Logging in for a cause

In three poor neighborhoods around Bangalore, groups of women micro-entrepreneurs have recently logged on to the power of global social networking through the internet despite being impoverished and illiterate. Helping them in this attempt to escape poverty is a start-up called Ubuntu At Work which is inspired by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen's argument that a person's capability is not what he or she theoretically has, but hinges upon the person's social arrangements.

Named after an ethical concept of African origin of the same name that emphasises community, generosity and sharing, Ubuntu at Work was set up last year by Vibha Pingle, a former assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University.

The start-up has been launched just as serious questions are being raised about micro-finance initiatives' effect on reducing poverty. Some even argue that micro-credit leaves people in the developing world worse off, much in the same way as credit cards and mortgages do in rich countries.

The idea for Ubuntu came out of Pingle's study of women micro-entrepreneurs in Africa. Two things stood out. Firstly, forming a women's self-help group was not necessarily conducive to fresh business ideas. Second, the cell phone was not an adequate enough tool to develop a new business.

Pingle realised that 99 per cent of the women she surveyed in the micro-finance networks did not even see themselves as micro-entrepreneurs. She concluded that only those women who built bridges outside of their network were likely to escape the crush of poverty.

Pingle decided to test out her own hypothesis by setting up Ubuntu to provide such bridges. The women are identified through existing micro-finance networks and then supported through the risks they take. Ubuntu wants these women micro-entrepreneurs to vault their way out of poverty and not necessarily in phases.

"Ubuntu wants to provide underprivileged women the same networks that the well-off have," says Pingle. Leveraging networks such as Facebook and Twitter, Ubuntu recruits volunteers to coach the women, and help them in identifying new business ideas and develop products. The edgy green products they produce are then marketed around the world, again using social networks.

Besides Bangalore, an Ubuntu chapter is operating in Cairo and others are starting in southern Africa. Volunteer-run chapters have come up in several cities like Delhi, Dubai and Dublin. The three Bangalore sites where Ubuntu works in are driven by the power of the social network. The Ubuntu website, Facebook and Twitter help recruit the volunteers who reach the poor women in their homes for advice and coaching. The volunteers get together on Facebook to discuss current initiatives, plan training programmes and post all happenings on Twitter.

The products, the designers and resources to train the women are aggregated on the internet. It is a test case for a collaborative business model for the poor.

Again, social networking helps raise funds and set up a retail network to market the green products such as innovative jewellery, picture frames and eco-friendly shopping bags its beneficiaries make.

In the Bommanahalli suburbs of Bangalore, women recycle plastic drinking water bottles to produce 'green' jewellery. Through social networking, a Swedish jewellery designer came in to teach the women to make the products.

Volunteers like Smita Chakravorty, a programmer at Infosys Technologies in Bangalore, 'friend' women micro-entrepreneurs to understand their needs and aspirations. Chakravorty volunteers at the Bommanahalli site every weekend where a group, including her, is currently teaching English and computer skills to the children of the women micro-entrepreneurs. "These women are exposed to a set of people and ideas they would never have access to but for Ubuntu," says Chakravorty. She says she already notices the growing aspiration levels of the women she interacts with she is currently helping a young female school graduate apply for a passport.

Pingle wants Ubuntu At Work to become the Facebook with a cause, a one-stop portal for development that connects micro-entrepreneurs across the world to their markets, by-passing the multiple traditional steps. "We want to bring global resources and the global marketplace to the doorstep of these micro- entrepreneurs," says Pingle.

saritha.rai@expressindia.com

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