The ‘SoochnaPreneur’ namely initiative was launched by Digital Empowerment Foundation in 2016 with the grant support of the Qualcomm under its ‘Wireless Reach’ program. Since then the solution traversing diverse scope, challenges and opportunities have been able to reach out to underserved areas and communities with access to information, public entitlements and digital resources through community led ‘SoochnaPreneurs’ (more at https://SoochnaPreneur.in/). The solution has by now received support from diverse partners and stakeholders towards replication and scale up in creating ‘SoochnaPreneurs’ in every village / Panchayat in India as information and digital change agents.
The seed of ‘SoochnaPreneur’ was sown in 2007, when Intel and DEF joined hands to start the first Community Information Resource Centre (CIRC), manned by a community coordinator, the past variant of today’s SoochnaPreneur, in Ranchi District of Jharkhand, around same time around when the government’s Common Services Centre (CSC) programme was designed and launched. This support of Intel was once again received in 2019-2020 for dozen of CIRCs manned by SoochnaPreneurs.
The partnership of Vodafone Foundation and Indus Towers with DEF was first major intervention to scale up the CIRC programme in an entrepreneurship mode in multiple states. This helped DEF to experiment with the CIRC coordinators as entrepreneurs to serve and deliver range of ICT based services in communities. This experiment drove in multitude of learning and lessons that eventually helped to redesign and create the SoochnaPreneur model as rural information service delivery solution.
From 2014-2018, DEF with a long term grant from the European Union in India rolled out the expanded and refined CIRC programme in a new ‘Soochna Seva’ (Information Service) initiative with community based ‘Soochna Seva Kendra’s – SSKs (Information Service Centres), run by Soochna Sevaks / Sevikas/ SoochnaPreneurs (Information Fellows / Entrepreneurs).
With Qualcomm since 2016 comes the true change maker as with this partnership DEF launched a new line of thinking and action to target individuals including women as entrepreneurs equipped digitally and support them to deliver last mile information, public entitlements and digital services and have sustainable income and livelihood. With this all SSKs were converted to become and complement the SoochnaPreneurs. This partnership over the past 4-5 years helped to expand and enroll more than 500 women as SoochnaPreneurs.
With Nokia networks, DEF took the SoochnaPreneur solution to next level and expanded and add another 300 SoochnaPreneurs in half a dozen States. With the partnership of FREND and support of Google and Tata Trusts, DEF scaled up the SoochnaPreneur solution variant as ‘Internet Saathis’ and identified, trained and skilled more than 10,000 rural women to become information digital change agents cum entrepreneurs.
The Internet Society (ISOC) helped DEF in creating a model of last mile connectivity using wireless technology and community engagement model and to maintain and manage the network creating last mile Barefoot wireless engineers. These pool acted as entrepreneurs leading to many SoochnaPreneurs who also are trained in wireless and connectivity and vice versa. This was done in at least 150 locations with as many Barefoot wireless engineers as SoochnaPreneurs. With EquallyAble Foundation, DEF expanded SPs mode to include and reach to Person with disability (PWDs) and added another two hundred SoochnaPreneurs.
With the Commonwealth of Learning (COL), DEF took the SoochnaPreneur training and enabling women entrepreneurs to adopt technology and become more capable to navigate the restrictions because of COVID19 and become digital entrepreneurs. This helped to train 7000 women during COVID19 – mostly from weaving and other traditional skill based backgrounds. Of late DEF has partnered with the USAID in building a system of creating 10,000 digitally enabled women entrepreneurs nay SoochnaPreneurs.
Further, UN Women in India supported DEF to train 60 women as SoochnaPreneurs in 6 States and these women are from Self Help Groups (SHGs) to strengthen their units through information and digital entrepreneurship skills. With Facebook, DEF partnership involved a dedicated programme in training 5000 Common Service Centre (CSC) women entrepreneurs to become digital women entrepreneurs (SoochnaPreneurs).
At knowledge partnership level, DEF and IIHMR University, Jaipur, joined hands together to address India’s Rural Digital Gender divide through the Global Tech Challenge 2020 application process and way forward. Winning this challenge is a testimony to this joint efforts and recognition of the initiatives that have helped improve diversity and promote women empowerment. Both DEF and IIHMR is committed to take this knowledge and digital partnership forward to address wider digital gaps in India and beyond.
In another development USA based US-India Policy Institute partnered DEF to establish at least 10 Digital Community Information Resource Centers to further create at least 100 sub centers through nurturing digital entrepreneurs among the lower income group with extra focus on women hailing from deprived communities including minorities and Dalits. USIPI also helped in creating strategy how each of the SoochnaPreneur centers could be a point of bottom-up data collection to make research driven policies and advocacies.
DEF is a pan India ICT for development agency that works towards digital innovations and solutions to address critical development needs in India, especially in underserved and backward regions, communities and geographies (more at https://www.defindia.org) .