Despite their close proximity, the four areas (Rudrapur, Arbelia, Taragunia and Punda) have developed distinct identities. Poor communication between these geographically distinct areas (in terms of transport, exchange networks, social relationships and so forth) was a notable feature that Nabanna recognized as a challenge. The goal of Nabanna was to encourage information and knowledge exchange amongst the women of the Municipality.
There were many reasons for Change Initiatives to choose Baduria as the pilot project for Nabanna. Among them were:
The geographical peculiarities and associated isolation and poor communication among the regions
Women are given education, but few opportunities exist for self advancement
Poverty is pervasive, with many people dependent on daily wage payment in the fields, construction sites or in brick kilns.
Nabanna is a Bengali word literally meaning first rice. Rice is more than a staple in Bengal – it tends to symbolise agriculture and food. ‘Nabanna’ is also the name of the festival that occurs when rice is harvested in November. Like many resources, even rice is at times out of the reach of some people. Nabanna’s vision is to energise the community in Baduria by empowering poor women to organise and use – to ‘harvest’ – information. To do this, Change Initiatives has set up a local network that combines social and technological elements:
The social network
Two to three women from each of the municipality’s 17 wards were identified as information agents. These women participate in ongoing information and communication training, forming the backbone of the network. Each information agent leads an information group, comprised of ten women who are recruited from their local neighbourhood. The information groups meet on a weekly basis.
The 60 odd information agents are largely either students or housewives (homemakers) reaching about 600 women in the region. The average age of the students is 23, while for the housewives it is 35. The average income of the families of this group is about USD 30 per month, which is barely enough for subsistence.
The information groups consist mostly of housewives, whose average age is 45. The average income of the families in this group is the same as that of the information agents. Some of the information group members are skilled in knitting and weaving. Bidi Binding, which is often an income generating activity that the whole family participates in, is very prominent in Baduria. Other family oriented work includes weaving.
Whether they work independently or as part of the family, women do not have direct access to the markets to sell their products. In most cases they sell it via an agency or other middleman. Our research with participants has revealed that the everyday lives of women in Baduria tend to be income centric, and their most commonly expressed concern is the betterment of their children. About 10-12 information agents use the training center each day and devote about two hours a week for training. They learn the basics of using a computer and simple software applications like MS Paint that help them to understand the language and layout of the computer and gain the skills they require in order to use other solutions like the eNRICH (a local web-based browser developed by UNESCO and NIC) content management system.
The women also maintain regular diaries, about their everyday lives as well as on topics fixed by the Change Initiatives team. Diaries have explored a huge range of topics and yielded a wide array of information. Information agents animate and take notes on discussions that take place in their information groups, simultaneously identifying topics and feeding information on a gamut of themes, which affect Baduria and its women. What emerges from analysis of diaries and discussion forms the basis for planning and developing content and information modules. The information gets channeled through the network in information group meetings, through regular training and special workshops and events and via the Nabanna tabloid.
Offline strategies are building up to the creation of online systems that animate and archive information and knowledge resources from local and non-local sources. The range of themes includes livelihood, health and education.
Change Initiatives has a small field team, known locally as the computer didis (sisters). The local team consists of a manager at Baduria ICT centre and four research assistants: all trained local women. There are also a number of local community volunteers who have been motivated and encouraged to get more involved in the network.
Alongside continuing her training, one of the information agents is now managing the ICT facility in Arbelia (her neighbourhood). Four to six women come each day to the Arbelia center. Poor women learn computers in batches of four.
Nabanna has made it possible for women to come together in an organised, non-partisan way and to create spaces in which to share and learn, use new tools and try out new ideas. The activities of the network allow them to reflect more deeply about their lives, situations and opportunities. The Nabanna women are now involved in researching and understanding the role of information and communication at the local level and they are starting to explore new strategies, tools and channels.
The technical network
The ICT centres with basic facilities (1-2 computers, printer) that provide the basic infrastructure, while eNRICH software solution is used for local content management. Nabanna, a tabloid-style monthly eight pages newsletter reaches about 1000 families, as an important offline resource for sharing and learning.
To facilitate information generation and sharing and information at local level, ICT facilities are planned in each of the four areas. The first ICT Centre was set up in two rooms in the municipality building. One room contains the computers while the other is used as a meeting and discussion space. This centre is the main hub for the network where much of the organising and all of the training has taken place to date. The centre has two desktops, one printer/scanner unit and dial-up Internet connectivity. The other three facilities will be nodal points for women who live in those areas. The smaller centres will each have one desktop and a dot matrix printer. The first of these ‘nodal’ centres has been established in the Arbelia area in a small room in an unused part of the local school.
Centres in the network are linked through different elements, both social and technical. The information agents themselves are the main link, and they use small portable hard drives with enough capacity to transfer up to 500 MB of information to share information and materials between centres. Another vehicle linking the network is the Nabanna tabloid newsletter. It is used to disseminate information about the network. Feedback suggests that one of the reasons for its local popularity is that it is explicitly for women. Women now pay two cents per copy. The cover price was introduced in an effort to cover some of the printing and production costs, but also to see how valuable women consider the tabloid to be. So far the tabloid has not seen any significant drop in circulation due to the cover price.
Building local capacity and contact
Nabanna has taken a learning-by-doing approach in which the women learn new skills in order to contribute to the development of the network and to create content. The main focus of skills training to date has been on computer literacy. Many women in Baduria are motivated to learn computer skills as they see it as a skill that will assist in gaining employment. It is also prestigious so that it is generally well perceived by the women’s families who might otherwise seek to restrict their education – in favour of marriage for younger women, and in favour of family and household chores and responsibilities for married women.
The information agents learn basic computer skills relating to word processing and desktop publishing applications. They learn how to input information data and how to search for content on the eNRICH system. Training begins with the basics: starting up and shutting down, how to handle the mouse and navigate around the computer’s system. Participants practice and develop basic skills using Paint brush, an easy, visual software tool that allows trainees to gain confidence with the equipment and to create something personal and tangible. To encourage trainees and build the sense of a community network, the project includes exercises like a competition to design birthday cards in which winners receive prizes.
Trainees then learn MS Word Pad, graduating later to Word. With perseverance most of the information agents have learned many of the nuances of MS Word. They appear to get maximum satisfaction in preparing their bio-data, using different fonts and colours. They create their own folders and keep their own files. The trainees have been excited by the calculation powers of MS Excel, amused and intrigued when they saw how easily accounting systems can be constructed using this sort of software tool. Information agents have also learned to use the I-Leap Bengali language font; the software allows users to type in Bengali using a special key-character layout as well as phonetically using the Roman alphabet and the standard keyboard layout. Although formal skills training has been largely in the domain of computer and software skills, the network has also fostered new skills in writing and information literacy, understanding what information is, how it flows within a given environment, and how it can be tapped for benefits.
Change Initiatives is partnering with the Baduria Municipality and UNESCO to use a dynamic participatory research process and the vision of developing a community networks through ICTs.
Nabanna has used the ethnographic action research methodology to inform their strategies for using ICTs to contribute to poverty reduction. Nabanna has responded and adapted to local needs based on their ongoing research. Initial broad research helped Nabanna to identify major themes for more targeted research:
Role of ICTs in the everyday lives of participants – Their views of ICTs, expectations, use of centres, how stakeholders see themselves in the community, what else they want from Nabanna
Sources of information and information dissemination – Diaries (internal source); public/private sector (external), Newsletter, eNRICH – monitoring dissemination
Features of centre that affect relationships with communities and users (eg, location) observed, for example, through the setting up of new centres
Main research methods used
In-depth interviews with different groups in the network
Participant observation and field notes
Of all the research methods, the self-documenting diaries kept by the information agents have proved to be insightful and interesting. The information agents use diaries to jot down their thoughts, ideas and observations. In some instances they write on free topics and at other times they write on topics the Nabanna team suggests. The diaries provide a window on the everyday lives and thoughts of women in Baduria. They demonstrate that the information agents have understood the importance of research; they use their diaries effectively by noting down important points when they get into informal discussions with community women. The diaries have been an important tool for identifying information needs and for generating content, feeding both the network’s information structure as well as the newsletter and the eNRICH database.
Insights into impact on poverty
One of Nabanna’s biggest achievements is having instilled a sense of personal empowerment among the participants. From hardly being recognised in their immediate social environment, many of the women report that they have gained more respect in their local communities as a result of their ICT skills and creativity – not just because they are able to use a computer, but also because they are now recognized as people who can find and distribute information to local people. The younger women feel they are able to approach the job market with greater confidence.
There has also been an emergence of solidarity – for as the women learn computers together at the ICT centres, they also often discuss their problems, creating a sense of unity among them and also bringing forth inherent and latent leadership qualities. Trainees in the centres are taking their skills back to their local neighbourhoods and in turn becoming teachers there. For instance, one of the trainees at the main ICT centre has been chosen to manage the Arbelia centre where she will train other women in computing.
The diary contents have helped Change Initiatives develop modules for the information sharing groups. The groups meet once a week to discuss issues such as livelihood, education, health, agriculture and wisdom. Using eNRICH as a framework, Nabanna is creating a database of localised information and is trying to partner with many outside agencies such as educational institutions, government departments and corporate entities.
A continuous process of content creation has been evolved in which the group discussions and observations adds to the content and the database. The community newsletter provides an impetus to sharing the knowledge acquired from these multiple sources. The orientation towards research and documentation has therefore been brought into the process at all levels.
As a result of Nabanna’s progress so far government organisations, corporations and educational institutes are showing an interest in building a web-based partnership with the women. The community has found that a more empowered, knowledgeable and confident women empowers her society by facilitating the process of collective decision-making at the family level and in the community. By gradually building capacity and basic infrastructure, Nabanna is enabling women to use information and communication tools to improve their quality of life.
Empowerment and expression
With increased capacity to learn and new spaces for networking over which they feel a sense of ownership, the participating women report feeling empowered. Nabanna activities have also motivated and supported self-reflection, expression and creativity amongst the women. Both diary writing and tools like Paintbrush have been instrumental in this process of promoting voice. Women are finding that the community-at-large respects them for being knowledgeable on skills and issues, which in some cases has given them a greater voice within their families. The project has led to solidarity among women who now share a free space for communicating, learning and innovating. The Baduria ICT centre is perceived as a place reserved for women. After acquiring computer skills, participants are now able to seek jobs with confidence.
The Nabanna network has supported the creation of new horizontal linkages. For example, connecting piecework embroiderers with bigger businesswomen across the community-at-large, facilitating new social connections and relationships. The network is perceived as a free, modern and innovative space, providing women with new opportunities and responsibilities.
Based on the needs and contributions of poor women, Nabanna is laying the foundations of an information network that recognises and promotes the value of local ‘indigenous’ information as well as those of external sources; participants are also the beneficiaries, therefore it can respond easily and effectively to local needs. Examples of information that gets networked include income generating opportunities, specifically who has what skills and who needs them; educational inputs, like what constitutes a correct answer in examinations and health like the availability of blood and beds in various hospitals in West Bengal. As the network develops further, more focused information on areas of greatest needs, for example income generating opportunities, microfinance, and specific education subjects, will be structured and fed into the network using eNRICH, the Nabanna newsletter and both online and offline training modules.
The road ahead: sustainability
Nabanna is predicated on building a series of interconnected relationships: between digital resources and human intermediaries, between the information agents and their neighbourhood groups, and between the local Baduria network and other information providers and markets. The project will continue to use ethnographic action research to develop strategies to apply ICT for poverty reduction. The overall strategy is essentially to focus on some critical areas that will take Nabanna closer to its goal of empowering women to make an impact on poverty. There is potential for women in Baduria to link producers and markets and make productive information inputs to income generating ideas. For example, some women entrepreneurs in Baduria outsource embroidery work to other local women. However, this has not been publicised and so many women are unaware of these income generating opportunities.
Nabanna is introducing such information through the network using eNRICH in the ICT centres, and the information agents. In this way, information shared and cooperatively organised could lead to and support a good source of employment and income for women. Linking up with larger business at different levels of commerce and industry will be the next step. Change Initiatives is also looking at markets for desktop publishing work for women who with support can train themselves in these applications. Micro-credit and agricultural information will also be incorporated into the network.