Despite the obvious need, India lacks a vibrant market for technologies that assist people with disabilities. What is available is neither accessible nor affordable, says Chumki Datta, who is a successful entrepreneur and a paraplegic. Chumki believes the Prosus Social Impact Challenge for Accessibility (SICA), a national contest to discover the most innovative startups in assistive technology (AT), will provide what she lacked: grants, mentorship, and an ecosystem that inspires ideas and innovation.
The contest, launched by Prosus, the global technology investor with multiple investments in India and part of global internet group Naspers, is open for registrations until October 12. The winners, who will be named on November 26, 2020, after a nationwide competition supported by Invest India, Startup India and Social Alpha, will hopefully help bridge the large gap in services for persons with disabilities (PwD), who are typically considered ‘burdensome, both financially and socially,’ she says.
“A life of dignity continues to be out of reach for most PwD,” says Chumki, who founded Vriddhi, a training centre for PwD, and an advertising agency, in her native Odisha.
With Prosus’ sponsorship and mentorship by its technology and business development managers, the winning ideas will make significant advances in the field of AT. That makes the ultimate winners genuinely disruptive – one of the key objectives of the Prosus initiative.
Chumki sees three distinct but complementary areas of focus that could emerge from the Prosus/SICA contest: more AT to aid physical/mental performance; skills training; and employment opportunities. Her own initiative Vriddhi trains tribal and PwD, particularly those with intellectual disability, to make soaps, candles, handmade paper bags and other handicrafts. Vriddhi operates from the National Career Service Centre, part of the Ministry of Labour and Employment, in Odisha’s Pokhariput district. The 13 intellectually disabled employees are aged 18- 25 years, and supervised by their parents; an orthopaedically-handicapped person; and Chumki herself. Profits are distributed among the workers.
Chumki hopes the Prosus SICA contest will spur innovation that, above all else, is sensitive to cost and infrastructural restrictions. What kind of AT solution would excite her personally? “Perhaps affordable wheelchair tires that can adjust to diverse terrains. I would like to go to the beach,” she says.
Prosus, in collaboration with Invest India, Startup India, and Social Alpha, announced the launch of Prosus SICA on August 26, 2020. They will begin the process of whittling down the applications for the final phase of the contest.
Deepak Bagla, MD & CEO, Invest India, said: “The excellence of Indian ingenuity has been at the forefront throughout the pandemic. The ability of our entrepreneurs to pivot and develop impactful frugal solutions is India’s strength. As we move towards an Atmanirbhar Bharat, envisioned by the Hon’ble Prime Minister, it becomes imperative to ensure that India builds on these strengths and provides solutions for challenges being faced across the world. This challenge, aimed at developing assistive technologies for the persons with disabilities, will aid in achieving this vision.”
A National Statistical Office survey estimates that about 300,000 Indians across a survey sample of 118,000 households live with some form of disability, with more than half in rural areas. Globally, this number stands at one billion and is set to double by 2030, owing to a rapidly aging population and increasing prevalence of non-communicable diseases.
Recalling her own experience with AT, Chumki says: “The wheelchair and crutches have been my only enablers since an accident in 2003 left me paralysed. For everything else, I have had to improvise. I live in Chandaka, a tribal area, some 10 kilometres outside the capital city Bhubaneswar. So, for instance, I use a DIY plank to slide into and out from my car. At my two-storeyed house, which did not receive electricity until recently, I got a manual lift installed. Surely, this makes me an AT engineer too,” she quips.
Chumki’s pioneering work has earned her national recognition. As a self-employed entrepreneur with a locomotor disability, she won a National Award in 2017, and the Anjali Award in 2019. She sits on the board of Shanta Memorial Rehabilitation Centre, which supports the empowerment of women with disability.
Prosus is committing Rs 1,65,00,000 over three years to Prosus SICA, and grants will be awarded to the top three start-ups each year. The winning products will be socially impactful, technologically innovative, sustainable, scalable, and capable of introducing positive change in the lives of PwD.
The product should be in its final stages of launch or have completed user validation. The submissions will undergo screening by an eminent jury, a thorough evaluation by sector experts and end-user interviews followed by a demonstration of the use case. Participants can learn more about the challenge and application process on the Startup India Hub.
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