technology and solutions is crucial in the Tata Trusts quest to enhance the reach and execution of its programmes
Schooled for uplift
A spread of education centres in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand are enjoying a renaissance thanks to a project undertaken with the support of the Tata Trusts
Equity and excellence
Linking the Tata Trusts' initiatives in the education sector to improving the overall quality of life of the community has worked to the advantage of beneficiaries
Harvesting hopes, reaping rewards
A Tata Trusts initiative in the interiors of Maharashtra is providing succour to thousands of poor farmers, who have been encouraged to shift away from the traditional and grow more profitable crops
Rural riches
The rural livelihoods and communities portfolio of the Tata Trusts targets poverty reduction through a host of measures
Building the future, brick by brick
Backing from the Tata Trusts has enabled thousands of migrant workers, especially in Gujarat, to secure better working conditions, find financial security and transform their lives
An urban variant of a rural malaise
The Tata Trusts trained its spotlight on urban poverty and livelihoods as an issue that required focused intervention at a time when most philanthropic agencies were focusing on rural poverty
Going against the flow
Water is considered an elixir in the high ranges of Uttarakhand, and the help rendered by the Tata Trusts and its partners in delivering it has changed lives and fortunes
Mission maximum
The Tata Water Mission has been calibrated to make the most of the social development capabilities residing in the Tata Trusts
Rhythm reloaded
A project in Kutch in Gujarat is, with a push from the Tata Trusts, working to revitalise the folk music tradition of the region by creating new opportunities for musicians practicing the craft
A canvas widened
The media, arts and culture theme of the Tata Trusts concentrates attention of conserving India's civilizational heritage and those who embody it