Absorption of information and communication technologies (ICT) has become the key for micro enterprises to evolve into growing sustainable businesses. However, digital adoption among businesses has been uneven across sectors and the persisting digital divide poses a serious challenge for India’s rural population.

It has also been documented that the gap in accessibility arises out of the differences in factors such as income, location, gender and age. These variations underscore the need to identify target groups more clearly and design tailor made decentralised programmes.

Women in particular often have less access to digital technology than their male counterparts. Thus, there exists a need to increase access to information and communication technology among women in rural areas as the spread of ICT ushers gains only if people having access to technology also have the requisite skills for making optimal use of it. Adoption of ICT by micro and household enterprises managed by women will be significant in influencing livelihood outcomes in semi-urban and rural areas.

Enhanced ICT access for women and increasing their participation in digital entrepreneurial ventures helps increase competitive power for the microenterprises and improve earnings of rural households. Further, an important dimension of empowerment that assumes relevance in a technology driven era is the role of ICT based entrepreneurial activity by the women.

IIT study

IIT Madras’ evaluation of digital literacy-training programme to empower around 57,000 women and youth in Tamil Nadu reveals interesting facets. The training enabled them to use digital technologies to carry out their business/enterprises. Ensuring that the target group goes through a well-structured course helped them become digitally literate, specifically in the efficient use of smart phones. The target group assumed significance as access to and use of mobile telephony and internet was expected to increase incomes of low-income populations and help them to move out of poverty.

The digital training imparted to rural communities has created a number of tangible and intangible benefits. It has greatly influenced the way individuals socialise, create and exploit economic opportunities and knowledge resources thereby impacting empowerment of rural communities.

Smartphones have eased the access to information, in addition to raising monthly family income, expanding occupation/business, finding potential clients, increased social status, created opportunities for learning and developed socialisation.

Young participants benefited more than older members as the training helped them to use smartphones for educational purposes. In terms of the time spent, we found that smartphones were used more for social and entertainment purposes than for economic purposes.

The use of smartphones as a way to connect with the online world is increasing along with the emphasis through various initiatives in technology to bridge the digital divide through “digital literacy learning”. The long-term goal of the training should be to enable the use of smartphones for personal and social emancipation. Three outcomes can be identified towards achieving this.

First, as a short-term outcome, these trainings lead to the use of features and Apps on the phone. This is the starting point of the causal linkage chain.

Second, the intermediate outcome is the enhanced self-confidence and awareness resulting from the use of the features on the phone.

Third, the long-term outcome as training results in the use of various Apps for three aspects: (a) educational purpose, (b) social aspects and (c) generating economic benefits. In terms of the long-term outcomes at the micro level, the use of Apps lead to beneficial impacts on self-learning through videos and higher income from business and jobs, all of which could be termed as private/personal individual benefits.

At the meso-level, the use of Apps leads to better family networks and bonding. This has been facilitated largely through video call facilities. At the macro-level there are larger social benefits such as access to various government schemes and e-governance initiatives, which in the long term would result in more demand and the use of public goods due to the awareness created by the use of smartphones. This in our view would lead to increased empowerment of citizens, especially of women.

Given the demographic profile and labour market conditions prevailing, there exists a need to increase the scale and scope of digital training in India. We propose a three-pronged strategy for this.

First, as there exists variations in the benefits accrued across age, location of residence and income of the participants a more decentralised programme for training with community participation needs to be designed.

Second, there is a need to ascertain what specific barriers rural entrepreneurs experience before engaging in large scale ICT interventions and training for small businesses.

Third, In designing such interventions institutions need to take into account the medium-term nature of training programmes as a single one time training might not yield desired results. These could help in deriving benefits of the phrase ‘digital literacy’ in the broader sense of the term.

Gopalaswamy is Professor in the Department of Management Studies; and Babu is Professor in Humanities and Social Sciences, at IIT Madras