Messaging empowerment

Ravi Ghate 'texts' change in people lives

sarthak

Sarthak Ray | February 8, 2010


Ravi Ghate being awarded the NASSCOM Social Innovation award `09
Ravi Ghate being awarded the NASSCOM Social Innovation award `09

Sending over a thousand messages in a minute would probably earn one the much reviled label of a spammer. Ravi Ghate has been doing so for more than four years now but that's the last thing one would call him.

Ravi Ghate is the founder-director of SMSOne, a sms-based community news service and NASSCOM Social Innovation award-winner. Having established his presence in rural Maharashtra, he is taking his community-based news service to southern part of India.

It was a long gestation for Ghate's SMSOne– a sms-based community news service. Ghate sent out the first lot of sms news to 2,100 mobile-users in Pune's Aundh and Bamer villages in August 2005. In a year-long trial, 160-character-long messages would tell subscribers where and when they could register their name in the voters' list or where a country fair was being held and when. A little less than three years later, in May 2008, SMSOne became a for-profit social enterprise, informing subscribers about health camps, power-outages, water-supply timings, weather, crop prices, deadlines for government schemes. And occasionally, ads of local enterprenuers to keep the enterprise going.

Ghate donned his social-entrepreneur hat the moment he recognized the opportunity for SMSOne. He sensed the need for locally relevant information in villages. He talks of how micro-local news has kept him in business. “There's a government scheme for Muslim girls – a girl, on entering seventh standard, will get a bicycle from the government to commute to school. More often than not, authorities will not take the pain to locate the lone girl in one village of one taluka in one of Maharashtra's 35 districts who meets all the criteria. Information trickles down till a level and then dries out. In this case, the girl and her family never get to know that she was eligible for a cycle. And suddenly you have fewer Muslim girls in high-school as the schools are far-off and the girls don't have cycles to commute from their villages”, he says. “Don't you think that's where what SMSOne becomes relevant? At least, the families know whom to approach for the cycles", he adds.
 

The Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad) has even made a case-study on Ghate and SMSOne. Stanford University recently launched a story-telling project for school-children in Maharashtra to understand the impact of mobile phones on adolescents. SMSOne was invited to partner in the study.

Ghate, a college dropout, is today felicitated and invited to speak in top colleges in the country. "Technology must have a human face if it is to be engaged for development. The government may give our rural masses technology for progress, but it also has to ensure that there's a human interface ready to guide, handhold and give these technologies a familiar face for those who will be using them, " he says.

As a man with humble beginnings, Ghate knows what the system has on offer for the common man. "Technology today is largely meant for the urban, upwardly mobile middle-class and the upper-class. Rural folk hardly have any access to appropriate technology. e-governance is slowly changing the face of technology, but it still has a long way to go. Awareness should precede infrastructure availability. What's the point of having a kiosk when entire villages don't know how to use one?," he says.

Maharashtra has over 4,00,000 people who get news sms from Ghate. His business is growing and so is its impact. SMSOne is southbound – Tamil Nadu already has 1,00,000 subscribers. It entered Andhra Pradesh as recently as February 1, 2010 when it was launched from Mehboobnagar district. “We'll be soon launching in Karnataka, and a little later, in Kerala,” Ghate told Governance Now over phone.

So, where have the big media lost the plot? “The key is keeping it local,” Ghate says, adding, “local relevance is often missing in mainstream media's content.”

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