Importance of ecosystem in technological interventions- Selco Foundation

The Northeast Shines A Light On The Path Forward

The fundamental challenges of the Northeast aren’t dissimilar to ones faced in many corners of the country. From an elementary reading, we can conclude that livelihood, quality of living, finance, networks, technology and access to technology, scaling up, resources, training etc are primary challenges. Where we see a stark difference is in how such challenges express themselves in the Northeast. This can be based on terrain, weather, institutions, remoteness, culture, diversity, and other factors. Indeed, the Northeast might provide us with a window into why a context-specific and decentralized understanding of ecosystems might be the only approach we constantly tinker with and improve. In this article, technology will provide us a gateway to a much richer ecosystem in the background.

What Makes For Enduring Technology?

When it comes to technology, we arrive at a very simple problem at the outset. Many entrepreneurs use technology that is not efficient for their often modest needs. “The first problem we identified was that the technology that was available wasn’t appropriate for the smaller enterprise needs that we work with.” says Gunajit, Project Manager – Technology, at SELCO Foundation, “And even if there was technology, this machinery often consumed much more power than was required. The question of alternative sources of energy hadn’t been arrived at yet.” We see this clearly with cases like Mr. Pantinsining, an individual rice mill entrepreneur at Noney District of Manipur. Mr. Pantinsining had been using a diesel-powered rice huller and servicing 35 households with 210 people approximately. The diesel alone cost him INR 2000 a month, a very steep expense for such a small operation. Shifting to a solar-powered rice huller negated the diesel budget and left him with a far more productive and efficient work day. Even in a profession like Blacksmithing, we notice similar patterns. For many years, Mr. Ramu Sarma and Mr. Laingam, two blacksmiths based in Assam and Manipur respectively, went about their day manually pulling a bellow, a task involving a lot of time, effort, drudgery and additional paid labour. This was until they bought a solar-powered blacksmith blower a few years ago. This was a technological leap in some sense, completely negating the need to hire someone to blow the fire every day and reducing the precariousness of their livelihood. Laingam also opted for a solar-powered power hammer, developed by a manufacturer in Gujarat, which functions at a much lower wattage than most products available in the market. Much like Pantinsining, the cost borne for the extra wattage was negated for both these micro-entrepreneurs. They too soon found that their productivity had spiked and moreover, they both did not have to hire an additional employee, saving up on more money.  At its most ideal, good technology manages to attune the user to lesser drudgery and more efficiency on the job.

Ramu Sarma, blacksmith from Assam

However, sometimes technology can simply ensure certain comforts in daily living that make our livelihoods more humane and enriching. Take the example of the mobile boat clinics in the flood-stricken Dhemaji district or in Dibrugarh, Tinsukia or Jorhat, a boat clinic that was formerly powered by a diesel generator that only managed around 5 hours of fully functional power supply per day. While this meant that doctors and healthcare workers had to take tough decisions on how and when to provide medical care, it also entailed a perennial blackout when they returned to their beds inside the boat clinic. This led to a very high attrition rate, with many people finding the work undesirable. On switching to a completely solar-powered boat clinic starting from the laboratory with energy efficient machineries to vaccine refrigerator, not only could the unit carry out its work at full capacity during the day, but they also had a well-lit room to return to at night, with charging docks and all the attendant comforts that power brings. “It was a complete shift in the way the centre functioned, earlier there was nothing to do but go back to your rooms and sleep at 7 in the evening, now they can finish their reports and researches and study books when they went back to their rooms at night” said Gunajit. Ancient heroic poetry speaks of a discernible difference between ‘external’ and ‘interior’ landscapes, the former speaking to environmental, social, and political contexts while the latter refers to happiness, wellbeing, love and other emotions. However, worthwhile poetry only emerges from an interaction between these two realms, as many ancient grammarians have stressed. If we have a more expansive view of technology and its capabilities, we will find that such solutions are all around us.

Jorhat Boat Clinic

The Matter Of Finance

In both Ramu Sarma’s and Laingam’s case, both these interventions would not be possible without the financial help provided by banks and MFIs respectively, Syndicate Bank and Allahabad Bank in these cases. Over the Northeast, there are many banks and MFIs that provide loans for micro-entrepreneurs, but the challenges are as diverse as the region itself. They often revolve around transaction costs, lack of credit history and banking infrastructure.

In many areas, Joint Liability Groups (JLGs) are formed to make it convenient for banks to process and disburse the loan and also enable easy loan repayment. The group formation also helps develop community cohesion, enable joint action and the peer pressure will ensure easier repayments of the loan. The process of securing the loan itself is facilitated variously by individual entrepreneurs, JLGs, grassroot NGOs with help and inspiration from best practices and processes shared by practicing experts in financing for energy and technology assets. A crucial idiosyncrasy that is observed in the region is the matter of landscape and terrain. EMIs vary from small to big amounts. An individual might have to make commute that costs them INR 250 to pay off an EMI of INR 900 which is a very impractical routine to sustain.  In these contexts, various solutions, such as a single individual appointed to make collections or a JLG have been employed according to the region. The bottom-line is that we probably cannot arrive at a ‘one size fits all’ solution and that problems are fixed on their own terms and contexts.

The Other Links In The Chain

Whether you run a printing and photocopy shop or a small scale loom, your livelihood is premised on an interrupted workday. In such a situation, service and maintenance become paramount to your daily living. At this stage, the presence of last-mile energy entrepreneurs who provide installations for remote homes and businesses, provide due maintenance, as well as resolve any unexpected problems This landmark has accomplished with the help of grassroots organisation incubation, training and education. For example, in Meghalaya, the RRTC, in partnership with SELCO Foundation has till date installed around 400 solar-powered home lighting systems in Umsning, Meghalaya. The Umsning locality has a grid connection in most homes, but due to erratic power supply, the people were facing precarious conditions. There was a power cut in the area for anywhere between 3 to six hours in the evening, when the people needed light the most. Before switching to solar energy, people used candles and kerosene lamps as a source of light, which were expensive and provided a poor quality of light. After the installation of the solar lights now the people feel empowered according to them as now they can easily do their household chores without any interruption, and according to their own preference. The children are able to study in the night and play comfortably. The households have also been happy because they aren’t exposed to the harmful fumes from the kerosene lamps. “People would even go to each other’s homes in the night to discuss, have meetings and spread awareness. It was something of a lifestyle shift.” said Gunajit. Such an intervention is only possible when other links of the ecosystem have been looked into adequately, and quite often we have to reach to the very roots of the society and culture to provide long-standing solutions.  This was exemplified in the case of The Azad Higher Secondary School, located at Yairipok Tulihal village, Imphal East District, The Pinnacle Academy, located at Lilong village, Thoubal District, and The Grace Cottage Academy, located at Kakching District, Manipur. These schools have been providing education to children from low economic backgrounds till the high school level. With the implementation of a Digital Education Program (DEP) in collaboration with MALEM at these schools, students have access to interactive education aid, making classrooms and learning more invigorating. DEP at the Loktak Floating Elementary School in collaboration with Mangaal is another story of how an interactive education aid is helping the students from Loktak area to learn the content in a more interesting way which also helps them to understand the topics easily. The bigger picture tells us that this DEP will help decrease the level of dropouts and improve the attention span of students, according to the school authorities. Furthermore, the decentralized energy solution ensures that classes and learning sessions are not interrupted by power cuts, which happen quite frequently in the region.

Loktak Floating Elementary School

Links Towards A Robust Ecosystem

A running theme through all these case studies and SELCO Foundation’s entire experience in the Northeast is one of collaboration between various actors in the ecosystem. The range of these networks includes government, entrepreneurs, stakeholders, collectives, individuals, grassroots organizations and many more. In order to truly comprehend such ecosystems, we need such vast and decentralized networks working in collaboration with various notions of mutual co-operation and shared goals. In a region as rich as the Northeast in culture, diversity, language, and terrain, nothing less can be expected moving forward. This is to ensure the inclusivity of the vast reaches of the land and moreover, to truly be prepared for the challenges that lie ahead.

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