Confronting COVID-19 and the New Normal: Intense Needs. Immense Possibilities

“Voice of the Village” by Dharma Life, Siriti and the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development – event one.

How has Dharma Life supported rural Indians in its response to COVID-19? Rajesh Chandy, Academic Director of the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development was joined in conversation with Gaurav Mehta, CEO of Dharma Life, three female Dharma Life Entrepreneurs, Clive Allison from Unilever TRANSFORM, Barbara Müller from BMW Foundation, Andreas R. Kirchschläger from elea Foundation and DR SB Muniraju from NITI Aayog to discuss the founding of Dharma Life Labs and Sangram. This campaign revolves around data gathering, COVID-19 information sharing and local engagement to help female entrepreneurs and their communities during this challenging time.

  • Dharma Life Labs, a collaboration between Dharma Life, the Wheeler Institute and Siriti, sits at the core of all COVID-19 initiatives
  • Despite the hardship caused by the lockdown, Dharma Life Entrepreneurs (DLEs) have continued to serve their communities – whether it be by organizing new methods of sales to overcome disrupted supply chains or ensuring that rural medical professionals have the necessary PPE.
  • Global partners comprising the We for Village (“Sangram”) Alliance have highlighted how collaboration can lead to new ideas and can improve the ability to scale existing ideas. They have praised Dharma Life Lab’s data-driven solutions and unique understanding of the environment in which they operate.
  • The Indian Government has praised the collaboration between public and private sector entities in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and has given its full support to Dharma Life Labs and their campaigns

“Dharma Life Labs is at the core of our COVID-19 response” – Gaurav Mehta, Dharma Life

Dharma Life Labs is a new initiative that seeks to drive inclusive progress. It combines the expansive, hyper-local network of Dharma Life, the academic rigor of the Wheeler institute, and design and communication expertise of Siriti to deliver effective solutions at scale.

“We believe in the power of entrepreneurs” Andreas R. Kirchschläger, elea Foundation

A highlight of the roundtable was the opportunity to hear from three Dharma Life Entrepreneurs (DLEs) from three different Indian states. They shared their pre-pandemic Dharma Life stories and how they are using Dharma Life Labs’ Sangram Campaign to lead their communities through various COVID-19 challenges.

“Through the Sangram WhatsApp group, I was able to show others in my village ho they could still work and earn a living while staying at home.” -Manju Kanwar, Rajasthan

Manju Kanwar from Rajasthan explained that she had learnt a strong set of digital literacy skills whilst working for Dharma Life, after having had to quit her career in teaching when she became a mother. At the beginning of lockdown, many people in Manju’s village were unable to access essential services, such as accessing bank accounts and recharging mobile phones, without face to face meetings. Manju created her Sangram WhatsApp group and used it to train villagers to use their mobile phones to complete these important tasks. Having improved the digital literacy skills of over 100 villagers, the local Panchayat (village leader) selected Manju to be a government COVID-19 program master trainer. Since then, she has trained over 300 people on COVID-19 prevention measures.

“There was a lot of confusion during the lockdown. I went to the police headquarters and requested a full list of all rules and laws that were being implemented. I use the Sangram WhatsApp group to spread this information and was able to reduce the confusion and the fines that people were playing.” – Rohini Shirke, Maharashtra

Rohini Shirke from Maharashtra discussed the breakdown of the farming supply chain in her village. Due to the lockdown, farmers could not reach their buyers due to markets being shut down.  Rohini used her Sangram WhatsApp group to organise home visits whereby buyers would visit farmers directly to buy their produce. Rohini’s solution saved produce and the livelihoods of both farmers and buyers. Encouraged by the ability to help, Rohini has gone on to become a community leader during COVID-19 by coordinating the supply of information and PPE from local government to local communities.

“Sharing information has reduced fears [over COVID-19].” – Yasmin Parvin, Uttar Pradesh

Yasmin Parvin from Uttar Pradesh spoke about finding new sources of income during lockdown. Yasmin’s family, like many others, saw a loss of income due to lockdown restrictions and COVID-19 uncertainty. Yasmin saw a growing demand for masks and started to make and sell them, earning her several thousand rupees in sales. But Yasmin did not stop there. She shared her techniques and templates for mask making with her Sangram WhatsApp group so that others could earn money for their families. This information sharing has improved the lives of rural Indian families and created a community that shares various tips and techniques.

 “[Achieving] sustainable goals cannot be done alone – it requires mechanisms for collaboration.” -Clive Allison, Unilever Transform

A key element to the success of Dharma Life Labs is the support it receives from a wide range of global partners. The panel was fortunate to be joined by three of these partners during this event: the BMW Foundation, Unilever Transform, and the elea Foundation. These partners focused on the importance of collaboration and knowledge sharing, as well as an appreciation for the initiative’s unique approach to the COVID-19 pandemic response in rural Indian communities.

Barbara Müller spoke briefly on the BMW Foundation’s work to advance progress on many of the UN’s sustainable development goals. She emphasized that much of the progress they have made has been a result of connecting leaders and creators together in a collaborative way. Clive Allison from Unilever Transform also touched on the importance of collaboration and highlighted how large corporation like Unilever can lend their expertise and reach to scale solutions from initiatives like Dharma Life Labs. He also touched on Unilever Transform’s “Survive and Thrive” program, set up to provide financial support to entrepreneurs. Guarav Mehta, Dharma Life CEO, expressed how the inspiration from this program had “stuck with him from day one.” The elea Foundation, represented by Andreas Kirchschläger, noted its similar mission to support development through entrepreneurship. Andreas praised Dharma Life Labs’ ability to understand the nuances of the areas where it focuses its efforts, act quickly based on data, and continuously iterate and improve upon the activities that it rolls out.

“Dharma Life is a great initiative – it is critical to combine government and grassroots support to fight COVID-19” Dr. Muniraju, National Institute for Transforming India Commission

COVID-19 has presented governments around the world with unprecedent problems to solve. Dr Muniraju from NITI Aayog, a policy thinktank of the government of India, explained that partnering with grassroots organisation such as Dharma Life Labs has been key to India’s COVID-19 response. Information gathered at the hyperlocal level and analysed to create meaningful insights is shaping new government policy and testing the awareness and efficacy of implemented support schemes.

Dharma Life is also producing community leaders, such as Manju, Rohini and Yasmin, who are interfacing with local governments to communicate the needs of villagers and spread official messaging regarding COVID-19 symptoms and prevention measures. This is particularly important in the age of fake news, in which social media has amplified harmful misinformation. Dr Muniraju was keen to praise the work of Dharma Life and called for even closer collaboration between the grassroots and government moving forward.

Dharma Life Labs uncovers the stories of the individuals behind the statistics to drive our insights” Professor Rajesh Chandy, The Wheeler Institute for Business and Development

The Wheeler Institute and Dharma Life have a series of further talks covering other aspects of Dharma Life Labs in the coming weeks and months

“Confronting the New Normal: Intense Needs. Immense Possibilities” was the first of six roundtables to be hosted by Dharma Life Labs and the Wheeler Institute in 2020.  Our next session introduces the Jaya Alliance, an initiative to help women in rural India form livelihoods. The aim of this project is expressed in this quotation: “When a woman realises her potential, she lifts everyone around her.” This conversation involves partners from the Ford Foundation and UN Women, Jaya participants from rural India and more gathered to discuss the empowerment of marginalised women in rural villages and how such women can be enabled to create livelihoods for themselves.

Dharma Life Labs welcomes the support and ideas of individuals and organisations, as well as the opportunity to collaborate with others. Sharing insights and solutions and learning from one another can bring about real change at scale. The Voice of the Village roundtables are open to anyone interested and more information can be found at www.dharmalifelabs.com or by emailing dharmalifelabs@dharmalifefoundation.org


Oliver Sloman and Geric Dunford are both Project Officers at the Wheeler Institute and MBA 2020 alumni at London Business School. They have been working with Dharma Life for the last 6 months.

The Wheeler Institute, individual faculty and PhD students at London Business School, have been working with Dharma Life for nearly 10 years, almost since the inception of the organisation. The Wheeler Institute collaboration with Dharma Life, thanks to Gaurav Mehta (MBA2010) the founder and many others at Dharma Life, covers all three pillars of the Wheeler Institute: conducting rigorous research, forging communities of practice and shaping business education.

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