TeNeT's Rural BPO Initiative
The TeNeT Group at IIT-Madras has worked over the past 18 months on a rural BPO initiative that links urban clients with a rural workforce through the Internet kiosk network.
In a village with a population of six thousand, where the primary occupation is weaving, Thenmozhi, a young graduate, runs an Internet kiosk business. With a single connected computer, she provides a variety of services to the community that includes browsing, games, photography, education and Desk Top Publishing among others. Over a period of a year, her income has grown and she has added two more computers to the kiosk. Today, with three PCs, she provides Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) services such as data entry and data conversion to clients located in distant urban centres.
In another village, Rosy, a young mother, runs a kiosk, where she employs four people and provides BPO services such as localisation of content and Computer Aided Design (CAD). While these stories are undoubtedly incongruent with our predominant perceptions of rural India, indeed today BPO operations are making their way to the most remote and unlikely parts in the country.
As celebrated New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, observes in his latest book 'The World Is Flat'- "all you need now is a global, web-enabled platform for multiple forms of sharing knowledge and work, irrespective of time, distance, geography and increasingly, language." As rural India is increasingly connected, there is no reason that jobs cannot move - as they have from London to Bangalore – to Vadalur, an unheard of village in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Today there are approximately 15,000 Internet-enabled villages in India. With various efforts underway toward enabling rural connectivity, such as Mission 2007 and the CSC scheme of the government, this number is projected to reach 100,000 in a few years' time. In this scenario, the potential for the rural BPO industry can only be expected to grow.
The rural BPO business model
This unique initiative has a portfolio of services that includes typing in English and regional languages, data entry operations, web and multimedia development and regional language translation. More recently, engineering services such as 2D drafting and conversion of 2D to 3D for the manufacturing sector have also been introduced.
While the model today runs on a smaller scale, a typical rural BPO centre, to be envisaged in the future, would consist of 10 PCs running in two shifts. Each centre would employ between 10-20 individuals, and the kiosk owner would be responsible for hiring and managing the staff, ensuring that timelines and quality standards are adhered to, and managing daily operations.
Impacts and benefits
Rural areas can be attractive outsourcing destinations for the BPO industry primarily because labour is less expensive than in the cities. Also minimal investment in infrastructure is required in the existing kiosks in order for them to serve as BPO centres. Rentals and overheads in these areas also tend to be low, further adding to the arbitrage. The most important leverage in this arrangement, however, is the existence of an entrepreneur running every kiosk, who is a trusted entry point into the village.
Likewise, the Rural BPO model offers significant benefits to the rural population. With IT training, the youth in rural areas are exposed to skills that are highly valued in today's economy. As a result, their productivity and incomes increase, and so, also their personal confidence. The entire rural economy begins to thrive as more money flows into villages, allowing for more equitable economic growth at the national level.
The vision for the future
If the goal of setting up Village Information Centres with connectivity in 100,000 villages is achieved, all of these villages would have the potential to act as BPO centres. Consider 10 percent of these villages employing 20 people at an average salary of $65 per month. This would directly add $1.56 billion to the rural economy per annum and create 200,000 jobs. The demand for several allied industries such as hardware servicing and software development would also grow.
The rural BPO team envisions playing a significant role in this IT revolution, by leveraging the power of computing and connectivity to create wealth in rural areas. The team intends to build capacity in villages, to create the right systems and networks for remote business operations and to ensure the highest level of professionalism and quality standards. The group believes that this is not just a significant business opportunity, but also a means to catapult the pace of rural development in the country under a wholly different paradigm.
Saloni Malhotra is Team Leader of the TeNeT Group, IIT Madras.