Edtech in India

ByjusWhen broadband arrives, apps follow. Many initial uses of cellphones are for personal enjoyment (79% of time spent in India is on entertainment, search social and messaging). With time, however, other useful services involving health, education, finance and government services become popular.

As one example of this progression, the education technology (“edtech”) sector in India is now booming. The firm Byju’s, for example, has released an education app already downloaded over 14 million times (with 900,000 paid users). Byju’s uses innovative curriculum, such as a Bollywood dance troupe rhythmically moving to demonstrate the Pythagorean Theorem. If students don’t have a sufficient internet connection to download materials, Byju’s will send them a memory card with appropriate resources.

Byju’s boasts prominent investors including Sequoia Capital and Tencent and a valuation of $800 million.

India faces profound challenges in education: over half of fifth graders, for example, can’t read at a second grade level. The edtech sector is hoping to help.

Bridge International Academies

bridgeHundreds of millions of children have no school to attend. Hundreds of millions more attend schools with poor facilities, minimal supplies, and frequently absent teachers.

Because of this dire situation, a number of countries are experimenting with international private schools that focus on new technologies, broadband linkages, standardized curriculum, rigorous evaluation, and low cost.

The best known of these is probably Bridge International Academies, whose high profile is partly due to an august list of investors, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Omidyar Network, and World Bank. Bridge currently operates in five countries: Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia, and India. Over 100,000 students attend one of more than 500 Bridge schools. Bridge aims to educate 10,000,000 pupils by 2025.

Bridge provides teachers with a tablet that includes all lesson plans in highly scripted formats. Bridge rigorously collects data about teacher and student progress. Administrative cost are kept low due to centralization of many tasks; each school requires just one administrator with a smartphone app. Costs for students depend on region and economic status. In Uganda, for example, parents pay about $66 per year, which is much cheaper than other private schools and roughly on par with “free” public schools that require a number of purchases.

Bridge points to studies which demonstrate that its students out-perform public school children.

Simultaneously, private school networks — and Bridge International Academies in particular — are lightening rods for an exceptionally high level of controversy. Bridge has had periodic conflict with ministries of education, teachers unions, and other organizations with strong opinions about education.

Financial Services in Developing Countries

mpesaAround two billion people on the planet are “unbanked” — which is to say they have no access to financial services. Their transactions are all in cash. Any savings need to be hidden in their home. They are vulnerable to crime. They can’t earn interest. They can’t transfer money to others. They don’t qualify for loans.

Fortunately, new technologies are offering important opportunities, particularly through cell phones.

The best-known and most celebrated online financial service utilizing cell phones is M-Pesa, launched in Kenya in 2007. M-Pesa allows users to deposit cash into their M-Pesa accounts (usually via the ubiquitous cell phone agents that sell users minutes all across Kenya), store money, and transfer money to others. They can also pay bills, purchase air time, and in some cases buy products.

The service spread quickly in Kenya, and currently includes over 25 million active users (which is about the entire adult population of the country). A study of M-Pesa by MIT and Georgetown researchers concluded that between 2008 and 2014, M-Pesa was responsible for lifting 200,000 families out of poverty (about 2% of total households).

M-Pesa has also been launched in Tanzania, South Africa, Afghanistan, India, and several Eastern European countries — to mixed success.

M-Pesa also provides a platform for other services. For example, the Kenyan company M-Kopa sells personal solar systems for households that are lacking electricity. Payments for the system are made daily for a year through M-Pesa. If a payment is missed, the system is disabled until payments resume.


zipExpanding broadband enables many new opportunities in health, including telemedicine, distance education, data collection, and others.

It can also assist in logistics. One California company, Zipline, combines sophisticated drone technology with expanded communications coverage in rural areas of Africa in order to deliver lifesaving medical supplies.

In 2016, Zipline launched its initial service in partnership with the Government of Rwanda. Distant clinics in hard to reach areas (of which there are many in Rwanda) can send by phone a request for blood, medicine, vaccines, surgical supplies, or other pressing needs. A drone is sent carrying up to 1.5 kg, and releases the payload by parachute to a pre-determined area. The drones, powered by electricity, can manage a round trip of up to 160 km.

Centralizing storage of key medical supplies allows for lower inventories, better security, and safer storage (often requiring refrigeration).

Since operations began, Zipline has completed over 1,400 flights and 100,000 km in Rwanda.

Zipline has announced a major expansion into Tanzania, including four delivery centers supporting 2,000 flights per day to over 1000 clinics across the country. Flights are beginning in early 2018.

Digital Welcome Wagon

wagonWelcome Wagon: a welcoming service that provides information about a community to new residents.

— Collins English Dictionary

As the next several billion people come online, what would an appropriate Digital Welcome Wagon look like for them?

Currently, most people are handed a smartphone with some pre-loaded apps (determined by both the manufacturer and the service provider) and maybe some literature about their service plan. In some parts of the world this is supplemented with information about Facebook Basics. That’s about it.  (When I recently started a new service in Nicaragua, I also got instructions about how Facebook and WhatsApp don’t charge for data, and also immediately started receiving multiple text messages with “upsells” for more data, music services, and discounts at Pizza Hut.)

What would an ideal new online experience be for a new smartphone user? How about:

  • A welcome video in an appropriate language from a credible person to greet the new user;
  • A quick tutorial on five really useful basic services to know about (such as phone, texting, camera, weather information, calendar);
  • A curated list of one or two outstanding sites for news, health, education, finance, and government services;
  • What to do if you need help;
  • Simple tutorials for more information, including how to avoid problems with fake news, fraud, or other issues.

Ideally this would be developed and managed by either governmental or international organizations as to not favor any given corporation.

We’re soon being joined online by a few billion fellow humans. Let’s welcome them!


samaAnother innovative organization that supports global development — and relies directly on broadband expansion — is Samasource, a digital outsourcing firm. Samasource works with major corporations such as Google, Microsoft and Walmart, to identify digital tasks which can be done effectively and inexpensively in low-resource environments. Samasource has established programs in Kenya, Uganda, Haiti and India, hiring locals for tasks such as data cleaning, data enhancement, image annotation, localization services, and others.

Samasource, registered as a 501(c)3, believes that the best way to stamp out global poverty is to provide entry-level jobs for people currently earning just dollars per day. They focus on digital tasks that require relatively little training, and build in control systems to guarantee the quality of the work. They claim that since 2008 they have helped move 60,000 people out of poverty.


gdMany international organizations targeting extreme poverty rely heavily on internet access in remote regions to do their work. One impressive organization, for example, is GiveDirectly, a New York-based non-profit which provides direct, unconditional cash transfers to people in extreme poverty.

Anyone who has worked in global development can at times be frustrated by inefficiencies. For example, a taxpayer in the US gives money to the federal government, which gives money to USAID, which gives money to an international consulting firm, which gives money to a regional non-profit, which arranges contracts to build and manage a hospital, which serves poor people. Might it be better to simply skip all of the intermediaries and give money directly?

But if that happens, what will poor people do with the money? Waste it?

GiveDirectly explores the efficacy of unconditional cash transfers, as well as (more recently) programs of Universal Basic Income. They study whether it is better to give money to everyone in a community, or just the poorest?; women or men?; fewer installments or more?; shorter commitments or longer? How does performance compare to traditional aid programs?

GiveDirectly does an excellent job designing randomized controlled trials, as well as having work reviewed by third parties. The working conclusion of the cumulative research at this stage is that while unconditional cash transfers aren’t without challenges, they are highly effective in moving people out of extreme poverty. They are apparently more effective than most aid programs, and should at the least be used as a performance yardstick against which to measure all other development efforts (much like how a stock index fund can be used as a performance yardstick against managed funds).

In its five years since inception, GiveDirectly has transferred over $140 million to individuals, mostly in rural Kenya and Uganda.

In order to scale services, in 2014 GiveDirectly spun out a for-profit company called Segovia which provides to GiveDirectly — and any other customers — the platform used for transferring and monitoring unconditional cash transfers.

In addition to providing real-time performance metrics on their site, GiveDirectly also provides a live, un-edited feed of comments from recipients. Their site also offers and excellent FAQ section. The organization was also featured recently in an excellent New York Times review which provides a nice portrait of the impact GiveDirectly has at the village level.


internet-org.pngInternet.org is the Facebook funded and directed initiative to increase global connectivity. The name “Internet.org” confuses some, since it sounds like a neutral, non-profit initiative. It is in fact an initiative of Facebook. Current site branding refers to “Internet.org by Facebook”.

On launch of Internet.org in 2013, much of the media attention related to connectivity issues, in particular comparing Facebook’s Project Aquila (drones) to Google’s Project Loon (balloons). Internet.org continues to pursue new connectivity options (although with setbacks, including the explosion of a 2016 SpaceX rocket carrying an Israeli satellite to be used by Facebook in Africa).

More recently, Internet.org is more closely associated with the Facebook Free Basics program, which provides free access to Facebook and other selected content in over 60 developing countries. In these efforts, Facebook is simultaneously lauded for subsidizing access while criticized for restricting content. Facebook employs a system for deciding which third-party content will be included — such as wikipedia, wikihow, education sites, health sites (but not including content from direct competitors). Internet.org also offers access for app developers to the Innovation Lab at Facebook Headquarters in California. The lab mimics bandwidth and device constraints in many global environments.

Controversies around Free Basics became particularly intense in India, to the point where Facebook cancelled the service there in 2016.

Internet.org describes many legitimate motivations for expanding global broadband access. Its impressive progress, however, is also clearly in Facebook’s corporate interest. In many locales “Facebook” is synonymous with “the internet”. For example, Research in 2015 showed that 65% of Nigerians, 61% of Indonesians, and 58% of Indians agreed with the statement “Facebook is the internet.” (Only 5% of Americans agreed.)

Facebook’s penetration in developing countries outside of Internet.org and Free Basics also includes WhatsApp, which it acquired in 2014. In many countries WhatsApp is the dominant app for new users.

Facebooks metrics show that it is having great success penetrating new markets. Facebook grew from one billion daily users to two billion since 2013. Only 41 million of those new users are from the US and Canada.

Aadhaar Basics

aadhaarAadhaar is the Indian government’s resident identification number system which has registered about 1.2 billion Indians — nearly the entire country. While Aadhaar doesn’t directly relate to internet communications, it is both dependent on and enabling of many online services.

Aadhaar is a random 12 digit number that links to biometric data, typically a photo, ten fingerprints and two iris scans. Soon Aadhaar will include facial recognition services as well.

Registration with Aadhaar is voluntary, but so many government and commercial services are now linked to Aadhaar (welfare programs, pensions, banking services, mobile phone accounts, etc.), Aadhaar is used by essentially everyone in India.

Like any powerful technology, Aadhaar brings both profound advantages and significant risks.

An Aadhaar identification number allows Indian citizens — including its poorest — ready access to information and services heretofore unavailable. It increases efficiency and decreases corruption.

On the other hand, identity services such as this can lead to data breaches, fraud, and abuse.

Many countries are developing or refining their own identification systems. Aadhaar is currently the largest, and in many ways, most impactful personal identification system on the planet.

Digital Solutions for the Poorest Countries

ccWhen a poor country faces challenges with food, water, sanitation, health, and other “life and death” issues, it seems counterintuitive to prioritize digital programs for development.

Recent research, however, shows that digital solutions can be both cost-effective and enabling of broader progress. A recent Tufts University report, for example, shows the importance of digitization in driving economic success.

In terms of specific countries, the Copenhagen Consensus, a Danish think tank, recently consulted with the governments of Bangladesh and Haiti about the best way to prioritize development dollars. In each case an international team of economists reviewed 70+ possible uses of development funding, ranking interventions from most effective to least.

In both cases, two “digital solutions” emerged in the top ten recommendations.

In the case of Bangladesh, one priority solution was the development of an “e-procurement” platform to lower costs and corruption around an antiquated procurement service. A second recommendation called for digitizing the land records system to bring transparency and efficiency to inefficient processes.

In the case of Haiti, recommendations included supporting the increase of internet coverage to 50% of the population (from around 4%), and digitizing tracking systems at Haiti’s largest port.

Other recommendations by the Copenhagen Consensus were more predictable — such as investing in malnutrition programs, education efforts, and power sector reform. But the inclusion of digital solutions only highlights the importance of expanding broadband to the full planet.