Coir brushes, smart phones – How a small rural community found a market

The human connection, and the grassroots involvement is a preamble to this story which was published this month in LMD Magazine.

A few months ago I interviewed a program manager at a major grass roots organization in Sri Lanka. Isura Silva’s story is fascinating. It’s about a pilot project involving smart phones in a very small village in Kurunegala, about 45 miles from Colombo.

The project, by Sarvodaya Fusion, put 21 Google Nexus phones in the hands of the entrepreneurs, because -despite a very high penetration of mobile phones in Sri Lanka –that village wanted education, and the ability to digitize the information they were generating.

The ‘information’ in this case was details about the coir brushes that they were making on very (very!) small scale. Tweaking the laws of demand and supply effects are not enough for a product to achieve scale. If no one knows you have an awesome product, no one wants to buy, and you could remain a small business forever.

Soon the producers were photographing their coir products and uploading it to a Facebook page, using the smart phones. Within a short time, a major marketing and distribution company, Hayleys Exports (which exports textiles, tea, construction material and coir products) had seen the product and began a conversation. They agreed to buy one million items a month.

Was it the power of a smart phone, or the power of conversations they enabled?

Smart phones are opening up a dialogue with those involved in much more than e-commerce.

In another town, Fusion holds blogging classes, and in another, they show young adults how to use a phone to teach themselves English.

Outside Sri Lanka this model is being tested by grassroots organizations using mobile technologies. UNESCO and Nokia held a Mobile Learning Week in Paris in 2011. Stanford and USAID has a program known as mobile 4 education 4 development.

While all this is going on, Silva is busy trying to find the next big thing for his organization,and how it could further mobilize the grassroots. He accidentally stumbled on Twitter, and has some ideas on that, but that’s a different story.

One thought on “Coir brushes, smart phones – How a small rural community found a market

  1. Angelo… The mobile phone wielding tuk-tuk drivers across Asia will confirm that technology is only an enabler. If I may steal a line from McLuhan, I’d argue that the Google nexus phone is the “juicy piece of meat” that “distracts the watchdog of the mind.” IMO, the value is not in the technical capabilities of the device but in the dialogues that it facilitates, the worlds that it shrinks and the minds that it opens to all that is now possible that was once beyond comprehension.


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