Solution Overview

Our Solution

Asia Initiatives’ Upskilling Cascades

One-line solution summary:

Crowdsourcing skilled people to upskill others, incentivised by Social Capital Credits (SoCCs), who redeem SoCCs to improve their own skills

Pitch your solution.

  • Upskilling Cascades train people in digital, technical and vocational skills, which they pass on to others, who in turn pass on to others, in a cascade. We also identify people who already have these skills to start the cascades.  

  • All “teachers” earn SoCCs, which they can redeem for their own upskilling, certifications, or micro-credit to start/improve their businesses based upon the SoCCs Redeeming menus communities themselves help create. 

  • We also connect potential workers with employers, and farmers and entrepreneurs to markets. 

  • SoCCs are recorded and transacted on the SoCCs App and Web platform. This, and access to mobile phones and computers at our Learning Centers, becomes a stepping stone for people to begin using digital literacy skills. 

  • We are currently seeking universities and training institution partners, who can accept SoCCs in lieu of tuition fees, and provide stacked certifications and degrees to the Cascaders. 

Film your elevator pitch.

Which dimension of the Challenge does your solution most closely address?

Increase and leverage the participation of underserved communities in India and Indonesia — especially women, low-income, and remote groups — in the creation, development, and deployment of new technologies, jobs, and industries

In what city, town, or region is your solution team headquartered?

New York, NY, USA

Is your solution working in India and/or Indonesia?

My solution is being deployed or has plans to deploy in India

What specific problem are you solving in India and/or Indonesia?

Asia Initiatives works with people in the most disadvantaged urban slums and remote communities in India. When people in these settings do manage to attend formal schooling, the education is inadequate in teaching skills that can help people’s livelihoods after graduating. This situation was exacerbated by Covid-19. According to a recent study by Oxfam on Government & Private Schools During COVID-19, “Nearly 80% of Indian students couldn’t access online schooling during the lockdown, and many might not return to classrooms when they reopen”. Despite having the second largest online market in the world India, 50% of people living in India don't have internet access (Weforum.org, Aug 2020). Due to an increasing number of businesses relying on technology and more unskilled jobs becoming obsolete, there is only a short window of time for people to catch up. The current educational and training institutions in India are grossly inadequate. Upskilling Cascades seek to radically improve this situation. 

 

We are also particularly focused on women, since they face additional discrimination and barriers to education, skills and jobs. Covid-19 has deepened the disparities in the workforce. Over 47% of women in formal employment in India last year lost their jobs compared to 7% of men, affecting not only their households, but their mental and physical health as well (Reuters.com, Aug 2, 2021). Our work through SoCCs ensures that the entire social ecosystem and social capital of marginalized people is improved to facilitate careers for women and men, and for the future generations.

Who does your solution serve, and in what ways will the solution impact their lives?

We serve people in urban slums and remote villages in India. The global proportion of schools with access to computers and internet is only 31%, and much lower in India. The World Economic Forum predicts a ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, in which 133 million new jobs will emerge by 2022 which will require digital literacy. The problem is exacerbated for women, the population we especially focus on, who are even less likely to have basic tech proficiencies. We address this challenge by activating the social capital of communities, and crowdsourcing upskilling from various individual, institutional and corporate resources. In Upskilling Cascades, community members with skills such as digital literacy, coding, connecting farmers to online markets etc., earn SoCCs for teaching their skills to others. Our teachers/mentors trade in the SoCCs they earn to get skill certifications, while artisans and farmers can redeem their SoCCs for micro-credit to start or improve their business and health insurance etc. Learners then teach their skills to others and so on, creating a network of teachers and learners that strengthens everyone’s livelihood opportunities. Our Knowledge Centers puts digital work and connectivity within reach for people who otherwise do not have digital devices. Young adults in our Maker Labs get mentorship in patenting their innovations, and taking them to market. We are also setting up systems to connect our newly skilled people to formal sector employers. Asia Initiatives has impacted over 55,000 people so far, including 23,000 people in 2021 alone

How does the problem you are addressing, the solution you have designed, and the population you are serving align with the Challenge?

Our work directly addresses the challenge of increasing and leveraging the participation of underserved communities in the future of work. All the work our NGO has done since its founding is Pro-poor, Pro-environment and Pro-Women, so the focus of this challenge on poor communities, remote groups, and women, is very close to our DNA. We believe that creation, development, and deployment of new technologies is key to creating jobs and industries that can provide relevant opportunities for these groups to connect with the digital and tech oriented work opportunities. We see this as an urgent task, as the time window for people to catch up before low skilled jobs are taken over by artificial intelligence is very small. We not only help the people in our projects leapfrog into the digitally connected workforce through our Digital Learning Centers, but also promote/support entrepreneurship through our Maker Labs as well as exposure visits to see other businesses and ideas. We respond to the interlocking barriers our people face through strengthening the ecosystem and social capital of people through building people’s social capital and networking. 

Our projects are hyper local. We always start with SoCCratic dialogues to enable people to articulate their needs, aspirations, barriers, and the skills they have or want to learn. The result of these dialogues is the creation of the SoCC Earning and Redeeming menus. While SoCCs are earned by teaching or mentoring others, they can be redeemed for further upskilling certifications, micro-credit, or healthcare needs. 

What is your solution’s stage of development?

Growth

Who is the Team Lead for your solution?

Dr. Geeta Mehta is the founder/president of Asia Initiatives and Adjunct Professor at Columbia University. She is a published author and has keynoted Eindhoven University’s Future of Work Conference and several such events. She has worked on projects in 12 countries, including in Indonesia as a consultant to JICA. 

More About Your Solution

Which of the following categories best describes your solution?

A new business model or process that relies on technology to be successful

What makes your solution innovative?

Our Upskilling Cascades are powered by SoCCs (Social Capital Credits), our community currency for social good, which received the “World Changing Idea” award from the Fast Company in 2020. We have since also received prizes from MIT Solve, General Motors, Vodafone, Experian, World Summit of Information Society, and Jacobs Foundation. 

 

We use persuasive technology for behaviour change to help people in underserved communities, especially women, to dream beyond their current barriers, which have held them back for decades or even generations. We bring within their reach upskilling opportunities, mentoring, certifications, access to educational and training institutions, and a supportive network that enhances their social capital, and a sense of self-worth. We connect people with decent livelihood opportunities, markets and role models. SoCCs empower those who are invisible to society by helping them set tangible, fungible benefits. We also overcome the paucity of financial capital by elevating social and environmental capital to the same level as financial capital. ‘SoCC-stars’ who have made exceptional contributions to their communities become eligible to apply for grants and no-interest loans from us to start small micro-enterprises. SoCC-stars also receive local recognition and certificates.

 

SoCCs earned or redeemed are transacted and recorded using our SoCC App and Platform. This enables us to analyze the data collected carefully to ensure that the communities are making progress towards achieving their upskilling goals. Otherwise, we help them tweak the values assigned to each earning and redeeming activity in the menus. 

 

Describe the core technology that powers your solution.

We use persuasive technology for positive behavior change to incentivise skilled people to teach others, and benefit themselves in return. SoCCs helps us crowdsource upskilling, goodness and creativity. Our SoCCs App and the corresponding web Platform are key to the operation of our projects.

 

All our projects start with SoCCratic dialogues where community members decide what skills they want to learn, identify teachers within their community, or nearby colleges and universities, and create the Earning and Redeeming SoCCs menus. Upskilling courses, training and internships are always on the menu. Each SoCCs earned or redeemed is recorded through our SoCC App and Web platform. Data is then analyzed to understand participation rates, and the menus adjusted if needed. 

 

Baseline and progress survey questionnaires are also conducted online for each project. Data collection ranges from completely online to hybrid versions. Our system can work in areas of low connectivity or low smartphone ownership. SoCCs can also be recorded by simply scanning the unique QR Codes provided to people who do not yet have smartphones. SoCC managers, trained by Asia Initiatives, provide the technical training and support to participants. 

 

We are continuously updating our SoCC app to improve the UX . We also plan to include community reviews like at Yelp and leaderboards to improve online engagement. We are currently exploring the use of Blockchain technology to enable us to scale up. The SoCCs platform also allows our key funders to get transparent reports on how their donations have a multiplier effect with SoCCs. 

Please select all the technologies currently used in your solution:

  • Audiovisual Media
  • Behavioral Technology
  • Big Data

What is your theory of change?

Our theory of change is given below: 

  • The need for upskilling people in India is far greater than the capacity of existing institutions of learning and training. 

  • This gap is greatest for women everywhere, and for all people in urban slums and remote areas.  

  • Crowdsourcing upskilling by activating and incentivising local skilled people is a game changer, in helping people prepare for the jobs of the future, as also for building people’s networks and social capital. 

  • Training teachers and mentors to impart confidence and life-skills along with job training strengthens the impact of the system. 

  • Our computer networked centers bring tech devices to people who could otherwise not access them, enabling them to also take online courses from the Indira Gandhi Open University (IGNOU), Coursera, edX, Khan Academy and other sources. 

  • Connections with institutions that will accept SoCCs in lieu of tuition and certification fees, will help institutions to also expand their outreach to the people not served before. Institutions can also encourage their alumni to participate in Upskilling Cascades,

  • Not just a tool for digital literacy, Upskilling Cascades is a changemaker in fostering and funding entrepreneurship that is vital to ensuring that people succeed in the digital economy. 

  • Upskilling Cascades should be a win win for everyone, and multiply the impact of every dollar donors put into a project.

  • We believe that people who are closest to the problems are also closest to the solutions, so we put the power back in the hands of people.

Select the key characteristics of your target population.

  • Women & Girls
  • Elderly
  • Rural
  • Peri-Urban
  • Urban
  • Poor
  • Low-Income
  • Middle-Income
  • Minorities & Previously Excluded Populations
  • Persons with Disabilities

What are your impact goals for the next year and the next five years, and how will you achieve them?

In 2020 alone we impacted over 23,000 people. We hope to reach over 50,000 people in one year, a million in the next 5 years, and then grow exponentially from there onwards. 

Our goals for the next year are:

- To have over 100,000 users teaching or receiving digital and tech skills on SoCC App/Platform. 

- To connect with educational and training institutions who will accept SoCCs in lieu of tuition, and also be willing to certify stacked skill training provided by our teachers/mentors

- To explore Blockchain and other technologies to service a much larger number of users 

- To partner with corporations willing to offer internships and jobs to our people. 

Our next five year goals are:

- To have over 1 million registered upskilling users on our SoCC App/Platform, with a considerable number who have increased their education, wellbeing, incomes or income potential. 

- To have integrated Blockchain and/or other technologies that would enable users to implement and benefit from SoCCs easily and effectively. 

-To have at least 2 government clients who promote the Upskilling Cascade as a part of their work.  

- To have at least 10 university or training institutions as partners.

- To enable any organization, anywhere in the world, use our system.

We are confident about achieving these goals since we have deep roots in India, having implemented 25 projects in women empowerment, micro credit, micro-enterprises, Learning Centers etc. working with well established local NGO partners.  

 

How are you measuring your progress toward your impact goals?

All our work is evidence based since monthly SoCC data is collected and analyzed for every project. This helps us understand if the communities are making progress towards the goals and KPIs they had set for themselves. Examples of our existing Upskilling Cascades projects are:

  • 550 women farmers were taught SRI (System of Rice Intensification), which needs less water, less manual labor, and improves yields. These farmers are training 1100 more farmers, who will go on to train 2200 more, and so on. 

  • 1500 youth are earning SoCCs by teaching younger people, and spending their SoCCs on learning advanced digital skills, coding and hardware assembly in our Learning Centers in Lucknow and Odisha.

  • Youth in 5 Maker Labs are being helped in creating innovative tech solutions to local problems, and funding to take these solutions to the market. 

  • 2300 women learned to make organic kitchen gardens in Odisha, and are now teaching others for improved nutrition and incomes. 

  • 500 women learned micro poultry and dairy farming skills. SoCC stars were given further training as Veterinary assistants and are teaching others.

  • 1,200 tribal members in Mahad formed the first ever tribal microcredit cooperative, with members learning to keep accounts online.

What barriers currently exist for you to accomplish your goals in the next year and in the next five years?

Below are some barriers we are working to surmount:

  1. Covid-19 has definitely slowed our work since 2020

  2. Ensuring sufficient access to hardware and internet access for our target group of people is a challenge in terms of cost.

  3. Ensure high quality teachers and trainers who can engage with the target group on a regular basis

  4. Training teachers to not only teach technical skills but also help instill confidence and forward thinking in their students. 

  5. Creating a library of video modules of effective teaching sessions in local contexts/languages which can be used by others, and reviewed by learners.

  6. To continually improve our SoCC App and technology platform in terms of user interface and smoother operations

  7. We also need to increase our outreach through advertising and other means to let more people in remote and poor areas know about using Upskilling Cascades for learning digital and tech skills.

  8. Financial resources to hire additional staff at local and headquarters level.

  9. We need partnership with universities and training institutes to get our learners stackable certifications and degrees, which can be acquired incrementally over time. 

  10. We need connections with more formal sector employers who can hire Cascaders who have acquired adequate skills. 

How do you plan to overcome these barriers?

We are taking the following steps: 

  1. Using Covid lockdowns as an opportunity to get as many people in under-served communities as possible online and accessing distance learning courses.  

  2. Since people could not come to our Learning Centers during lockdowns, our local partners arranged to get laptops to neighborhood pods in a library system, so laptops were issued, delivered, collected and delivered to neighborhood Pods by community facilitators on bicycles. 

  3. To ensure a sufficient number of teachers, we are getting volunteers from around the world to teach over Zoom. This has proven to be quite successful. 

  4. Creating training videos for teachers/mentors to teach effectively, and also instill life-skills in their students.  

  5. Working with our technology partner Groupment Inc. to improve our SoCC App and platform 

  6. Using more whatsapp and Zoom group calls.

  7. Making up for our inability to hire additional staff soon by relying on volunteers and interns. 

  8. Talking to universities and training institutes for partnership about accepting SoCCs in lieu of tuition fees, and providing skill certifications and stackable degrees to our cascaders. We are in advanced conversations with Vellore Institute of Technology and in Madurai about this. 

  9. Working with corporations so they can hire more of our Cascaders.

More About Your Team

What type of organization is your solution team?

Nonprofit

How many people work on your solution team?

Organization Staff

4 Full-time

3 Part-time

30 Volunteers

37.00 Total

How long have you been working on your solution?

NGO is 21 yrs old, this project is 4 yrs old

How are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?

Ernst and Young donated a 3 month consulting assignment to review our capacity to reach our goal of serving over one million in 5 years, and confirmed that with some staff additions, we can be poised to do so. 

We have 7 very high quality staff members, 9 active board members, 19 Advisory Board Members, and 7 junior board members. This includes former and current directors and partners in multinational consulting companies, education institutions, and founders of their own companies. A majority of our staff, Board members and Advisory Board members are of Indian origin, or closely connected with India. They are passionate about helping India come out of poverty through supporting education and decent work for the current and future generations. 

Our staff members can communicate with our local partners in local languages. Except during Covid, our staff members regularly visited the sites to understand the issues on the ground.

We believe in partnerships. All our work is conducted with our local partners who are carefully selected for their track record, commitment to local communities, and capacity to implement our programs. We also directly hire local staff in India for impact evaluation and to support local partners as needed. 

What is your approach to building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive leadership team?

Six out of 7 of our staff members at Asia Initiatives headquarters are women of color. We also choose local partners who are committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, and commit to it in the MoUs and contracts we sign with them. We are passionate about women’s empowerment, and insist that the leadership in all projects include women.

 

This is a very serious issue in India where women and also people from lower casts and minorities do not get opportunities that others do. These people are discriminated against at schools, in job selections and also in daily lives to the extent that they lose confidence in their ability to be agents of change for themselves and their communities. 

 

In Mahad and Uttarakhand in India, we are working with tribal populations who had been pushed out of their forests by logging contractors, were living on the edges of villages, and not welcomed to village events before we started working with them through our local partner. In the past three years, things have changed dramatically. The tribals have learned the ways of the village, have increased their incomes and lifestyles, and are welcome in the village. 

 

What organizations do you currently partner with, if any? How are you working with them?

We believe in the power of partnerships. All our work is conducted through local partners, but we also partner with other NGOs, governments, and corporate foundations. Some of our partners are listed below: 

Groupment Inc.: our technology partner, helping us with our App and web platform

KidsWhoKode: our partner for digital literacy for young people

Global G.L.O.W: our partner for instilling life skills and career confidence among our adolescent girls. 

M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation: We were their partner for the Village Knowledge Center project, that was then upscaled by various state governments

Your Model & Funding

What is your operational model?

All our work is done through our local partners. Each partner is carefully selected based upon their longevity in the community, and the respect they command from community members. 

Once selected, we work closely with local partners to design projects based upon the local resources such as educational and training institutions, and the needs and desires of the local people expressed through SoCCratic dialogues. 

We raise funds from donors, foundations and other sources listed below to fund the redeeming menus and administrative expenses of our local partners, teachers, computer equipment, raspberry pi’s, and other needs. 

We encourage and help our local partners to find financial support from local educational organizations, the government and corporations also. Once the project is self-sustaining, we continue only in an advisory role as needed, as has been the case in our project in Kumasi, Ghana (20015~17). 

Who is the primary stakeholder you will be targeting to execute and scale your solution?

Not-for-profit or Community-Based organizations
Partnership & Growth Opportunities

Why are you applying to the Future of Work in India and Indonesia Challenge?

Because we believe we can make transformative change in this field. 

In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?

  • Human Capital (e.g. sourcing talent, board development, etc.)
  • Business model (e.g. product-market fit, strategy & development)
  • Financial (e.g. improving accounting practices, pitching to investors)
  • Public Relations (e.g. branding/marketing strategy, social and global media)

Please explain in more detail here.

We need help in areas mentioned above

Solution Team

 
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