“A Primary Health Centre (PHC) in Jakhanian, Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh, had been shut for many days, with a lock always on its gate. Residents were unable to use PHC services, which range from treatment of minor illnesses to childbirths. This issue was reported on Ghazipur Mobile Vaani and forwarded to local health officials. Thirteen days later, a team of doctors, nurses, pharmacist, ASHA and ANM workers reached the PHC. Within days, they had treated 137 people and even helped a woman deliver a child.”
Mobile Vaani is an initiative by Gram Vaani, a social-tech enterprise led by Vijay Sai Pratap, an Acumen India Fellow with many years of experience in the telecom industry and Aaditeshwar Seth, associate professor of computer science at IIT Delhi. Starting as an automation and engagement tool for community radio, today Gram Vaani has a stack of voice-first participatory technology solutions front-ended by a volunteer network in 20 Indian states and five other countries: Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Namibia, and South Africa.
|The Mobile Vaani Tech Stack|
|Interactive Voice Response System (IVRS) based discussion forum, survey tool, and mobile infoline|
|Mobile app where users can access IVR content, contribute and share via WhatsApp/Facebook, and forward to non-smartphone users|
|Optical Character Recognition (OCR) platform to schedule, track & manage child vaccination programs |
|Q&A Voicebot trained on ML models to answer user queries in real time|
Discomfort with English, digital illiteracy, limited access to smartphones – several factors underlie the fact that mainstream social networks are not inclusive, or even accessible to a vast majority of Indians. While TV and radio have high penetration in rural areas, their content is pre-programmed.
Vernacular, voice-based media is far more accessible and has a gentler learning curve than reading/typing digitally. By making voice-based content interactive, available on demand and free, Gram Vaani aims to empower all sections of society.
How Mobile Vaani Works
1. The Content
Mobile Vaani consists of a mix of playlists, user-generated content (UGC) and reporter-generated content.
- Playlists: These are localised and need-based, either curated from trusted sources such as government advisories / NGOs, or studio-created by the Gram Vaani team. The content format is similar to Doordarshan infomercials, using radio drama-style storytelling to raise awareness about social matters and share information about government schemes, resources, agri-intelligence, etc.
- UGC: This consists of voice recordings by listeners sharing personal experiences, opinions, questions and concerns. These are vetted by Gram Vaani’s moderation team before being published.
- Reporter-generated content: This consists of local-interest news from citizen callers and on-ground workers
2. The Interaction
With the help of grassroots social workers and volunteers, Gram Vaani publicises toll-free mobile numbers through wall art, flyers, community notice boards, etc. People can give a missed call to these numbers anytime of the day; they will immediately get a callback and can start listening in.
The user interface is somewhat like dial-in radio with multiple channels running, each with a different theme. Pressing number buttons on the phone allows users to listen to pre-recorded content, switch channels, and record their own voice. They can ask questions, share personal stories, or raise concerns about local and social matters.
3. The Network
The Gram Vaani team and their partners work at the community level to translate online impact offline. One way is through Mobile Vaani clubs — group listening and discussion sessions — that run in 25 districts across Bihar, Jharkhand, MP, and NCR. Volunteers initiate discussions on policies and social issues and help people get a larger picture of things that impact their livelihood.
What People Are Using it For
“Technology is often seen as a means without deliberate ends. We’ve designed things the other way. Beyond enabling the sharing of media and information, we ensure that concrete action is taken for social justice by working with community volunteers and local institutions,” says Esha Kalra, a public health consultant who’s worked extensively with Gram Vaani.
The on-ground impact of Mobile Vaani falls broadly into three categories.
#1 Grievance redressal
Mobile Vaani gives a platform to marginalised individuals and those in media-dark areas to raise issues about their life and work. The Gram Vaani team and community volunteers listen to these first-person recordings and use the Share feature to send them on to concerned authorities, requesting redressal.
“We applied for a crop failure subsidy with the Block Development Officer (BDO) but he refused to accept our application without stating any reason… Mobile Vaani volunteers then helped us get the subsidy released when they interviewed the Block Development Officer for their weekly Janta Darbar program pushing for greater accountability.”A farmer from Jamui, Bihar
#2 Empowerment of vulnerable populations
Mobile Vaani runs issue-specific campaigns to create awareness about rights, entitlement, and legal protection for first-time tech users, particularly women and the less literate. For instance, they partnered with the Population Foundation of India to feature the audio version of the serial Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon (I, a woman, can do anything). The show highlighted powerful messages on breaking biases against women’s commitment towards work and family, women’s health, and family planning.
“Since the early days of my marriage, I was emotionally abused by my in-laws. I never felt like raising a voice against that and accepted it as my lot in life. The programmes on Meri Awaz Meri Pehchan showed me a new way. I shared my pain with one of the Mobile Vaani didis and she suggested that I voice my concerns to my husband. The didi and I also spoke to my in-laws about why their behaviour was improper. A lot has changed since then. My in-laws have started behaving well with me.”
#3 Knowledge sharing
To disseminate information and answer user queries, Gram Vaani has numerous IVR lines running round the clock, such as Shishu Darshan, Krishi Darshan, and COVID response. A particularly successful one is Kahi Ankahi Baatein, a free Hindi round-the-lock mobile infoline for youngsters to ask questions and share thoughts on sexual and reproductive health, relationships, violence, and consent. The program is supported offline through community radio partnerships, sessions in schools/colleges, and Mobile Vaani club discussions. Launched in 2014 in partnership with CREA, TARSHI, and Gurgaon ki Awaaz, the line is still going strong.
The Impact of Kahi Ankahi Baatein
- 350 calls on avg. per day
- Over 37,000 unique callers have dialled in 20 times each while engaging with the content for around 2 hours cumulatively
- 66% men | 31% women | 3% third gender*
- 9000+ questions received, of which ~33% are on sex & sexual health
- Examples of questions asked:
- कितने उम्र में सेक्स करना चाहिए (At what age should one have sex?)
- किसी भी महिला को उत्तेजना नहीं आती है तो क्या करें (What to do if a woman does not feel arousal?)
- Other topics: Menstrual taboos, sexual abuse, abortion, adolescent issues such as pimple cures
*Team Gram Vaani tells us that even 3% is significant in a semi/rural population, where they are a severely marginalised group
Monetising the Gram Vaani Platform
Like every social network, Gram Vaani partners with organisations for monetisation, offering opportunities for:
- Community research: Through IVR and Whatsapp/app-based surveys, collecting qualitative and quantitative feedback, and monitoring of user data to understand behavioural patterns
- Advertising and lead generation: Brand ads can be placed as part of the IVR flow and sponsored questions within studio-generated content. The CTA takes the form of “press this button if you want to talk to a product/sales agent.”
See full list of services here.
Going forward, Gram Vaani intends to venture beyond community media to address the challenges of climate change and agricultural distress.
Says Prof. Seth, “Technology is most powerful when put in the hands of communities. By giving them appropriate tools for communication, natural resource management, and livelihoods, we can help them take charge of their own futures.”
The THC Take
We dialled the IVRS numbers to experience Mobile Vaani firsthand. Here are some observations:
- Used as we are to fast visual media, IVRS initially feels slow. There’s no way to listen at 2x speed or skip ahead. This was a good reminder that what makes us impatient is empowering and curiosity-inducing for Mobile Vaani’s intended audience.
- There’s a learning curve in the first minute or so when a voice welcomes you and explains the various button actions. The experience is very similar to listening to the radio and calling the RJ to participate in the program.
- Listening to the UGC recordings, we are struck by how comfortably listeners share their voice notes. They introduce themselves, set context, and come right to the matter. It hit home that, given the chance, people will find their voice when constraints like language, tech, and money are taken away.
Such an interesting initiative! Never knew something like this existed. Thank you for throwing light on such wholesome and empowering ideas.
Thanks for going against the expected grain, and publishing content like this. Enlightening.
I’m glad to see such organizations being featured here. I’m especially impressed with their business model that doesn’t compromise on their core focus, a refreshing change from our mainstream unicorns who are still trying to find a way to be cash-positive.