How Smartphones Can Save Lives and Livelihoods
By Atreyee Kar
Prafulla Chhatria lives in the small village of Beherabahal in Odisha, India with her husband and her four-year-old and two-year-old sons. Like most families in the village, Prafulla and her husband would migrate over 200 kilometers to work as daily wage laborers in the fields for six months. They spent the rest of the year home in Beherabahal, surviving on meager earnings from personal farming and odd jobs.
However, the family faced a crisis when Prafulla’s younger son became sick, regularly suffering from bouts of fever, hiccups, and convulsions. Needing to provide her son extra attention, it became difficult for Prafulla to continue migrating to earn. As the family’s earnings decreased, their sons’ medical bills increased, worsening the household’s financial condition.
In 2016, Prafulla became a participant in the Mobile Connections to Promote Women’s Economic Development (MPOWERED) project implemented by Trickle Up in partnership with Tata Communications. MPOWERED aims to ensure that the world’s poorest women are included in the global information revolution, and in doing so, make a significant and replicable contribution to eradicating extreme poverty. MPOWERED provided smartphones to 1,000 women living in extreme poverty in Jharkhand and Odisha, India. The phones were loaded with a specialized app developed to support participants in real time as they began earning an income through farming, livestock and shop keeping.
Through the project, Prafulla received a seed grant of INR 3000 (US $75) and a smartphone. She started cultivating long beans, eggplants, tomato and bitter gourd on a small patch of land she owns. Prafulla used the coaching app, which includes audio-visual instructions for each crop, to grow and market organic products. Today, the profits from Prafulla’s produce pay for her son’s medical costs while her husband helps the family make ends meet through wage labor.
“Thankfully, I am able to afford his healthcare now. Whatever I earn from selling the vegetables goes towards my younger son’s medical costs,” says Prafulla. “I have to spend at least INR 1000 (US $15) a week on his medicines as his condition is chronic. If not for the regular source of income I have now, I don’t even know how I would manage such a large sum of money.”
Personal ownership of a phone became an important asset for participants facing emergencies. For instance, a sudden and potentially devastating crop infestation threatened the crops in a nearby village. By immediately contacting field staff, participants received quick advice on organic pesticides that saved the crop and the livelihoods of many.
In Prafulla’s case, the emergency was her son’s health.
“I am grateful for the phone,” says Prafulla. “In cases of emergency with my sick child, getting in touch with the Asha Didi or the doctor has become so easy now. I can explain symptoms over the phone and we can take immediate measures to keep my child safe until we reach them or they reach us. That has been a boon.”
Prafulla belongs to the “Nari Shakti” Self-Help Group, which has been a major source of support during tough times. The group has stood by her during the struggles with her son’s health, always lending a helping hand or showing support when she needed it most. Given the medical costs, she has not yet been able to invest in other livelihood options nor scale up her produce, but she remains confident.
“It feels I will soon be on my way to improve my financial condition,” says Prafulla. “I just want my children to have a healthy life. They should never have to face the kind of challenges I struggle with every day. I’m confident that I will be able to do that much for them.”
In 2016, Kuntala, an extremely poor mother of two, became a participant in the M-Powered project. Today she is the president of her savings group and cultivates vegetables and raises livestock. Read how she is breaking the cycle of poverty.