IN a training session organised for rural women on millet snacks, a fascinating argument ensued among the participants on why they should go by a recipe card and not stick to eyeballing measurements of ingredients as they have always done. This was part of a series of training offered to women involved in home-based, food businesses Technology Informatics Design Endeavour (TIDE) was helping set up. The focus of the session was on recipe standardisation and quality check of ingredients.

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Many of the participating women, veteran cooks themselves, viewed the recipe standardisation exercise with a bit of disdain. Instead of forcing the recipe card, we did a trial with products made with ‘eyeballing technique’ or approximations by the same person for multiple batches and recorded the aspects like dimensions, weight, and taste (salt, crispiness, spice, etc.). The women were surprised to see the variation in this controlled experiment.

In a subsequent training session, the women were taken through the basics of labelling and its importance. Whilst interacting with this group of women later, one of them sought me out and started gushing about how her market had changed for good!  She had been selling snacks for several years through dealers who took a hefty margin. After she started labeling her brand name and contact, she started receiving calls from consumers to give feedback and place repeat orders, increasing her profit margin. Now she has increased production and is using both channels to sell – dealers and direct marketing.

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I quote these anecdotes for a reason. Very often the mention of technology or innovation conjures up images of gadgets and digital tools. Sure, these constitute technology but when it comes to applying them for societal development, there is a whole other side to it. This is the process of localising and adapting it to the needs of the community. It is also the humility to accept that technology solutions by themselves may not address problems long-term and one needs to be open to addressing them holistically through other means.

The participatory approach

Another aspect of using technology for development is the importance of the participatory process. We need to ensure that the decision on adopting a particular technology rests with the community or users. Cooking camps conceptualised by TIDE are an example. These are fairs in villages where we set up different cookstoves, along with fuels and vessels, and invite people to bring provisions to cook using these. We ask them to cook as they would do at home. Each participant is given a chart to rate the experience on ease of starting the fire, smoke, taste of food, etc. (visual chart, reading not required). We maintain records on the quantity of fuel used, time taken and emissions. The findings are shared with them objectively.

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We have found that at the end of the cooking camp households are very clear about which stove they want and why. Interestingly, the willingness to move to an improved cookstove substantially increases post the cooking camp. Also, participants are willing to buy the stove, rather than expecting it as a donation. We believe this learning to make an intelligent choice and not be a meek beneficiary or purchaser will, hopefully, remain with them lifelong, whether it be a cookstove or any other product.

In fact, these are the learnings at TIDE that led to the evolution of the organisation from a stove/biomass expert to a science & technology NGO attempting to address societal problems. Our programmes have a strong technology component supplemented by other aspects required to address the issue holistically and sustainably. Thus, we have cross-cutting themes on skilling, gender and environment.

The biggest learning for me is that facilitating a positive change in the lives of the people should be our goal, rather than deploying technology or innovation. When we see technology solutions as a means and not the end, we shift from a project mindset to a solution mindset. As Adam Grant said, “Great creators don’t necessarily have the deepest expertise but rather seek out the broadest perspectives.”

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