A news source called “MySME News” has been launched in the Indian states of Karnataka and West Bengal, and Nepal, with the goal of reporting tailored business news via newsletters, mobile messaging, and community radio to microfinance customers and small and medium enterprise owners.
MySME News is the initiative of three organizations: Internews Europe, a Paris-based company that funds community media projects around the world; Plural India, a New Delhi-based non-profit with a focus on reducing information asymmetries in the low-income sector; and Mahiti Infotech Pvt. Ltd., a social enterprise (for-profit, with all proceeds funneled back into the mission) that provides low-cost information technology to civil society groups.
Shivendra Sharma, executive director of Plural India and former executive director of microfinance support network, PlaNet Finance, explained that the main source of information among the low-income sector is word of mouth, “Most people get it from 10 houses this side and 10 on that side.” Mahiti’s executive director, Sreekanth S. Rmeshaiah, said that the information gap is an impediment to smart investment choices: “The main idea of the project is to offer the poor a chance to make intelligent decisions through information.” Business information is also important to foster competition among microfinance enterprises (MFIs), as borrowers become more aware of their options.
Internews Europe described the objectives of the project as follows:
Encourage information seeking behavior among microfinance/SMEs
Build awareness and capacity among microfinance institutions to supply critical business information
Evolve information services both as customized and narrowcast (eg paper, Net, mobile phone) and also broadcast (radio).
Create a database to compare current practice, advise on pilot and disseminate results across Asia
The formal launch of MySME News took place as microfinance practitioners and policymakers from ten Asian countries gathered in Gurgaon, India in January 2009 for a microfinance summit. However, a trial run of the project has been underway since December 2007.
The project’s first medium, an English/Bengali bimonthly, four-page newsletter, has already had nine-hundred copies of a debut print distributed in the slums of Kolkata. The project director of MySME News and Internews Europe’s representative in India, Atul Ramchandra said: “Our objective is to take the news service to the mobile platform, where subscribers can call in for information as well as receive alerts on specific information. We want to provide very, very local news.” Internews Europe reported that in order to tap into India’s approximately 250 million mobile phone users, “innovative methods have to be found to market these services to demographics, newly empowered with mobile phones but who traditionally rely heavily on social networks for their business information.
” The project aims to operate on a franchise model whereby an ‘infopreneurs’, in ‘Grameen Village Phone Lady’ fashion, run business information services within an urban slum or rural village. The ‘infopreneurs’ will work in partnership with an apex company that provides a technical platform, training, and flows of non-local information. MySME News also hopes to tap into community radio to reach a broader audience base.
To test potential services and models, MySME News is working with a number of MFIs in the states of Karnataka and West Bengal, and plans to use the MFIs knowledge of their client base to customize the news reported to each client and locality.
The project is funded with a grant worth approximately USD 1 million received by Internews Europe from the European Commission’s Asian Invest Programme, which aims to promote the internationalism of small and medium sized eneterprises. It is expected the grant will sustain a trial run of the project, and a smaller trial run in Nepal, for the next two years. By then MySME News hopes break even, by implementing a for-profit model and generating revenue by charging small fees to its readers. The project has an estimated critical customer base of 100 thousand to 300 thousand, and it costs four rupees (USD 0.08) to produce each newsletter. MyMSE News plans to employ about 24 stringers to report on the performance of MFIs.
MySME News also plans to generate revenue by selling customized newsletters to individual microfinance institutions (MFIs). It has already provided a few thousand prints of no-cost, promotional customized newsletters to Kolkata based MFIs Ujjivan Financial Services Pvt. Ltd and SKS Microfinance Pvt. Ltd. Shivendra Sharma, executive director of Plural India said: “While we will bring out customized newsletters for specific clients, the focus will remain on the challenges faced by micro entrepreneurs.” Once profitable, MySME News plans to expand its focus to deliver messages relating to health, education, and vocational training.
By Ryan Hogarth, Research Assistan