HARnessing VAlue of Rural India
The start-up HarVa works to expand India’s outsourcing industry to include rural populations, especially women.
The rapid development of the outsourcing industry in India’s megacities created a new employment avenue nearly overnight. However, people in rural areas have been mainly overlooked in this rush. One start-up, however, is striving to overcome this.
Outsourcing to rural India
HarVa, which seeks to harness the “value of rural India,” aims to expand the country’s massive outsourcing industry to rural communities, while giving women the technical skills they need to be successful in business process outsourcing (BPO). HarVa primarily focuses on skill development, business process outsourcing, community-based farming and microfinance. It has offices in New Delhi, Gurugram, Hyderabad, Pune and New Jersey.
“HarVa currently provides basic services of rural BPOs and consultancy services to Indian and international companies, tailored around rural distribution and product and sales strategies. It also provides consultancy services to the semi-urban and rural players who want to set up entrepreneurial shops,” says Ajay Chaturvedi, founder and chairman of HarVa.
Chaturvedi studied technology management at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He also holds a diploma in global leadership and public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government in Massachusetts. He worked at Citibank for a few years before pursuing his passion.
Finding its way
The idea for HarVa grew out of an observation Chaturvedi made while visiting home, when he was attending graduate school in the United States.
“While in the U.S. in the first decade of the century, every time I traveled back to India, I noticed the increasingly glaring disparity of poverty in urban India—beggars at traffic signals and homeless people, and yet exotic cars, skyscrapers, multitudinous malls and exorbitant luxury. The market had indeed liberalized,” says Chaturvedi.
“While still in the corporate world, my heart would yearn to be out in the open,” says Chaturvedi, who was honored by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader in 2013. “I’d bought a farm [in Uttarakhand] while I was still in the U.S. After a few experiments, we grew lemongrass in Uttarakhand and it worked like a charm. However, scaling it was a challenge as capital isn’t easily available on agricultural lands, unless one has scale. It was a catch-22. I was still working with Citibank. So, I started exploring other avenues where we could bring in regular inflow of cash. This is what got me to start thinking about a rural BPO.”
Getting women on-board
HarVa was one of the first companies of its kind to focus on rural operations. It trains women from villages in technological skills for several months, and then gives them the opportunity to work at one of its outsourcing centers. Some of them had never seen a computer before, others had never been to an office. Job duties range from data mining to posting ads online, and schedules can be flexible.
“While presenting the concept to one of the villages, [we met] a woman, who had studied only till the eighth grade but was able to memorize and recite the keyboard, four hours after having seen a computer for the first time. That was my eureka moment,” says Chaturvedi. “We trained 500 women in the surrounding region as an outcome, and that’s what resulted in the first all-women rural BPO in the world, in Haryana. That’s a world record in the Limca Book of Records.”
Business process outsourcing centers in rural locations allow women to pursue unique employment opportunities without having to leave home. The centers also offer services and coaching to employees and villagers alike, always focusing on the value villagers have as producers.
A producer’s economy
“As a banker and a former strategy consultant, I could see that opportunity in the world’s largest democracy was not just in the consumer market,” says Chaturvedi. “It was yet untapped in it being a producer’s economy. Most FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods] companies only focused on the marginal increase in sales and hit the classic hurdle of trying to sell toothpastes to people who didn’t have food to eat. The more I traveled across the length and breadth of the country, the more I could see the untapped potential of human capital.”
Since the start of the first HarVa BPO center in Tikli Akilampur village near Gurugram in 2010, HarVa has grown into other regions.
“As the HarVa huts expanded, we explored more and learned a lot about the nuances of the rural economy, backbone of Indian culture and the philosophy that drives it,” says Chaturvedi. “Personally, this was a deeply introspective journey, one that took to me to the Himalayas as well.”
The Kautilya fellowship
Chaturvedi has now set his sights on an additional opportunity, based on the keen interest of local youth. The new Kautilya Fellowship program aims to bridge the gap between knowledge and experience in development economics by offering the fellows an opportunity to work for a year with HarVa’s corporate, government and academic partners. The fellows also get to publish articles, research papers and blogposts, as well as attend conferences featuring renowned scientists, academicians and entrepreneurs.
Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.