Monday, February 13, 2006

TARAhaat - An Information Technology venture to bridge the India's digital divide

How many of us have heard of TARAhaat? Probably none. That includes me. Not until now, until my browser stumbled upon a government website that had tonnes of information on it. I wonder how many such ventures are quietly stirring up a silent rural upthrust to catch up with the rest of the country.

TARA stands for Technology and Action for Rural Advancement. TARAhaat is a business enterprise of Development Alternatives (DA), an NGO focused on sustainable rural development in India, and its marketing arm, TARA.

TARAhaat uses a franchise-based business model to bring computer and Internet technology to rural regions and plans to use these technologies to create revenue streams leading to financial viability for itself and its franchisees.
The business combines a mother portal, TARAhaat.com, with a network of franchised village Internet centers, or TARAkendras. The aim is to deliver education, information, services, and online market opportunities to rural consumers via the Internet and its kendra outposts. It also hopes to provide a cost-effective gateway by which larger corporations can reach rural customers. It will offer information, e-mail and Web services, and eventually e-commerce and fulfillment services, earning revenues through membership fees and commissions.

Interviews with users of TARAhaat’s services demonstrate the venture’s social benefits, including empowering the education of girls, inspiring confidence and higher aspirations among rural children, and enabling farmers to gain market information and substantially higher prices for their crops.

What was specially highlighted were the unique challenges and the special successes this venture has had. Anecdotal information reveals several challenges, and solutions, in teaching computers to rural audiences. Most of these stem from a lack of English proficiency among users.
  • Teaching mouse usage is the biggest initial hurdle. Use of MSPaint has proved a useful tool for gaining comfort with the mouse. Some students have actually used MSPaint for homework assignments in art classes. The diagram here shows a painting done by a rural kid after just a week fiddling with the mouse.
  • Teaching keyboard usage is easier, since most users are familiar with the Englishalphabet even though they cannot form full sentences in English. Most users are ableto write letters or participate in chats with phonetic Hindi fonts. A pamphlet showing how the keystrokes map to Hindi alphabets and how to use this to form Hindi words is available.
  • Software menu systems are a challenge to rural users because of menu command words are in English. Most users have managed well by memorizing the menu systemfor popular programs such as MSWord. For example, they know that the fourth item inthe left-most drop down menu in MSWord is to be used to save their files.
  • Basic courses in computer fundamentals are expected to improve employment prospects for students. However, several students were eager to explore the job options themselves once Internet access becomes available. They fully expect to continue attendingcomputer classes even after summer vacation, because they feel computer skillsare more essential in the job market than the education they may receive in school or college.
  • Student dedication is evident in the fact that some of them commute up to seven kilometers in the hot summer to attend TARAhaat classes, sometimes by foot.
  • Computer games are a big attraction for younger children and some enthusiastically rattled off names of computer games that they are very fond of. When one group was asked if they would pay for playing games when the TARAkendra starts charging them, they were very sure they could get money from their parents for playing these games.Rs.20 did not seem prohibitive.
  • MSExcel and PowerPoint have been popular with school-going children and younger adults. Some school children have done their schoolwork using Excel because it helps them make small tables in a neater fashion. Special animation and sound effects inPowerPoint are a big draw.

A truly special insight into the rigours involved in getting rural India to reap benefits from Information Technology. A spirited venture too. May this venture spawn a thousand more of its kind. Wishing God Speed.

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