Research on ICTs for development has frequently pointed to shared access models as critical enablers of sustainable development and digital inclusion (Best and Maclay 2003, Corea 2001, Haseloff 2005). In development discourses, they are viewed as tools that most fit the demands of integrated development in resource strapped nations (Keniston and Kumar 2004). These provide fillip to communities residing, along a spectrum, on the verge of poverty to the verge of modernity. Literatures also discuss at length the specific challenges to this vision and the role of appropriate ICT in rural areas (Colle and Roman, 2003 Dragon 2002). While all of these make for strong arguments, ICT for D as small enterprises making small profits in rural emerging market regions merit little attention.
Programs such as n-logue provide a pre-packaged set of hardware and software applications to kiosks. Yet, our initial observations uncovered mismatches between the prepackaged offerings and their applicability in rural kiosks. For example, the video conferencing software is seldom used due to poor connectivity. Instead the web camera is often used to take pictures for a growing clientele. That kiosks can transform to small business outfits, even with a given set of applications, creating a commercial milieu of economic exchange has not engaged research curiosity.
One successful commercial model of shared access centers in rural areas has been the e-choupals. Here, the corporate owner of e-choupals procures agri-produce directly from the farmer at current market rates digitally ascertained through VSAT connectivity. This win-win scenario keeps both client and owner happy and ensures few systemic failures and quick trouble shooting (Kumar 2004). It is interesting to notice how an extremely focused agri-market oriented use of rural kiosks, with steady infrastructural support, can make good profits without diversifying digital services. That said, our study looks at an alternate path to survival, based on diversification rather than narrow focus.
We selected 12 internet kiosks in rural Maharashtra, Western India, for a year of ethnographic study. Vigyan Ashram in the village of Pabal, Pune district, is an NGO devoted to extending vocational education to local youth. It donned the mantle of local service provider, LSP, for internet connectivity in village kiosks around Pabal, bringing ICT to energize social landscapes. A private company, n-logue, in partnership with Pabal LSP, sets up infrastructure for wireless internet connectivity, supplying the entrepreneur with hard ware and soft ware packages, working out financial arrangements by which both parties share and mange income from kiosks. The idea of this partnership, apart from bringing IT to rural regions, is to steer growth of kiosk/internet users, supporting financial viability, aggregating demand and developing rural ICT savvy communities.
We are half way through our ethnography. The plan was multi fold. To locate and map socio-economic lives of kiosks,
several data collection schedules were formulated to record monetary gains/losses of kiosks, profile kiosk operators as social actors, and undertake surveys of communication ecologies and socio-cultural profiles of villages. The idea was to arrive at a comprehensive picture of rural contexts in which kiosks operate and ways in which operators develop a sense for business opportunities in composite and digitally immature communication ecologies. This breadth of study also affords a structural view of village communities, the interrelationships between village infrastructure and changes occurring from state policies and developmental incursions, and consequential impacts for socio-economic and consumption patterns.
We conducted in-depth interview sessions, ranging between two to four sessions per KO in the 12 Kiosks; during the study, 10 of their kiosks were functional, and two temporarily closed. Our initial work was around collecting base line information about the beginning of each kiosk, the motive behind investing in ICT, and the kind of financial and social support structures prompting this decision. We detailed services offered in kiosks, those that make and not make money, potential for expanding business and strategies adopted to run the kiosk. .We profiled KO’s and social contexts in which they live and run their Kiosks. These include social positions of these individuals, family status, economic class/ landed status, educational levels and attitudes towards pulling technology into business.
In addition, we interview two to four users and non-users of kiosks in each of the 12 villages (we have completed 20 such interviews). These interviews support and go beyond base line data about what services are most valued, reasons for the popularity of kiosks other than the services it provided. The personal/social aura of KO’s was cited as pull factors by some respondents.
Apart from core interviews, we profiled the communication ecology and ethnography of villages hosting kiosks. This aided in locating the immediate and surrounding socio-economic contexts of kiosk business. Details of village geography, social structures, economic/agricultural patterns, water and electricity resources, migration, literacy/occupational levels and other demographic details were collected.
Recording village communication patterns and presence of mass media were crucial to our study to give us a sense of the demand for communication, news, entertainment and opportunities for kiosk business. These included an actual count of telephones, land line and mobile, approximate readership of newspapers, cable TV connections, usage of postal services, estimates of audio-visual merchandise consumption and how do migrants keep in touch and transfer money. Data was collected to get an idea of popular TV channels, soap operas and mega serials. It is evident that communication ecologies are a composite mix of media, personal/impersonal and formal/informal.
Data collection for profiling villages came from official and unofficial sources. The village panchayat, telephone exchange