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Coding for Refugees, Calendar for Farmers: These Indian Women are Using Tech to Change the World

By: Rakhi Bose


Last Updated: March 08, 2019, 12:33 IST

Coding for Refugees, Calendar for Farmers: These Indian Women are Using Tech to Change the World

Programs like Facebook's SheLeadsTech, scholarships like Google's Women Techmakers and online platforms like Udacity are allowing women from diverse locations to learn new vocations in the field of tech and digital marketing and become entrepreneurs.

When Karnataka-based architect Priya Tolanavar had a son in 2016, she, for the first time, realised the environmental cost of having a baby. The joys of motherhood were blissful, but Tolanavar was constantly bothered by the non-biodegradable waste she was creating along with her little darling every time he pooped his disposable diapers.

With an architect's head on her shoulders, Tolanavar decided to design a sustainable solution to the problem. And thus was born 'Innate', a unique reusable diaper made of eco-friendly material that is both gently on the baby as well as the planet.

"There are so many ways in which we create waste. It wasn't until had first-hand experience of disposing my son's soiled diapers that I realised that used, non-biodegradable nappies form a major chunk of the garbage collected in landfills," Tolanavar said. To prevent herself from becoming a part of the problem, the young mother started using reusable cloth diapers for her children. When the results were unsatisfactory, she came up with her on variant.

(Innate founder Priaya Tolanavar)

"At first, I just made a prototype and started using it. I circulated it to my friends and family. The feedback was very positive so I decided to patent the product and upscale," Tolanavar said.

That's when the young architect from Hubbali decided to take her business online. She applied to the SheLeadsTech program by Facebook for women entrepreneurs. Enrolling in the program helped her become part of a network of women entrepreneurs and mentors, most of whom had fought all kinds of odds such as lack of support from families, children to support/care for, household chores.

"It is important for women to have spaces to connect with others with similar interests, especially in Tier 2 cities like the one I come from." Tolanavar, who launched a website to sell 'Innate' r reusable diapers in 2017 and is currently in talks with distributors to bring the product to markets, told News18. She also felt that an increase in women entrepreneurs from tier two cities will help bring more customer-oriented products in the market — products that cater to the needs of diverse niches of women.

Over the past five years, there has bee a growing number of women in the entrepreneurial and tech sector. In fact, just the Facebook SheLeadsTech program which incidentally started on International Women's Day two years ago with the aim to support women founded startups. In two years, the woman has given a platform to about 170 women entrepreneurs from 24 cities, all from diverse age-groups and backgrounds.

25-year-old Sai Gole, for instance, is an IIT-Madras graduate from Pune who has co-founded a 'The Lean Way'. She and her team have developed 'LeanNutri', a unique algorithm that provides a season-long calendar for farmers. The calendar, which is accessible to farmers via a mobile app, is personalized after collecting 20+ parameters from the farm. The calendar specifies step by step action to be taken by farmer based on scientific principles in order to increase farm yields and incomes.

"The idea was to increase earnings or those in unorganised sector with the use of technology. With this algorithm, we tried to decrease the cost of production to farmers," the young entrepreneur told News18 over the phone. The service has 4,000 users and according to its founder, it has allowed them to increase production by 30 to 40 percent at almost the same cost. Gole, who was winner of Google's Women Entrepreneur Quest (WEQ) 2017, also brought up another interesting point. "While most farmers have a hard time, women farmers are even lower in the rung. This kind of technology can specifically help them who cannot afford consultations," she said.

(Co-Founder of LeanAgri, Sai Gole Receives Women Entrepreneur Quest (2017) Award)

And in fact, more programs like SheLeadsTech, or Google's Women Techmakers scholarships are allowing women from diverse locations to learn new vocations in the field of tech and become leaders. Mariam Fatima is a former social science student who was inspired by the tech boom when she moved to Bangalore, the 'Silicon Valley of India'. Tired of teaching middle-preschoolers, Fatima who had a degree in Education, decided to get herself a degree in web designing.

She researched and found Udacity, a platform that offers online courses in a variety of technical fields. After becoming a certified front-end developer with a Nanodegree, Fatima moved to Zurich, Germany in October last year where she is now working for the an organisation called the Digital Career Institute. "I was always a a teacher so that stayed with me. Here, I teach refugee students from various countries how to code and build websites." Fatima said in a WhatsApp call. Her main aim is to provide avenues for refugees to learn an alternate vocation so that they can land on their feet in a new country. "I teach students from Syria, Palestine. we are expanding to teaching regular students too now, but the courses for the refugee students are free," she said.

Since the 90s tech boom, many women have joined the tech and start-up sector and are today leading entrepreneurs. Be it the Simpl co-founders Nitya Sharma and Chaitra Chidananda, or Arpita Ganesh, founder and CEO of Buttercups, women entrepreneurs have been raking in a large chunk of profits. But though the trends are positive, the growth has been disproportionate with respect to the increase in the number of women studying software engineering and related fields and the number of women actually entering these fields.

"Many women are unable to take their degrees and turn it into a profession. I am a homemaker and had not worked for ten years before I decided to become a web developer. I was lucky to have a supportive husband," said Arshi Saleh.

Saleh had been helped a Google-Udacity scholarship that allowed her to learn the basics of web development and UI design. In conversation with News18, the now certified web developer said that even women who think they are done have potential left in them. "All we need is some tools and some encouragement," Saleh said. However, she observed that one of the first steps toward enabling more women to help themselves via online tools was the proliferation of mobile and internet.

"I was endowed enough to have a phone and internet. How is one going to find out about a scholarship if they don't have basic access?" Saleh asked. That is the field she felt that needed the most attention.

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