who use information
that it would operate on very low-end cellphones.
“Before CMU, the application was running on higher-end phones,” Kam explains. “What we were really trying
to do with the expansion is to target the most affordable
phones out there, so as to perform research pilots that
reflect more realistic cost conditions. We were looking
for the lowest common denominator,” he says.
Specifically, Kam and his team were targeting Java
Micro edition (J2ME) phones, which are significantly
cheaper than high-end smartphones. Technical barriers
included optimizing the application for use on low-re-source devices with limited memory and organizing the
English-language learning content, including graphics
and voiceover files, on the phone’s storage system so that
file input and output remained efficient.
There were cultural challenges as well. The earliest
game designs weren’t intuitive to children in rural India.
“This forced us to take a step back and study 28
of their traditional village games and contemporary Western video games,” Kam says. The analysis
provided the team with a set of guidelines on how to
design educational games for non-Westerners.
MILLEE team member Ashton Thomas, who graduated from CMU in May 2011, developed a game called
Word Catch, in which a player is presented with an
English word and four images, one of which corresponds
to the meaning of the word. “You had to stop a ball
over the correct image, and the speed of the ball would
change. As the words got harder, the speed of the ball
got faster,” he recalls.
Thomas, who has since launched a fitness software
company called Acrinta, recalls that one of the challenges for his MILLEE team was that it was geographically dispersed, with some members in India and
others at CMU’s campus in Pittsburgh.
“The time zone difference, the physical distance and
Enabling a Livelihood
the communication barriers were all challenges,” he says.
“The students in India would help maintain the code
base and do some development. They would also take the
phones and install the games and go to the learners to
get feedback and relay all of that information back to us.”
As Thomas sees it, one key to the value of the MILLEE
project is that “it’s a game, and as the students are
playing, they’re having fun.” But he points out that the
students are also learning, “and that is creating oppor-
tunities that could lead to serious social change” — an
observation confirmed in a recent report from the British
Council, which estimates that the salary gap between
professionals with and without English skills in some
developing countries is as high as 20% to 30%.
Improving the economic prospects of villagers in India
is the goal of MicroGraam, a project that taps mobile
and Internet technologies to enable urban professionals to find, select and provide microcredit to underprivileged borrowers in rural India.
MicroGraam co-founder Sekhar Sarukkai notes that
the concept of microfinance isn’t new. But as he and co-
“A few years ago, Rangan went back to India to run
the banking and finance practice for Infosys, and he saw
that microfinance was a great model, but borrowers were
struggling,” he recalls. “They had to start repaying the
next month after they borrowed the money,” he explains.
But it could take several months before a newly launched
venture paid enough to begin repaying the original loan.
The two men decided to apply the principles of
venture capital to the microfinance market. Rather
than having borrowers start to pay back their loans
immediately, lenders would begin to receive payments
— plus an agreed-upon amount of interest — when the
new venture became more solvent.
The model required transparency between lender
and borrower, which MicroGraam addressed by
developing a marketplace platform using open-source
technology, including integration with online payment
gateways. A key feature of the system is that micro-fund transfer costs are less than 0.5%, compared to the
“Complete transparency is one of the most impor-
tant ways technology can help these low-cost transac-
tions. But you need to do it in a very low-cost manner,”
Sarukkai notes. “Open source helps a lot. This is a fully
MicroGraam lenders can search through a database
that includes descriptions of borrowers, photographs,
and information about the purpose of and terms
of the loan. Lenders also receive updates about the
progress of the businesses they fund. In addition, the
system provides scheduled reminders to MicroGraam’s
nongovernmental organization (NGO) partners that
administer the loans on the company’s behalf.
“MicroGraam doesn’t have any field offices, so we go
to select NGOs who are already working in villages and
partner with them so we don’t have any overhead on
our end,” explains Sarukkai. “It’s the NGOs that go and
collect the money, so it’s very important for us to have
visibility into that.”
What has become equally important is providing
transparency to the borrowers. This is done via SMS
“Borrowers are very interested in visibility into their
progress, and almost all of these people have phones,
because they are very low cost,” he explains.
In the past two years, MicroGraam has facilitated
836 loans totaling about $230,000. The repayment rate
is 98%. A woman in the province of Trichy in India,
who borrowed 1,500 rupees (about $50) to buy a mixer
to grind flour, is typical of MicroGraam’s borrowers,
who are mostly women.
“She started making batter and selling the batter to
others in the slum,” Sarukkai says. “You could think it’s
not a big deal, but by selling batter she was able to share
in profits. It took her a year and a half, but now she gets
more than 1,000 rupees a month from selling batter.”
“It’s amazing how $100 can change lives so