DoctHERS-in-the-House: Improving health care for low-income women in Pakistan

Dr Sara Khurram is a young doctor from Karachi. In 2012, she got pregnant, and this led her to quit her residency and stop her medical career.

Sara’s story is common among Pakistani female doctors. While 80 percent of medical school graduates are women, only 25 percent ever practice medicine. Pakistan being a conservative country, many have to stop working once they get married or start having babies. That’s how an estimated 9,000 trained female physicians end up staying at home.

Pakistan’s medical crisis

This home restriction phenomenon puts an additional pressure on Pakistan’s collapsing medical system. With only 0.74 doctors for 1,000 people, active physicians are overwhelmed, and of course, this has a negative impact on the population’s well-being.

Pakistan is still struggling with poliomyelitis as well as with a high rate of stillbirth and tuberculosis cases. Moreover, the examples of malpractice and medical negligence are numerous. In Lahore, for instance, a toddler with a small burn on her hand passed away after a doctor injected her with too much anesthesia. A teenager had his appendix removed when in fact he was suffering from colon cancer. And every day, newborns with jaundice symptoms are misdiagnosed, making them either deaf or brain-damaged.

The main victims of this predicament are the 56 million Pakistani who earn less than three dollars per day. Whenever they get sick, they are left with three choices: get no treatment, go to an insalubrious public hospital, or visit the often unskilled local doctor. For pregnant women living in poverty, the situation is even more dramatic, as many refuse to be examined by a male doctor. Therefore, 95 percent cannot access quality health care; and in the countryside, 1 in 5 mothers dies every day, because she delivers at home, in an unsafe environment.

Bridging the gap between female doctors and female patients

While expecting her baby, Dr Sara Khurram had to spend most of her time on bed rest, and she was doing a lot of thinking. In particular, she thought about her own situation and the current medical crisis.

One day, she came up with a clever idea to circumvent Pakistan’s main socio-cultural barriers: she would open a telemedicine clinic! Thus, female physicians could stay at home, and yet, provide poor women with primary and OB/GYN cares. To lower the risk of misdiagnosis and enhance the human interaction, the young woman decided to rely on Lady Health Workers.

In Pakistan, there are about 90,000 of these community-based women, and they play a key role in preventive health care. Dr Khurram, therefore, thought she could hire some of them and train them further to assist the physicians.During an ante-natal visit, for instance, the nurse would conduct the patient’s examination, and since the entire consultation would be video-conferenced, the doctor would not only supervise her assistant. She would also see in real time what appears on the monitor, and thus, give accurate medical counsel.

At the time, considering opening a virtual clinic was a bold idea. For sure, telemedicine had been spreading across the world for a while. But it was far from having reached Pakistan, and it is well known that many people in the country are wary of ICTs. On the other hand, mobile penetration was already high (85 percent), and Dr Khurram believed mobile and video consultations were workable in most regions.

“On the seventh day, one patient came in”

It did not take long for the young woman to take the leap and give her ‘DoctHERS-in-the-House’ project a try. To test its feasibility and sustainability, she decided to start a pilot in Naya Jeevan‘s health center of Sultanabad, a conservative slum of 250,000 people in Karachi.

In May 2013, everything was ready, and Dr Khurram could open her virtual clinic, the first telemedicine facility in Pakistan. “For six days, she said, not even one patient came in; […] but on the seventh day, one patient came in.” Since then, the clinic has always been full, encouraging the young woman to hire more doctors and replicate her model throughout Pakistan.

It has turned out that video-conferencing is not an obstacle for the female patients. In fact, since DoctHERS-in-the-House started, women have been thrilled by this new type of consultation. For sure, they are happy to pay 50 percent less than they would do for an in-person visit. But what satisfies them the most is the good quality of the care they receive. In Sultanabad only, DoctHERS-in-the-House have provided 500 women with ante- and post-natal care. For 14 percent, they anticipated medical complications and sent their patients to a hospital, where they could get a safe delivery.

And this has certainly saved a few lives!

Overcoming School Failure in Rural Sri Lanka with Shilpa Sayura

niranjan_wk_464_DSC_5748

In Sri Lanka, the school is free, and the country has, therefore, an excellent educational record. Basic literacy rate is one of the highest in Asia, and the teacher-pupil ratio is up to 1:20.

And yet, when looking at the smaller picture, the situation turns out to be less glowing. In 2011, a study showed that 20 percent among the rural poor never make it to secondary school, dropping out before Grade 5.

This is in part due to financial reasons, as many rural parents cannot meet the hidden costs of their children’s education. School failure also comes from a lack of qualified teachers and educational resources. Ill-prepared, a majority of students fails to pass the junior high school entrance examination.

Helping his daughter out

In 2004, Niranjan Meegammana witnessed his daughter’s failure at school. His family used to live in a rural town, but at the time, he was working in Colombo. He could not provide daily support to Poornima, and her academic performance slipped.

Had Niranjan been uneducated, the girl would have never got to junior high school. But her father was the first person in his village to ever graduate from college, and he believed education was important. As he could not afford private tuitions for his daughter, he turned to the Internet.

The Shilpa Sayura journey

Being a web specialist, Niranjan had heard of e-learning, and he decided to give it a try. He created an online course based on his daughter’s textbook. Immediately, Poornima’s grades improved. At the end of the school year, she passed her O level exam, and she was even top of her class.

Niranjan was impressed by her daughter’s achievement. He also started believing he could help other rural kids succeed in their studies. He made the leap in 2006; it was the beginning of the Shilpa Sayura journey. A few dedicated teachers got involved, and together, they designed an innovative e-learning program. Eight years later, their impact on rural education in Sri Lanka has been unprecedented.

Educational pragmatism

In 2006, Niranjan’s priority was to improve the learning experience of the students. Being a practical man, he decided that all the lessons would be in Sinhalese and Tamil, Sri Lanka’s primary languages. He also adapted the content to the local context and developed interactive movies and animations to make studying more exciting for these rural kids.

In a country where the national curriculum is based on the British teaching model of the 1950s, the Shilpa Sayura method was somewhat of a revolution. But for the students, it made the difference. They could not only relate to the content; they could also study at their own pace, either by themselves or with their friends. As a result, they have become more engaged in their studies, and the retention rate has skyrocketed!

Reaching the rural youth

Niranjan’s other achievement is to have actually reached the rural youth. In that respect, the partnership with the “Nenasala Telecenters” has been a critical move.

These Telecenters were launched in 2005. It was an initiative of the Prime Minister who aimed at expanding the access to ICTs. There are now 700 Telecenters, and they are disseminated throughout the country, even in the most rural areas.

Today, the Shilpa Sayura program is available in 150 Telecenters. Students are free to come and use the computers to further train themselves or upload the materials onto their SIM card. And since there are more than 14,000 lessons and 7,000 tests covering both the primary and secondary curricula, Telecenters have become highly popular!

New opportunities for the rural youth

Since 2007, 80,000 young people have taken part in the Shilpa Sayura program. And everywhere, grades have improved.

In Siyambalanduwa, for example, the pass rate for the O level exam in mathematics has increased from 51.2 to 78.2 percent. In Lahugalla, a war-affected and poor village, some two students got a high distinction for their results in math. And in Thalakumbura, young priests even managed to pass the examination for national school.

As for Poornima, she made her way to college, developing over the years amazing creative skills. In 2011, she became an Adobe Youth Voices scholar, and she recently produced an award-winning short movie on child soldiers in Sri Lanka!

SafeCity: Mapping Sexual Violence in India’s Public Spaces

safecity-in-india

Examples of similar indecent behavior abound from all around India. For women, going outside is often a nightmare: it exposes them to men’s comments, catcalling, harassment, and even abuse.

While traveling in the bus, the man standing behind me was trying to touch me.

According to the Crime Record Bureau, a sexual assault occurs every three minutes throughout the country; and every 20 minutes, a woman is raped. How frightening these figures are, they are largely underestimated. For decades, many victims have had no choice but to remain silent. Even now, 80 percent of them have never been to the police. They fear retaliation; or they believe the authorities will not deal with their complaint.

Mentalities are changing

It took a tragic incident in New Delhi for the mentalities to start changing. On December 16th, 2012, Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 23-year old physiotherapist intern, went to the movie with her boyfriend. On their way back home, it was dark already, and six men attacked them. The man was beaten; the girl was gang raped. She never recovered from her injuries, and two weeks after her ordeal, she passed away.

This tragedy shocked the collective conscious of India. In the following days, thousands of people took to the street to protest against what some call an epidemic of rape and sexual abuse.

Else, Surya, Saloni, and Aditya — four young social entrepreneurs — were outraged too. Soon, they wanted to act, and they suggested to tackle the issue using a crowdsourcing model. They had heard of the HarassMap initiative in Egypt, and they agreed to develop a similar project in India.SafeCity was born.

Breaking the women’s silence

SafeCity’s top priority is to break the victim’s silence. A culture of quiet acceptance has expanded over the years in India, and it has created a vicious circle. Too often, the perpetrators never get prosecuted, which increases a sense of impunity amongst them. After a while, some tend to move on from indecent behavior to sexual assault. That’s why SafeCity aims at encouraging women to share their personal stories, at least on the Internet.

Else and her friends have designed an easy-to-use platform, and the victims don’t even have to reveal their name. For sure, anonymity makes it difficult to verify the testimonies; on the other hand, it helps the women to speak out. And it has been effective. Since the website was launched in December 2012, more than 3,500 people have reported experiences of sexual violence in the public space. This includes: verbal comments (1,847 stories), touching/grouping (1,109), sexual invites (300), and rape/assault (83).

Prevention

The only requirement for the user is to enter the time and exact location of the incident. The data are, then, aggregated to highlight local trends and map the unsafe areas. This enables women to check the safety rating of their destination before deciding to go there.

SafeCity’s founders claim that this is critical, as harassers and abusers tend to stay in their “comfort zone.” For example, in April 2013, a photojournalist was gang raped in an isolated compound in Mumbai. It turned out that the group had already perpetrated four rapes at the same place. Had the victims reported these crimes, the girl’s employer would have probably not sent her on an assignment there.

What is more, the administration or the community could have taken action. To induce the local authorities to do something, SafeCity’s founders have tried to involve them as much as possible. In Bandra, Else collected several stories of sexual violence in a 10-street area. After she showed them to the local police, they responded by changing patrol times. They also had the street lighting repaired and CCTV cameras installed in key locations.

A first step towards positive change

Of course, some could say this initiative is a drop in the ocean. In India, only 130 million people have access to the Internet, and in the countryside, the penetration rate is low.

Well aware of this digital divide, the founders of SafeCity have, thus, taken action at various levels. They launched an awareness campaign in Mumbai and Delhi and organized workshops in universities. In the near future, they plan to enable women without Internet access to report incidents using their mobile phone.

For sure, SafeCity will not put an immediate end to the issue of sexual harassment and abuse on the streets of India. But if women start speaking out, we can hope the change will come.At last.

Can E-learning Solve the Education Crisis in Pakistan?

pakistan

In Pakistan, school is compulsory for every child between 5 and 16. In reality, the law is not enforced, and the country will not meet the Millennium Development Goal of achieving universal primary education by 2015.

Pakistan’s Education Crisis

Over the past decade, education has been a low priority for the Pakistani governments; and economic poverty, natural disasters and religious extremism have further worsened the situation. With 5.5 million out-of-school children, Pakistan has the second worst performance in the world when it comes to enrollment (after Nigeria). Of course, disadvantaged girls are first to drop out: in 2013, 66 percent did not receive any education at all…

For children enrolled in government schools, the prospects for the future are almost as bleak. Public education is in a disastrous state, and student achievement is outrageously low. 36 percent of the 10-year-old pupils cannot read a sentence in English, which they are supposed to learn at 7; and, in the underdeveloped Balochistan province, only 45 percent of the primary school graduates can solve a two-digit subtraction.

The Whole System is in Danger of Collapse

Pakistan is confronting an acute education crisis, and the whole system is to blame. The curriculum does not meet international standards; and the lack of investment is blatant at both the federal and state levels. In 2013, total allocations for education amounted to just 1.9 percent of the country’s GDP. This was the lowest rate in South Asia, and only seven other countries put less money in their education system.

In practical terms, this means that the teachers are not paid enough, neither are they well-trained. It is not surprising, then, that Pakistan has to deal with a massive shortage of teaching staff. To make the public education system work, there should be at least 100,000 extra instructors…

smartmath

Britannica SmartMath

Bilal Shahid is a Director at Tech Implement, an innovative IT company founded in 2005 in Lahore. For this e-learning specialist, the country’s education crisis is a shame because it affects the least fortunate — those who cannot afford to go to private school.

In 2012, he decided to take action and approached the CARE Foundation, the largest education NGO in the country. Shahid intended to carry out an experiment to improve the children’s skills in mathematics. The Tech Implement team would take the Encyclopedia Britannica’s e-learning tool called SmartMath, map it to the Pakistani syllabus and use it to train the students.

Displaying the questions as a game with stars to reward every right answer, this tool is especially appealing to the youth. Furthermore, SmartMath is adaptive and driven by the students’ actual progress. When they are consistent at answering questions correctly, they move to the next level. But if they don’t reach the proficiency target, they spend more time on the topic. SmartMath can even suggest remediation.

Leaning Against the Wind

In 2012, Shahid’s idea to bring an e-learning tool to the classroom was bold, as many people in Pakistan were still wary of ICTs. But the CARE Foundation that manages 225 public schools throughout the country welcomed the initiative. In August 2012, they started a pilot in five Lahore schools; by April 2013, they had expanded the project to 23 other institutions.

However, the teachers were not thrilled. They did not take e-learning seriously and were concerned that SmartMath would replace them in the future. Tech Implement spent a lot of time explaining that the tool was actually designed to assist them in their teaching practice. It took a while, but eventually everyone agreed to play the game. And, once the schools’ computer labs were properly equipped, the project could begin.

Or so they thought…

“They Were Scared of Holding the Mouse”

The beneficiary students were aged 8 to 13, and they all came from low-income families. With no computer at home, they had no idea how to use it. Some were even scared of holding the mouse! Again, Shahid and his team put the project on hold, this time to train 2,500 children in the basics of computer literacy.

Soon, the students were able to take their hour-long SmartMath session. And it was only a matter of weeks before they showed significant improvements. By the end of the academic year, they scored 8.73 in math, whereas other students got an average of 4.25. Moreover, the majority passed their final exam!

After two years of experimentation, SmartMath has therefore proven to be a viable solution to Pakistan’s learning crisis. And today, Tech Implement wants to scale up the project and train 15,000 additional students by 2015!

What do you think? Could e-learning solutions really help enhance students’ performances in a country like Pakistan? Are they sustainable in the long run?

The Status of ICT in Cambodia

Cambodian-computers

On June 26, 2014, Cambodia’s MPs approved the National Strategic Development Plan (NSDP) for 2014-2018. This ambitious document is the country’s blueprint for economic policy, and since it contains a full section dedicated to ICTs, this is a good opportunity to take stock of the current state of this increasingly strategic sector.

1. Why has Cambodia made the development of ICTs a priority?

Simply because ICTs can have a transformational impact and pave the way to Cambodia’s sustainable development. They can boost the economy both in the short and longer run. In 2009, the World Bank showed that using ICTs enable companies to increase their productivity but also that a 10 percent increase in the Internet penetration can contribute to 1.38 percent of GDP growth. On top of these economic benefits, ICTs can also improve the life of the most disadvantaged by granting them a better access to basic services.

2. How is the Cambodian ICT sector doing?

There is a paradox. Traditional information and communication services are of poor quality. Public postal services are unreliable; mass media do not reach 15 percent of the Cambodians; and only 3.96 percent have a fixed phone line. When you look closer, though, the picture is different. It turns out that Cambodia has been closing its technological gap by moving straight to mobile and Internet. In 2008, 3.8 million people had a cell phone; in 2014, there are 20.2 million SIM cards in circulation, which is a 130 percent penetration rate (regional average rate reaching 89 percent).

The Internet sector is also doing well. Six years ago, fewer than 10,000 Cambodians had a web connection, and it was extremely slow. Today 2.5 million people have Internet access at home, and an additional two million Cambodians go online daily using their smartphones.

3. How to explain this leapfrogging development?

There are two main reasons. First, the coverage is good in most regions, and this is because both the public and private players have invested in the telecom infrastructures — up to $209 million by 2015. Moreover, in the past decade, Cambodia has experienced a 7-8 percent economic growth per year. As a consequence, standards of living have risen, and the emergence of a middle class has attracted many operators. With the competition being fierce, both mobile and Internet subscription prices have been reduced.

4. To which extent have ICTs impacted the Cambodian society?

It took only a few years, but ICTs have already transformed the Cambodian society. On the economic level, they have boosted entrepreneurship: 2011 census showed that the tech industry was among the fastest growing in Cambodia. Moreover, ICTs have had a positive impact on other economic sectors, such as agriculture. In central Cambodia, for instance, Oxfam has been implementing an “e-agriculture” program. By providing rural women with a mobile phone, they have given them a tool to plan when to harvest, integrate with the national market and eventually increase their revenues.

On the social level, ICTs have proven they can be impactful as well, in particular by expanding the access to basic services. In 2014, for example, Women’s Media Center of Cambodia launched a radio show in order to promote maternal care in the countryside. To make sure they reach everyone, they decided to develop an Interactive Voice Response system. And it has worked: in only three months 4,500 people called to get information.

However, the most striking impact has been political as ICTs have helped further strengthen the Cambodian democracy. During the 2013 elections, many voters would check Facebook and YouTube to get not-censored reports. Despite some irregularities, the opposition party obtained 44 percent of the votes. Eventually, Cambodia’s Prime Minister who has been incumbent since 1985 had to agree to share some of its power.

5. Which challenges will the Cambodian ICT sector be facing in the coming years?

Among the many challenges, two stand out in the short run. First there is no consistent legal framework, which affects the industry as a whole. In September 2012, the government established the Telecom Regulator of Cambodia. However, since the Telecom Law has not been passed yet, the rules rely on a collection of somehow volatile and often flouted decrees. The second challenge lies in the current market saturation. In a country of only 15 million people, there are seven mobile companies and 24 Internet operators. Since Cambodians have no brand loyalty, experts believe the market will have to restructure soon, and this may cause some business turbulence in the coming years.

Can Mobile Technologies Solve Energy Poverty in India?

simpa

Geetanjali is a 20-year-old Indian girl; she comes from a poor family; and her dream is to open her own designer shop when she graduates from college. Thanks tomobile enabled electricity, her dream may come true much sooner that she expected.

Energy Poverty in India

Geetanjali lives in a slum near Bangalore, one of India’s biggest cities; and, like 75 million people throughout the country, her family has had to struggle with energy poverty for years. Where they live, there are actually electric lines; but their house was built without a permit and they could not get connected to the grid.

And, even though they could have accessed it, they would probably have experienced 8-10 hours of electricity cuts every, as it is often the case in the poor neighborhoods. In India, experts say that under-electrification hits about 80 million people.

Geetanjali’s parents do not have much money, and up to last year they would use kerosene lanterns to address their lighting needs after dark, whether it was for cooking, studying, sewing, or simply for eating. However, kerosene light was inefficient, lasted no more than one hour and caused strong indoor pollution. For Geetanjali, it made it very hard to study long hours after dark and in the longer run it would have been a major hurdle to her success.

Of course, her parents could have purchased car batteries. Battery-powered light is often brighter, and it would have enabled them to charge small devices too. For them, it was not the right solution, though. As fuel price has constantly increased over the past decade, car batteries have a cost too, and to some households, it can account for 30 percent of their spending. Besides, they would have had to go regularly to the charging plant and leave the batteries there for two days, which they thought was not so convenient.

Geetanjali’s parents wanted to go solar, just like their neighbors did a few years before. But, however convinced they were about the benefits of solar home system, they had to wait until October 2013 before they could switch to a solar solution when this was made possible by an innovative energy company called Simpa.

simpa2

Selling Solar Home System Like Cell Phones

Simpa was started in 2011 by two dynamic American entrepreneurs who strived to expand the access to off-grid solar solutions to the base of the Indian economic pyramid. To achieve this ambitious objective, they came up with a simple idea, which was to replicate the success of India’s mobile revolution in the energy sector.

In India, there are 850 million cell phones throughout the country, and it took less than ten years to reach both the richest and the poorest. According to Michael Marcharg, Simpa’s co-founder, the key factors to this incredible success were the fall in handset prices but also the pay-as-you-go model, which has enabled the lowest-income people to adapt their consumption to their actual revenues.

For Marchag, many disadvantaged households actually have the money to pay for the ongoing costs of a solar home system; but often they cannot make the upfront investment. They need time to raise the required funds and as their revenues are highly variable, they need to be able to pay as they go. This is why Simpa worked on a software solution that allows both progressive payment and flexible pricing.

Indian people can therefore get Simpa’s solar home system for a $20-40 initial payment. To have electricity, the users have to purchase prepaid cards of 50, 100 and 500 rupees, on which there is a code. With this simple code, they are able to activate the whole system and generate as much power as they prepaid for.

simpa3

By purchasing these energy credits, Simpa’s customers do not pay for the light only; they also pay down the cost of the product itself. To most people, it takes them three to five years before they can reimburse the full purchase price; but once it is done, they own the solar home system and can enjoy free electricity for 10+ years.

For low-income households, this progressive payment model makes all the difference, and it is not surprising that Simpa expects to reach more than 60,000 Indian households by 2015. Taking the example of Geetanjali, her parents could indeed afford to pay outright for Simpa’s solar home system; and, for 100 rupees only, they can now get electricity for one or two weeks in a row.

For them, life is much easier. They can power their home with 25-50 watts lamps, but also charge a cell phone, a fan, a mixer or even a television.

As for Geetanjali, she can now practice painting and sewing until midnight, maximizing her chances to achieve her dream!

How Mobile Phones Can Illuminate Rural Cambodia

kamworks

Have you ever been to Cambodia? If so, have you noticed that everyone there has a mobile phone? Whether you are in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap or even in the countryside, you’ll find people talking on their cell phone all the time.

Mobile Technology for Development

As in other developing countries, mobile penetration is very high in Cambodia. More than two-thirds of the populationuses a cell phone on a regular basis, and there is a pretty good GSM coverage in most regions.

For the country, which is one of the poorest in Southeast Asia, this is very good news, as it may contribute to a sustainable development momentum. Mobile phones have proven to be a great technology to empower the Base of the Pyramid in other countries, and there are benefits that you may not even imagine. For instance, did you know that cell phones can help people have a better access to electricity, even in the most remote rural areas?

In India, Simpa Networks has developed a Pay-As-You-Go model to enable 60,000 off-grid households to buy solar home systems by 2015. In Cambodia, a project using mobile technology has recently been started by Kamworks, a social startup whose objective is to bring innovative solar energy solutions to the rural poor.

Electricity Situation in Rural Cambodia

The need for affordable and accessible energy is huge. Today, 10.5 million Cambodians live without grid electrical power. Experts say the situation is particularly critical in rural areas where nearly 70 percent of the households have no access to electricity. Why is it so?

In many regions, there is no grid power at all; and, where people could be connected, they often cannot afford it. Most villagers have no choice but use kerosene lamps or car battery-powered lights. In the longer run, unfortunately, these products are not only expensive, but they are also inefficient, dangerous, unhealthy, and polluting.

Solar Energy Solutions

When Kamworks was started in 2006, the idea was to offer sustainable alternatives to the rural people; and this is why the company’s founders opted for solar solutions. With an average of five hours of full sun each day, Cambodia is a perfect place for solar lanterns and home systems. In addition, since fuel price has increased over the years, solar technology has become more and more competitive as its price has fallen. Then economic benefits of solar have proven to be real and short-term as well as long-term.

Difficulties usually arise, though, when it’s time to pay for a solar system. While many villagers are willing to buy solar products, the majority cannot afford the high up-front investment. To solve this issue and enable its customers to have access to solar power, Kamworks has had to be creative over the years and develop various business models. In 2007, it started renting products, and this has turned out to be among the most effective solutions. Yet there is still a major problem: higher collection costs for the company, and sustaining such a model was difficult in the long run.

Today, the answer will come from cell phones and mobile payment technology. Customers renting Kamworks’ solar home systems will soon be able to pay for the rental fees through their mobiles. For the company, this will be easier to manage; and for the customers, as they won’t have to pay upfront for the product any longer. So they will be more likely to make the leap, and go solar for their electrical needs.

Access to Energy is the First Step to Development

Of course, you could wonder, “Why is it so important to have power?” Specialists agree that access to electricity is actually a key to sustainable development. To put it clearly – where there is no light, both economic and human development goals are harder to achieve.

In Cambodia, night falls at around 6 pm. Keeping the light on until late weighs on villagers’ financial resources, and ultimately it can have an impact on livelihood, education and even quality of life.

But imagine – if the Base of the Pyramid had an easy access to affordable electricity, it could transform their lives. Children would be able to study in better conditions after dark; businesses would operate longer hours; and farmers could even have access to modern tools to produce more. Last but not least – they would stop poisoning themselves with kerosene-induced indoor pollution.

No wonder the United Nations placed the question of sustainable energies on the global agenda for the coming decade and we should celebrate innovations like mobile payments for Kamworks solar systems.

People with Disabilities Realize Their Dreams with Digital Divide Data in Cambodia

treng

When Treng Kuy Chheng looks back at her past, she wonders what she would be doing, had she not met Digital Divide Data (DDD), a non-profit organization whose goal is to empower Cambodia’s youth through digital training and employment.

Being Disabled in Cambodia

Chheng was born into poverty, and to make things worse she had polio when she was two. She survived but her illness left her with physical impairment and bleak prospects for the future.

Being disabled in Cambodia is often perceived as a tragedy and, among the estimated 700,000 Cambodians who are afflicted with disabilities, it is true that the majority do not fully enjoy their fundamental rights, and they often do not have equal opportunities for education or employment.

Chheng was rather lucky as her parents did not treat her differently from her siblings. In the morning she would sell vegetables at the family’s food stall; and in the afternoon she would go to school. However hard it may have been, it made Chheng believe in herself and her abilities. And the more the neighbors would stigmatize, pity or even discourage her, the more determined she was to succeed in life and not be a burden to her relatives.

This determination gave her the strength to look for employment after she graduated from high school. At the time, the economy was beginning to recover slowly, and landing the first job was very hard for everyone. For a disabled girl like Chheng, it was even more difficult, and, while she was searching for a professional opportunity, she experienced stigma, rejection, and discrimination. Before she started losing hope, she had the chance to meet with Digital Divide Data, which had been co-founded two years earlier by Jeremy Hockenstein.

Impact Sourcing

In 2000, this young American traveled to Cambodia as a tourist. During his stay, he was not only struck by the level of poverty in the country; he was also impressed by the eagerness of the youth to learn and struggle to build up a better life. They would take computer and English lessons but in the end there was no job for them and they kept being trapped in an endless cycle of poverty.

In the meanwhile, the world was going global, and international companies started outsourcing low-skilled IT jobs to India. Hockenstein was a business consultant at McKinsey, and it did not take him long to figure out that he could replicate this model in Cambodia and use it to promote employment and empowerment for the disadvantaged youth.

A Study-Work Program

DDD

When she joined Digital Divide Data in 2003, Chheng had hardly seen a computer in her life. She had to learn everything from scratch, but she worked hard and soon she knew how to turn a computer on, enter data and master fast typing. She was also trained in English and soft skills (e.g., team work, self-confidence, management). After six months, she was fully operational and became one of DDD’s data operators.

For four years, she worked six hours a day to transform physical documents into searchable and digitalized archives for publishers, libraries, and companies all around the world. For her work she was paid a fair wage but she was also granted a scholarship to study at Pannasastra University, one of Phnom Penh’s best universities.

A Stepping Stone to a Brighter Future

With 400 employees, Digital Divide Data is today the largest technology employer in Cambodia, and in the past 13 years its impact sourcing model has had a transformative effect on nearly 2,000 underprivileged young adults, 10 percent of them being disabled.

Working at DDD is always a stepping stone to a brighter future. After they complete the program, graduates are either hired by the organization or they move on to other companies, where they earn more than four times Cambodian average salary. With this money, they can support their parents and enable their youngest siblings to get a proper education. In the long run they break the cycle of poverty that has trapped their family for generations.

As for Chheng, she has managed to make all her dreams come true. She wanted to study; she now holds a Bachelor’s degree in accounting and an executive MBA. She wanted to have a job; she started as an accountant at DDD and for the past year she has served as the finance and administration manager of a large electronic company. She wanted to see the world; in 2013, she went to Canada to participate in the Global Change Leaders program.

At 29, this highly successful woman keeps having new dreams! Today she wants to change the public’s attitude towards persons with disabilities and create real job opportunities for them. She believes they have the ability; they just do it in a different way. Just like her.

Daniele Adler is a consultant in communications strategy in Cambodia