Building a cadre of technology enabled community champions, Margadarshaqs, who up-skill parents to bolster their child’s early development
Pitch us on your solution
74 million low-income Indian parents today are ill equipped to support their children. As a result, basic developmental needs of children from low income communities are not met, forcing them to enter schools unready and disadvantaged.
To reduce early developmental gaps, Meraki’s intervention works with parents to build their capacity to bolster their child’s early learning and development. We simplify contemporary scientific knowledge - typically inaccessible to parents - into actionable, 10-minute activities to conduct with children, in order to facilitate their child’s development.
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What is the problem you are solving?
74 million low-income Indian parents are not adequately equipped to support their children. With less than $5 at their daily disposal, parents are consumed with work, further adding to child neglect. This lowers parent confidence, creates a stressful home environment, and severely impacts the school-readiness of children. And with nearly 60% Grade-3 students that cannot read Grade-1 text (ASER), the dismal learning outcomes are a reflection of these children being at a disadvantage even before they enter school.
A child’s brain is built via an interplay of neural connections that are shaped by their environment (UNICEF), connections that shape the way children grow, learn and flourish. Children in disadvantaged communities are deprived of the conditions that fuel these connections i.e. appropriate nutrition, protection from abuse and responsive caregiving, leading to school unreadiness.
Despite the influential role parents play in impacting child outcomes (Todd Rogers, Harvard), incumbents stray away from building their capacity due to poor parent literacy. But without parental intervention, children will continue to face significant challenges that schools alone cannot remedy. In order to bridge this inequity, Meraki believes in building the capacity of parents to support their children and ultimately improve school readiness.
Who are you serving?
Meraki’s target segment are primary caregivers of 2-6 year old children who live in low income urban/semi-urban, slum &/or resettlement communities of India. Over the past 24 months, Meraki has been operational in the geographic area of Delhi. These caregivers, aged 20-30 years, have low education levels thereby lending themselves into jobs such as domestic help, hawkers, low paid workers in the industrial sector etc. Family income of most beneficiaries is less than 145$ per month.
About 80% of caregivers who attend our workshops are mothers. Most mothers Meraki works with, grossly underestimate their role in their child’s life, especially in their education and development. From our experience, mothers of low-income communities need constant support and guidance from within the community to shift behaviours appropriate for child development.
This is why, “Margdarshaks”, our community based champions provide the last mile delivery of the program. Apart from being able mentors, Margdarshaks provide critical feedback gathered from implementation and are in-charge of co-creation of the program; thus adding to the reliability of this delivery mechanism. This intervention helps by:
Enabling responsive Parent-Child Relationship and early stimulation, critical for child development
Improving parent confidence and awareness of child development
Improving school readiness of children
What is your solution?
Meraki simplifies contemporary scientific knowledge - typically inaccessible to these parents - into actionable, 10-minute activities to conduct with their children. The intervention lasts 6 months and consists of 8 workshop cycles. Each cycle of 3 weeks consists of 1 group workshop, 1 personalised support visit and 7 activities disseminated through custom-built technology. “Margdarshaks” - our community based champions, help conduct this program with parents. They are highly motivated, as they are beneficiaries of earlier programs, adding to the reliability of this delivery mechanism.
This intervention helps to build the capacity of parents to support early childhood development by:
Providing access to a parenting support system that builds confidence and reduces stress in parents
Increased responsiveness of parents to identify development needs (cognitive, language, etc) of children
Building ability to take tangible steps to fulfil the above needs, with easy access to information and literature
Fostering relationships with their children that boosts development (cognitive, language etc) and provide a foundation that children use for a lifetime (Thompson, R.A. (1999)
Ensuring these steps through parental intervention early on will give our children a better chance of adjusting and being successful in schools. However, research has shown the limited impact of social interventions that focus solely on disseminating information (CoDC, Harvard) when working with low income communities. Technology-based disseminators therefore have seen limited success in behavioural transformation in disadvantaged communities. These solutions overestimate the level of self-motivation and efficacy of disadvantaged parents to carry out desirable actions, such as using technology for activities.
The Meraki model is fundamentally different: Information and activities are an integral component of the intervention, but are not the intervention itself. Skill building and personalised support by “Margdarshaks” (community champions) play an integral role. Our custom-built BOT and IVRS technology are designed to be usable by every parent - regardless of their literacy level. By taking a nuanced approach that accounts for technology usability barriers in low income settings, Meraki is able to build confidence in parents, increase adoption and deliver a highly engaging product. This combination of an early, parent-centric, contextual, and user-friendly intervention is one that Meraki uniquely provides today, one that now commands unprecedented engagement rates from parents within these low income communities: 72% parents interact with our technology over 10 times per month
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Where is your solution team headquartered?Delhi, India
Our solution's stage of development:
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New application of an existing technology
Describe what makes your solution innovative.
Research has shown the limited impact of social interventions that focus solely on disseminating information (CoDC, Harvard) to the BoP. Conventional technology-based disseminators bank on activities to drive behavior change yet overestimate the level of self-motivation and efficacy of disadvantaged BoP parents to carry out desirable actions, such as engaging with technology to conduct activities.
Disadvantaged parents lack not just knowledge but also skill-sets to provide adequate support to their children. Therefore, information and activities are an integral component of Meraki’s intervention, but are not the intervention itself. Skill building during workshops aided by personalised support by Margdarshaks play an integral role in ensuring technology adoption. Meraki’s skill building approach is grounded by Transtheoretical theory of behavior change that allows it to level parents against different skill levels.
Using this data, we are able to contextualise our support to those parents who require help, such as those in the beginner stage, thereby delivering more effective support. Following these principles we’re able to meet parents where they are. Further, our custom-built BOT and IVRS technology is designed to be usable by every parent - regardless of their literacy level through our simplified user experience. This combination of an early, parent-centric, contextual, and user- friendly intervention is one that Meraki uniquely provides today, one that now commands unprecedented engagement rates (72% engagement 10 times a month) from parents within these low income communities.
Describe the core technology that your solution utilizes.
Technology is one of the core pillars of Meraki’s intervention. Our technology offering is two-pronged: there’s a chatbot for smartphone users and an IVR system for feature phone users. Our bot and IVR technology are designed to be usable by every parent - regardless of their literacy level or the type of mobile phone they can access
Meraki’s chatbot is a proprietary piece of software that has been developed in-house on top of Facebook’s Messenger Platform. This chatbot has three modular components: the front-end (Messenger), backend (AWS DynamoDB) and a Node.js server that facilitates the communication between these two using webhooks and HTTP requests. The entire product is packaged and deployed on an AWS EC2 instance.
Since a majority of our beneficiaries are illiterate, conventional chatbots built on text base would have failed. This is the reason why our chatbots use effective iconography for user input, are entirely voice based, interactive and completely user-friendly.
Meraki’s Chatbot -
Meraki’s IVR-based product is built on top of a SaaS product called Sarv. Sarv allows schedule automated calls to our beneficiaries to deliver content to them as well as an option for parents to leave feedback or talk to a Meraki Margdarshak for guidance.
This nuanced approach to technology development by accounting for usability barriers in low-income settings has helped Meraki build confidence in parents, increase adoption and deliver a product with sector-leading engagement: 72% parents interact with our technology over 10 times per month.
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Why do you expect your solution to address the problem?
Meraki’s theory of change is: Improving parenting support in low income communities amplifies parenting ability which boosts child development outcomes. Through our last intervention in 10 low income communities in Delhi, we’ve been able to prove that Improving parenting support (access to Meraki’s program) in low income communities improves parents awareness (of their child’s development and of steps they can take to contribute to that development) and self-confidence; thus positively impacting their child’s cognition and literacy. We’ve also tracked engagement metrics for which we’ve seen 72% parents interact with our IVRS technology over 10 times per month.
Here are some key findings from the impact study:
1. We’ve been able to prove that improved support amplifies Parental ability. For example, as compared to:
48.3% parents in control group, 78.1% parents in focus group are able to articulate their own child’s language development needs
48.5% parents in control group, 100% parents in focus group are able to articulate the steps needed to improve child’s language development
36% parents in control group, 73% parents in focus group are confident in their ability to cater to their child’s developmental needs
2. Amplified parenting improves child’s language outcomes:
As compared to average literacy level of 1.56 in control group, children in focus group displayed average literacy level of 1.75
As compared to average cognitive level of 1.34 in control group, children in focus group displayed an average cognition level of 1.56
Select the key characteristics of the population your solution serves.
In which countries do you currently operate?
In which countries will you be operating within the next year?
How many people are you currently serving with your solution? How many will you be serving in one year? How about in five years?
The total number of parents we’re serving currently are 1500. In the coming year, we will be serving 5000 parents to test out implementation through state run Anganwadis (preschools). This will be our first step in building a replicable model of scale to be implemented across different urban low-income communities across India. In the next 5 years, Meraki will be present in 5 states (Delhi, Maharashtra, Telangana, Haryana and Karnataka) impacting 15 lakh parents.
What are your goals within the next year and within the next five years?
We believe that building parent capacity is the path to ensure a nation of school ready children. Over the next two years, Meraki aims to take its existing on-ground learnings and build a replicable model of the parent program for statewide implementation within urban preschools (Anganwadis), given the gaping disparity of nonprofits working in the early childhood domain.
By March 2020 (next year), we would have implemented our current “Margdarshaq” program across 350 preschools, impacting 5000 parents, for two strategic purposes:
1. To decentralise our intervention by building the capacity of the state to implement this program, away from direct implementation.
2. Test if existing preschool workers qualify as “Margdarshaqs”, which can help achieve rapid scale.
Additionally, we believe our ability to innovate and experiment is the key to long term success. Therefore, our financial sustainability goals over the next year are:
1. diversified funding base with no single type of funder contributing > 40% of budget (to distribute risk/reduce dependencies)
2. unrestricted operating capital ≥ 25% of budget to fuel innovation (to fuel innovation and experimentation)
By 2024, we aim to expand our program across urban landscape of 4 additional Indian states impacting 15 lakh parents. Our financial sustainability goals over the next five years are:
1. diversified funding base with no single type of funder contributing > 30% of funds.
2. unrestricted operating capital ≥ 35% of total budget ( to feed innovation and expansion)
What are the barriers that currently exist for you to accomplish your goals for the next year and for the next five years?
Market Access: Meraki leverages local/state governments to access our target BoP beneficiaries. This enables us to lower beneficiary acquisition cost & scale faster. But, change in political and/or bureaucratic leadership in Delhi may risk beneficiary access and our plans to implement a statewide program in the coming years.
Funding: Parent engagement programs are relatively new to the education paradigm, much of the work is still uncharted and requires experimentation. However, currently for Meraki, lack of unrestricted funding is a big barrier to innovation and growth.
Market Access: Parent Centred Interventions are relatively new in the education ecosystem. Although there’s some evidence that proves the relevance of parenting interventions in the developed world, there’s little evidence present in the developing world/ in the Indian ecosystem. A lot more effort will be required to enable state governments to adapt such interventions and focus on early childhood given that the overall funding in the sector has seen a downward trend.
Operational Risk: Recruiting talented, driven professionals who align with the vision of Meraki, as well as maintaining high motivation levels of existing employees, in the face of the debilitating poverty and circumstances they witness every day, is challenging.
How are you planning to overcome these barriers?
1. Market Access:
To mitigate such risk, we engage deeply with officials at different levels within the administration by building strong relationships with the support staff of the leadership, which the leadership banks upon for institutional knowledge. Apart from that, we have built strong relationships with some of the largest not-for-profits including Teach for India.
To mitigate this challenge, we aim to diversify our funding base to achieve the following fundraising goals:
A. Diversified funding base (across HNI’s, Foundation, Govt. and CSR grants) with no single contribution source > 40%
B. Unrestricted operating capital ≥ 25% of budget
1. Market Access: To create credible evidence, Meraki is already partnering with University of Chicago to assess impact and create a stronger advocacy around Meraki’s parenting interventions. University of Chicago will help conduct the Impact evaluation of Margdarshak program as well as bring credibility to the intervention study.
Meraki will need to continue to invest in similar credible partnerships across academia/universities, not-for-profits, government, civil society and corporates in order to increase advocacy as well as create significant traction that results in adoption of the program by state governments.
2. Operational Risk: In order to mitigate such risks, Meraki invests in strong personnel policies, including recruitment, retention and professional development, for the organisation are necessary. While the recruitment and retention policy sets the guiding principles for hiring and checks for mission alignment in new staff, a comprehensive professional development policy can help improve staff’s investment in Meraki and thereby its own motivation.
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How many people work on your solution team?
We are a team of 11. 7 employees are full time and there are 4 full time interns working with us.
For how many years have you been working on your solution?
Why are you and your team best-placed to deliver this solution?
Meraki is a great mix of individuals with diverse skill-sets and sensibilities. Seemant’s deep understanding of the space, his experience of having run large scale programs across different fields of technology, public policy, curriculum helps us keep our work focussed and aligned across various verticals. He is the principal fundraiser for the organisation. Mehek’s prior experience of working with affordable private school chains across Delhi, with government and in a policy think tanks brings in the required expertise to build advocacy and partnerships across the Delhi landscape. Manyata’s prior experience of having taught in government schools and having interacted with parents on a day to day basis makes him a miracle worker with both the content and also the pedagogical side of the intervention.
Sandhya and Paravati (content) are master facilitators whose amazing ability to gel with our beneficiaries, to connect with them at a deeper level makes them a great asset to have. Noor’s vast experience, grit and willingness to learn helps him orchestrate the intervention on the ground as the Hub Manager. We balance the programmatic aspects of our intervention by marrying them with new age technologies via Ratik who is a hardcore techie. Ratik is a quick learner who helps bring the power of voice and local content alive so that more and more illiterate parents can access the content sent by Meraki. Viren’s key eye for design helps put together our product and communication.
With what organizations are you currently partnering, if any? How are you working with them?
Meraki leverages its networks in the education space to gain access to beneficiaries, for the following reasons:
- Significantly lower operations cost, therefore lower onboarding cost of beneficiaries
- leverage established trust of channel partners
- Lower barriers to entry imply faster adoption of intervention within communities
Our channel partners include:
1. Delhi Government(DG): DG give us access into Anganwadis, and enable us to directly interact with the beneficiaries. Our Margdarshaks or the Anganwadi workers conducts the intervention directly with the parents there.
2. Simple Education Foundation (SEF) :Partners such as SEF enable Meraki to reach a wider beneficiary base with our “train-the-trainer” B2B approach. These organisations have easy access to parent beneficiaries, but do not have the programs or domain expertise to work with parents. This is where Meraki comes in.
3. University of Chicago: UChicago will be conducting the Monitoring and Evaluation of our 2019-20 program. Their work will, additionally, help us assess Meraki’s intervention for fidelity and compliance.
4. Cisco: Cisco is helping Meraki build its unique brand of empathetic technology- A technology that delivers & responds with services based on inner needs of the user and creates the behavioural nudges required for success at scale.
What is your business model?
The BoP families we work with face issues of intergenerational and multidimensional poverty, i.e. poor quality of education, healthcare and living standards, and therefore cannot afford to pay for additional products or services. Consequently, we do not have any revenue generation model that arises from our relationship with the beneficiary.
Our revenue generation and financing relies on grants and donations. We have a strong track record of raising money from notable institutional investors such as Micheal & Susan Dell foundation, Omidyar Network and USAID through grants and donations, totally $85,000 to date, and are confident in our ability to deliver tangible progress with the allocated funds in the future.
What is your path to financial sustainability?
Our 5 year financial sustainability goals are:
- Unrestricted operating capital ≥ 35% of budget
- Diversified funding base with no single contribution source > 30>#/i###
100% of our funds will be raised through grants, donations or CSR, however we plan to diversify and build multiple funding streams that vary by source and funding size to lower our financial risks. This will be achieved by targeting:
1. Foundations: 30%: Those that focus on education, on early childhood, and other organisations within similar geographical catchment areas
2. HNI’s: 30% : Tap into a broad spectrum of potential partners, who can either evangelise our work, provide follow-on capital through donations, or serve as professional thought partners for programs
3. CSR: 20% : Organisations with philanthropic interest alignment
4. Government Funds: 20% : Strategic alignment to governmental development goals
Since parent engagement programs are relatively new to the education paradigm, much of the work is still uncharted and requires experimentation. Our unrestricted operating capital will help us build and test some of these novel solutions that would otherwise not be possible with restricted/programmatic capital.
Why are you applying to Solve?
With our current technical capacity, Meraki is poised to effectively learn from and leverage mentorship and resources from MIT Solve, which will serve as a valuable springboard to increase the pace and depth of our impact. Solve’s network of around 100 innovators around 32 countries present a unique and unparalleled opportunity for organisations to collaborate, serve BoP communities across the country as well as provide nudges to innovate on technology front - especially in emerging technologies. We believe, we are well poised and suited to leverage the platform that will be provided to us.
Our leadership and operations teams have first-hand experience of over ten thousand man-hours working with low income communities, and a deep understanding of the space to contextualise solutions for underprivileged families. By working closely at the intersection of user experience and product development for multiple years, our project lead is able to effectively communicate these contextualised solutions into product requirements that take into account usability barriers to our technology teams. Our technology team consists of 2 members: who work closely to build our proprietary technology, and have collectively launched two Meraki bots, one on Facebook’s Messenger platform and the other on Telegram.
The difficulty of technological development is underscored when working within the constraints of low income setups, such as old phones, slow processing capacities and low storage capacities, while simultaneously ensuring high adoption and scalability. We believe that support and mentoring that MIT Solve provides will help amplify the pace of our progress.
What types of connections and partnerships would be most catalytic for your solution?
With what organizations would you like to partner, and how would you like to partner with them?
At this time, two organisations stand out who can help us with two critical elements of content and technology. These Solver teams are:
StoryWeaver - providing open access to multilingual stories for children to learn and practice reading. Storyweaver’s platform and its stories can become a great resource for parents and children to engage with.
Century Tech’s use of AI for personalization is something Meraki can learn from as we look towards integrating AI backed technologies into our system.
Both these aspects of great content as well as cutting edge technologies can help us accelerate our progress towards creating the behavioral nudges required for parents to take charge of their child’s learning and development
If you would like to apply for the AI Innovations Prize, describe how you and your team will utilize the prize to advance your solution. If you are not already using AI in your solution, explain why it is necessary for your solution to be successful and how you plan to incorporate it.
If you would like to apply for the Innovation for Women Prize, describe how you and your team will utilize the prize to advance your solution.
If you would like to apply for the Innospark Ventures Prize, describe how you and your team will utilize the prize to advance your solution. If your solution utilizes data, describe how you will ensure that the data is sourced, maintained, and used ethically and responsibly.
- Seemant Dadwal CEO, Meraki Margdarshak