A large screen in Bihar’s Ranchi shows villager Sunder Lal learning the basics of accounting and the double-entry bookkeeping system through a simple step-by-step method.
The students—an eclectic bunch from nearby villages themselves—before the screen then settle down for a group discussion. This is a lesson on managing funds, part of a 10 to 15-day rural entrepreneurship programme called I-Care, set to roll-out in India’s Hindi heartland next month.
The for-profit programme was conceived by professors of the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad (IIM-A) and simplified using information and communication technology by non governmental organization Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF). The exercise included merging classroom texts with digital content, comprehensible to a rural audience.
Education firm IETS (Education and Technology Services Ltd), a divison of IL&FS, commissioned IIM-A and DEF to structure the curriculum that marks its entry into the burgeoning rural market. Over the next two years, the programme aims to train 50,000 villagers who have passed at least class 12. Each prospective student will have to pay Rs3,000-5,000.
“This is not a philanthropic exercise,” says Alok Bhargava, the director of IETS. “But if people see a job opportunity afterwards, they’ll be eager to do it.” Each student will receive a certificate after completion of the course.
The IETS course is significant because it reflects the trend of rural areas, like much of India, flocking to private education providers.
A study of education in rural areas by NGO Pratham showed such a shift among schoolchildren. While 16.3% of rural children were in private schools in 2005, this number increased to 18.8% in 2006, which implies an increase of over 15% in terms of the number of children.
This programme enables rural residents to continue their skills development. “Rural India is changing very fast due to globalization and there’s immense untapped potential for building the capacity of rural youth,” said IETS business head Uday Nirgudkar.
This year, the course will be launched at the district-level in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Rajasthan. Gujarat and Punjab are next on the list. Apart from Bengali and Gujarati, a special script is being written in Gurmukhi. IETS is working out placement options in the retail sector with companies including ITC Ltd and Reliance Industries Ltd. Nirgudkar is currently talking to banks such as the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, where expanding micro-credit facilities could yield employment and entrepreneurship opportunities.
The company says it hopes its graduates will be qualified to staff the one lakh Common Service Centres, that the government had proposed. The centres, to be set up across the country by March 2008, expect to deliver a range of services, including agriculture information, computer training and computerized land records, and courier and job services.
IETS staff are tying up with colleges in smaller cities like Patna, Bhopal and Ranchi. They plan to use a specially designed psychometric test to identify villagers with the inclination and aptitude for entrepreneurship. I-Care’s supporters say it includes components on interpersonal relationships, benchmarking, learning from others, motivation, mentoring and communication skills. “Our biggest challenge was how to deliver an MBA programme to a person who has just passed class 10, adding perspective and social entrepreneurship to it, as his social network is a villager’s biggest business asset,” said P.K. Sinha, professor of marketing and retailing at IIM-A and coordinator of the project.
He said the course included teaching villagers how to sustain a business after building it, and to utilize opportunities, even in adverse situations. For instance, in villages suffering from prolonged power cuts, an entrepreneur could implement simple business ideas like setting up a blackboard advertising the sale of a cow or matrimonial services—and then charge a fee as commission from the buyer and seller.
The curriculum includes conventional subjects like developing village businesses, public administration and e-governance. Computer skills and writing project plans are also part of the curriculum.
The course is filled with films, role playing, skits and group discussions, which continue late into the night. That makes for intense 18-hour days of training.Sinha said it took the team of IIM professors including rural entrepreneurship expert Anil Gupta, a year and a half to design the programme. The first five months were spent meeting policy-level experts and villagers to understand rural needs. Later, nonprofit DEF, which already had a database of more than 500 audio and video recordings related to information technology, developed case studies and videos of successful rural entrepreneurs across India.
Last year, the course was piloted in Ahmedabad with computer literate women working with the NGO Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). In October, DEF began training the trainers, picking up kiosk operators and ex-servicemen from small towns.
“After the training, their whole perspective changes,” said Vikrant Abrol, a DEF trainer for the trainers. “They are brimming with confidence. Most of them think of starting their own enterprise.”