Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Part 1 was posted Jan. 9.

Saathis Google smartphoneIn 2013, when Google first came up with the idea of educating rural women to use the internet, it offered 3-to-4-hour-long classes in schools and community centers. Because so few women attended, however, the company switched to a pilot program closer to the people. They outfitted a cart with internet-enabled tablets that agents would transport from village to village and in many instances, home to home.

While this personalized approach was more comfortable for rural women, Google realized that they couldn’t just show up and teach internet access once — they needed to maintain a village presence. And thus, the Saathi Program was born.

Google also realized that most rural Indian men would not share their phones with their wives, and so began giving women free devices along with free monthly data plans. While saathis are required to be comfortable with English, many of their students are unable to read or write. Fortunately, that’s not a problem with Google voice commands. To ensure that women are regularly accessing the internet, Google call centers follow up with random calls.

The project is having great success. As of August 2017, Google had trained 25,000 saathis, who work in more than 100,000 villages across 10 states, with the goal of expanding to an additional 200,000 villages. More than 11 million women have been trained and a recent study by research firm Ipsos found that:

  • 90 percent have a better understanding of the internet
  • 25 percent continue to use the internet on a regular basis
  • 7 percent feel that their social standing has improved

Two of the more interesting items from the report deal with economics:

  • 33 percent of saathis think that their economic condition has improved by learning new skills.
  • Villages where training was conducted have experienced a 1 percent increase in income.

Becoming a saathi has had a positive impact on the financial well-being of women and their families. Saathis are paid between ₹4 and 8 per woman they train, and some have trained more than 1,500.

Access to the internet has also altered some female-dominated industries. Two that have been positively influenced are tailoring and beauty salons. Rural tailors regularly search the internet for new salwar and blouse designs, because they can sell such clothing for higher prices. Beauticians are also downloading beauty and make-up tips and images of hairstyles to offer customers a greater selection, at a high price.

Even “Mehendi,” the Ancient Indian practice of body art, in which decorative designs are drawn on a person’s body, is experiencing an increase in popularity and price. Female artists download designs from other parts of the country and apply them to customers for ₹50.

One group of women living in Uttar Pradesh thought out of the box and landed a contract from the Nielsen research firm. They conducted a survey of villages and shops concerning what products were being sold while simultaneously updating contact information. The women downloaded a list of 80 questions, carried them to the various shops and villages, filled in the answers, and then uploaded the results back to Nielsen. Easy, fast, and profitable.

Of course, Google isn’t doing all this work because it’s a swell company. Since most of Google’s revenue comes from digital ads, getting more people online enables the company to negotiate higher advertising rates with thousands of brands.

Saathis young girl with laptopIn an interview with, Neha Barjatya, head of Marketing and Digitizing Initiatives, Google India, said Google isn’t worried about the direct return from the initiative. “It’s very much to get these women online and the rest will follow,” she said. “We are only seeing how many villages and how many women are coming online, and how does it tie back into our Next Billion initiative.”

Knowledge of the internet and its offerings has also helped internet penetration throughout rural villages. Before the program began in 2015, internet penetration in such places was 10 percent. A recent survey shows that since implementation, penetration has increased to 17 percent.

The internet continues to expand and it is making a positive difference for billions of people. While a snap-shot of the nascent economic efforts of rural Indian women on the internet may seem small, the extra money does make a world of difference for a woman struggling to help feed her family. The real benefit of regular internet use comes in the long run as it opens new horizons for women and girls.

Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Part 1 was posted Jan. 9.