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Leveraging Digital technologies to deliver Social Initiatives during the pandemic

  • How creation of thousands of WhatsApp groups connected key stakeholders enabling seamless CSR operations and deeper outcomes

New Delhi

For over a quarter of 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 numerous WhatsApp groups for virtual coordination with beneficiaries, Government agencies and implementation partners. Thus, over 6100 WhatsApp groups were formed with 4.4 lakh farmers for ITC’s Agri and Forestry initiatives. Similarly, over 1060 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.

Commenting on the initiatives, Dr. Ashesh Ambasta, Executive Vice-President & Head, Social Investments, ITC Ltd, 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, CBO members, etc., to use these digital platforms and content and connected all stakeholders through a seamless 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, mobilization of resources and for training and monitoring the field work across CSR projects.

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 village level. Farmers sent applications in the group to leverage schemes for procuring saplings from forest department. Partner NGOs shared detailed information on relevant Government schemes in the group and tracked progress. Following training, farmers posted details on their agri practices & 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.

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 Seeding of Rice, provide access to machine operators, and impart training on stage-wise Package of Practices, besides providing expert advice through scientists.

In Guntur, ITC facilitated large-scale waste management initiatives despite lockdowns. Using WhatsApp, over 3200 volunteers were trained on decentralised waste management techniques by connecting Municipality officials, NGOs, volunteers, citizens and ITC managers under the same digital platform.

Another key element in this digital strategy for CSR was to leverage ITC’s PPP with Niti Aayog to ensure uninterrupted farmer training even during the pandemic. This involved formation of a 2-tier WhatApp group at the district and village levels with relevant department, staff, NGOs and farmer membership. In the absence of physical interface, the key was to create digital training material and brochures on Govt. schemes with step-by-step instructions using simple digital content such as audio, video and images. This led to an outreach with over 2,400 Government officials in 27 district level groups as well as 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% for select crops in the Kharif 2020 season. The mechanism also helped ITC develop a Covid response strategy in place, whilst creating a permanent channel for extending farmer training involving a judicious mix of physical and digital techniques.

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