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A collage depicting various training sessions in progress, for training women from rural areas about making masks. Employees from AKRSPI, a nonprofit, are conducting on the job and virtual training using laptops.

A non-profit empowers marginalized communities in rural India to tackle COVID-19 with virtual trainings

Spread across 70 locations in India’s hinterlands, 400 employees of AKRSPI collaborate virtually on Microsoft Teams to empower rural communities fight COVID-19

Since 1983, the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme India (AKRSPI) has been at the forefront of uplifting marginalized communities with a network of community-led institutions, employees, and on-ground volunteers in 2,200 villages across the states of Gujarat, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh

Over the last 37 years, the grassroots nonprofit organization has impacted the lives of over 1.5 million people by providing support in a wide variety of areas including women empowerment, water harvesting, livelihood generation, digital literacy, natural resource management, and micro-enterprise development. It also provides capacity building, research, and direct field support to government agencies, donor agencies, NGOs, corporates, and community-based organizations.

“We work with youth from rural tribal and marginalized communities, training them in various vocational skills, and supporting them to attain full-time employment through placement or to start their own enterprises,” explains Vivek Singh, Sr. Manager—Youth Development, AKRSPI.

To achieve its mission, AKRSPI built an internal training and capacity building platform called Vadvai, a Gujarati word for the Banyan tree. The platform is used by the organization’s trainers to train employees and sensitize them about various initiatives, as well as for employees to train on-ground volunteers who reach out to end beneficiaries.

But the pandemic brought AKRSPI’s activities to a standstill. With the entire country under lockdown, there was no way for them to conduct trainings either for employees or volunteers in the field.

“We used to conduct in-person group trainings for new employees over multiple days. But with the lockdown in place, all our trainings were put on hold. We didn’t know when we’d be able to resume them,” says Nirzaree Rajvanshi, a trainer based out of Netrang, a tiny town surrounded by forests in the western state of Gujarat.

With the threat of COVID-19 looming large, AKRSPI’s activities especially around “Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene” (WASH) and educating communities about the pandemic had become even more important. They also wanted to impart training around mask making to make them self-reliant considering they were unlikely to be the first ones to receive aid.

Bridging the digital divide during a pandemic

While many organizations in major cities were moving to remote working, the management at AKRSPI were not sure if they’d be able to bridge the digital divide considering most of their field employees worked in some of the most remote areas across the three states. What’s more, only a few had laptops and most of the coordination and training would happen over in-person meetings.

With the lockdown showing no signs of easing off, the core team of 30 employees based out of Ahmedabad tried Microsoft Teams to see if it could help them collaborate. Within a couple of days, it became a habit and they started conducting their daily 10:30 a.m. meeting virtually on Teams. In barely over a week, more than 300 employees moved to Teams and began to rapidly expand how they used the platform from basic communication to collaborating and co-working remotely.

One of the crucial outcomes was moving the Vadvai platform to Teams and conducting online trainings for new employees.

“Even though it was a new platform, I found Teams to be very intuitive to use,” says Rajvanshi, who manages trainings. “However, we had to improvise. Instead of training large groups, we broke them down into smaller groups and even individuals. But now we can do trainings on demand and don’t have to wait for a group of employees.”

Technology has played a big role in helping not just our volunteers stay connected, but also for planning and operationalizing relief operations for rural communities. Microsoft Teams has played a central role in bringing together field teams across the country, enabling our staff to respond with agility and urgency.

– Apoorva Oza, CEO, AKRPSI

One of the bigger concerns of making Vadvai a virtual experience was whether it could be replicated for on-ground volunteers in remote areas, many of whom are not tech savvy.

Based in Pusa, a village in one of the most backward districts of Bihar, Apurva Sharma manages AKRSPI’s local Yuva Junction (Youth Junction) and training center. With weak network connectivity and regular power cuts, she relies on her smartphone for most of her work, which includes training the local youth and volunteers in the field. With Teams installed on her smartphone, she could begin her training sessions for the local center at Pusa like the rest of her colleagues in other locations.

“The Teams experience on a smartphone is great and I’m able to conduct all my trainings and meetings effortlessly. I take volunteers through presentations directly from my phone and am able to interact with them remotely,” Sharma says.

“One of our volunteers, who can’t even navigate social media and instant messaging apps was also easily able to connect with us,” she adds.

The new reality

While having people on the ground hasn’t lost its importance, moving Vadvai and Yuva Junctions to Teams has significantly improved AKRSPI’s operations and impact during this critical period.

Women in rural India preparing masks amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Rural women learning to make masks at an AKRSPI training center.

With Teams, AKRSPI was able to remotely deliver a mandatory training for mask manufacturing entrepreneurs in accordance with the government guidelines. They are now on their way to produce a million masks in the next couple of months to help these communities during the pandemic.

AKRSPI’s move to Teams might have been necessitated by the unprecedented crisis, but the new way of collaboration is here to stay.

“After moving to Teams, we have realized that we can have significant operation cost savings. For instance, we no longer have to make everyone travel to any location for a team meeting. This is a game changer for non-profits like ours,” says Singh.

For trainers like Rajvanshi and Sharma, Teams has made their lives easy and their training sessions more productive.

“Teams has significantly brought down the time we used to take to coordinate with multiple employees. Now I just block their calendars to schedule a training. I am also able to train more people and we record the training sessions on Teams so they can revisit it later too,” says Rajvanshi.

“I can send a link to a volunteer, which lets them attend the training sessions directly from their phones,” adds Sharma.

Moving to Teams has also had an unexpected benefit. Participants don’t hesitate in putting forward questions on Teams that they wouldn’t have asked before in a classroom session. For instance, in a session on gender, Sharma was asked why AKRPSI has not yet employed a transgender professional.

“In an in-house training, such a question would never come to us,” she explains.

Not only has the organization been able to continue delivering trainings while the country has been in a lockdown, but they have also seen an increase in participation from volunteers. Before Teams, trainings were attended by a maximum of 30 people. In contrast, a recent mentoring session featuring AKRPSI’s CEO, Apoorva Oza, was attended by 250 people. Some tuned in from their office computers, others from villages on their smartphones.

“When the lockdown was announced, we realized that more than 400 of our staff were spread across 70 locations in the country and in the absence of mobility, staying connected on a secure platform became super critical,” says Oza. “Technology has played a big role in helping not just our volunteers stay connected, but also for planning and operationalizing relief operations for rural communities. Microsoft Teams has played a central role in bringing together field teams across the country, enabling our staff to respond with agility and urgency.”