Tech Crunch: How to Profit off the Poor… and Keep Your Soul
DELHI, INDIA–“I’ll take you! I live there!” a small boy with a blue shirt and a perfect toothy grin said as he ran ahead of me. His quiet friend in yellow jogged beside him smiling shyly, his jet-black Elvis curl bobbing on his forehead. The boy in blue stopped a few yards in front of me turned around, beaming and added in Hindi, “I know computers quite well.”
These weren’t middle class kids on the well-trod, parent-driven Indian path to seats at IIT. These were Delhi slum kids, whose families likely live on less than $2 a day. And yet, for the last five years, they’ve spent several hours of their free time every day playing games and learning English, Math and Science on computers.
So how have they bridged the much-agonized-about digital divide without a hand out from a chip company, computer company or wealthy philanthropist? A for-profit Indian company called NIIT.
It started back in 1999 when Sugata Mitra, NIIT’s chief scientist, noticed his kid could learn how to use gadgets like a mobile phone far faster than tech-savvy adults could. At this time, most computer “labs” in Indian schools were one or two computers that were only to be used under the strict supervision of a teacher. The reasoning was computers were expensive and required training and supervision. As a result many kids only got to look at them from afar in the classroom.
Instead Mitra wondered what would happen if he left a computer out in the open for a group of children to discover. So he literally knocked a hole in the office wall to the slum on the other side. He shoved a computer in the hole and set up a camera on a tree limb to record what happened. A 13-year-old, illiterate kid who’d never seen a computer wandered over tentatively, and soon realized he could move the cursor by moving a finger across the touch pad. Within four hours, a small group of kids had gathered. They had figured out how to open Internet Explorer and were playing a game on Disney’s Web site. “All of us were absolutely shocked watching that,” says Abhishek Gupta who heads the program now. Some expected the kids to break or even try to steal the computer.
A pilot project with the World Bank followed, and 22 of these “Hole in the Wall” kiosks were set up around the country from 2001 to 2005. The organization studied the results closely. The most obvious take-away was that kids left on their own will learn computers. The project also helped develop team-building and social skills—with 200 kids sometimes huddled around one screen. Whether the computers lead to more general academic improvement was less clear, but in many cases it was up measurably, Gupta says.
But interestingly when that partnership was over, NIIT didn’t take the project down the non-profit route. It’s not because the company is adverse to such things—it’s also opening a new high-end university that is run as a non-profit. But there’s a unique attitude in India that believes the way to eradicate poverty is to turn India’s scrappiest, free-market entrepreneurs on the problem, not to increase handouts. ...