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How do thousands of WhatsApp groups help ITC in reaching last mile?

ITC formed over 6,100 WhatsApp groups with 4.4 lakh farmers for its agri and forestry initiatives. Similarly, over 1,060 WhatsApp groups were formed with 18,000 sanitation workers for the company’s interventions on solid waste management
How do thousands of WhatsApp groups help ITC in reaching last mile?
How thousands of WhatsApp groups help ITC in reaching last mile? (Representational Image: Shutterstock)

For over a quarter of the century, ITC has traversed several defining milestones in its quest to be a global exemplar in sustainability. This voyage has been inspired by ITC’s vision to put ‘Nation First’, making sustainability the bedrock of its corporate strategy.  

Responding to the unprecedented humanitarian crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, ITC had put in place several measures that were not only aimed at providing relief and succour to the most vulnerable but also to support value-chains that could generate livelihoods during these trying times and beyond.

Leveraging digital to reimagine CSR outreach during the pandemic

The pandemic period, however, posed several challenges to ITC’s social initiatives due to the Covid restrictions and strict protocols that needed to be adhered to. Physical interfaces were limited; on the other hand, the CSR activities needed to be strengthened. The situation demanded ITC to speedily rise to the occasion and reimagine new ways of reaching out to its beneficiaries. In this endeavour, ITC’s ‘Mission Sunhera Kal’ CSR team was inspired by the organisational imperative to drive digital transformation across functions and value chains as a part of ITC’s future-ready strategy. The CSR team harnessed several virtual, social and digital-media innovations to drive social initiatives.

One of the priorities was to leverage available virtual platforms for training and capacity building. This led to the creation of thousands of WhatsApp groups for virtual coordination with beneficiaries, government agencies and implementation partners. Thus, ITC formed over 6,100 WhatsApp groups with 4.4 lakh farmers for its agriculture and forestry initiatives. Similarly, over 1,060 WhatsApp groups were formed with 18,000 sanitation workers for the company’s interventions on solid waste management. ITC’s Mother & Child Heath initiatives also connected over 4,800 Anganwadi workers through various digital platforms.

Highlighting the initiatives, Dr Ashesh Ambasta, Executive Vice-President & Head, Social Investments, ITC said, “Motivated by ITC’s organisational imperative to leverage digital technologies across functions, we embraced virtual platforms during the pandemic to ensure smooth progress of our social initiatives. In addition to leveraging existing virtual platforms to connect common interest groups, we also produced user-friendly digital content, imparted training to stakeholders, comprising our partner NGOs, government officials and CBO members to use these digital platforms and content and connected all stakeholders through a seamlessly integrated system at a time when physical interactions were limited. Going forward, such experiences will help us re-imagine new ways of innovating and expanding our sustainability endeavours”.

While physical interactions got restricted, ITC came out with innovative models of last-mile connect for dissemination of information, mobilisation of resources and for training and monitoring the fieldwork across CSR projects.

Connecting farmers in Andhra Pradesh

For example, in a bid to connect plantation farmers in Andhra Pradesh with Government schemes during the pandemic, ITC facilitated the process of end-to-end implementation through digital technologies. The model started with the formation of WhatsApp groups with farmers at the village level. Farmers sent applications in the group to leverage schemes for procuring saplings from the forest department. Partner NGOs shared detailed information on relevant Government schemes in the group and tracked progress. Following training, farmers posted details on their agricultural practices and clarified doubts through voice messages. The queries were replied to through voice messages and digital brochures of Government schemes were posted in the group. ITC’s in-house CSR team were in direct touch with the farmers throughout the whole process through video calls.

In Guntur, ITC facilitated large-scale waste management initiatives despite lockdowns. Using WhatsApp, over 3,200 volunteers were trained on decentralised waste management techniques by connecting municipality officials, NGOs, volunteers, citizens and ITC managers under the same digital platform.

Reaching out to Punjab farmers

Similarly, at Kapurthala, Punjab, the challenge was to manage time-bound activities during the lockdown to help control stubble burning. To solve this, ITC created WhatsApp groups in 47 target villages and leveraged the digital platform to create awareness on direct-seeded of rice, provide access to machine operators, and impart training on a stage-wise package of practices, besides providing expert advice through scientists.

Another key element in this digital strategy for CSR was to leverage ITC’s public-private partnership (PPP) with NITI Aayog to ensure uninterrupted farmer training even during the pandemic. This involved formation of the 2-tier WhatApp groups at the district and village levels with relevant departments, staff, NGOs and farmer membership. In the absence of a physical interface, the key was to create digital training material and brochures on government schemes with step-by-step instructions using simple digital content such as audio, video and images.

Making a difference

This led to outreach with over 2,400 government officials in 27 district-level groups as well as the formation of over 4,700 village-level groups involving 3.8 lakh farmers. Cumulatively, over 25 lakh farmers have been trained so far, augmenting farmer incomes by nearly 60 per cent for select crops in the Kharif 2020 season. The mechanism also helped ITC develop a Covid-19 response strategy in place, whilst creating a permanent channel for extending farmer training involving a judicious mix of physical and digital techniques.

e-Choupal 4.0

A ‘Phygital’ (physical + digital) system is already being implemented by ITC Agribusiness’ flagship agri intervention – the e-Choupal 4.0, which aims to strengthen agricultural entrepreneurship and agritech start-ups through agri services aggregator models, thereby empowering farmers with next-generation agricultural practices.

Read more: Grameen Foundation launches Tech4Inclusion challenge for tech startups

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