How one Indian social enterprise drew on inspiration, innovation and mentoring to build a training platform for rural health workers in India and beyond.

India has the highest child mortality rate in the world, with nearly 1.65 million children dying in 2011 alone. Tragically, this is largely a result of preventable causes: neonatal death, measles and inadequate management of diarrhoea and pneumonia.  Their impact disproportionately afflicts poor households, where infant deaths are almost three times higher than the national average.

The reasons given for India’s high child mortality include a limited number of effective healthcare investments prioritising the poor; a shortage of healthcare facilities and committed doctors at the grassroots level; and inadequate training provisions for community health workers.

Seeking to raise the competency of health workers in poorer communities, husband-and-wife team Abhinav and Shrutika Girdhar founded a social enterprise called Bodhi Health Education, that delivers a low-cost, efficient training system for rural health workers on tablets, smartphones, and computers.

The inspiration for Bodhi lay in the role that public health – or lack of it – played in the founders’ childhoods.

Shrutika grew up in Mumbai, India’s wealthiest city, but she was sensitive to the plight of villagers where her grandparents reside, a four-hour bus ride away. “In my village, which has a population of 2,000, there is only a single dispensary and doctor. It is definitely not enough,” says the zealous engineering and business graduate, whose seven years’ working in IT in India and the UK provided the necessary technical expertise to launch Bodhi.

Abhinav was raised by devoted doctors who laboured for three decades to improve public health in the city of Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. “Healthcare was always a given for me,” says Abhinav whose start-up leadership abilities and business acumen were honed through five years in corporate finance with the likes of Deloitte, PwC and Intellecap.

The Girdhars’ technological innovation and entrepreneurial approach proved a good market fit.  Bodhi’s software is pre-loaded onto a central server and then disseminated to hardware devices — tablets, computers, and smartphones — supplied by governments and private hospitals.  “There is now enough interest in the government to procure hardware,” Abhinav says. Health workers adapted quickly to e-learning on mobile devices as it is commonplace, simple and intuitive.  “Android phones with a large screen are the flavour of the day,” Abhinav says.

Bodhi tailors the training content to the needs of community health workers, many of whom have limited formal education. The software is a “digital teacher” that learners access at their own pace. Bodhi simplifies complex medical topics such as immunisation, nutrition and disease prevention. The curriculum, written by medical specialists on Bodhi’s team, is explained through pictures and videos in the Hindi vernacular. This ensures the training is standardised. And it can be monitored.

Initially, the Girdhars met with resistance from stakeholders, who were reluctant to embrace new ways of thinking. “Nobody thought that technology could be a tool for educating healthcare,” Abhinav says. Undaunted, they persisted and continuously improved their product, conducting free pilot tests to assess users’ needs. Eventually, they won over key decision makers, and were able to provide standardised training to over 600 health workers within one and a half years. In February 2015, they will train 400 more.

They attribute part of their success in building Bodhi to the training and mentoring they have received through local and international social enterprise training programmes and business plan competitions.

Participating in a three-day boot camp in Singapore organised by the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia  provided access to experienced mentors who helped them to validate and refine their business model and challenged them to establish partnerships overseas. In the process, Bodhi’s business model pivoted from creating content to providing a platform for training and capacity building institutions. They now aim to introduce their product to other parts of the developing world, particularly in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, and are currently writing a proposal to implement Bodhi in Afghanistan.

“We have been continuously interacting with DBS, getting help with the networks in India…Similarly, NUS [National University of Singapore] has been very forthcoming in opening doors in terms of professors from NUS who significantly add to the strategy part of the business,” says Abhinav. Coming in first place in an accelerator programme run by India’s Centre for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship IIM Ahmedabad in 2014 gave them the added boost needed to scale. In March 2015, Bodhi will be showcasing their product under a healthcare delivery programme with Duke University’s Social Entrepreneurship accelerator.

Funding remains the greatest challenge to reaching scale. Their initial seed capital came from personal savings, with sustained help from their parents which enabled them  to conduct self-funded pilot tests with the government. Since then they have secured one paying customer in Assam and won investment by placing among the top three in a number of business plan competitions. This award funding is enabling Bodhi to engage more medical specialists to increase the range of their curriculum and broaden their product reach. Their next target is to raise equity investment and grant capital to expand further.

So what has been the Girdhars’ secret to making their business work?  Abhinav cites building trust, communicating clearly and staying focused. His parting message to aspiring social entrepreneurs is this: “Always be a lean start-up. Ensure that you keep on iterating your project and don’t be bogged down by getting a perfect product in the market.”

The British Council is a proud partner of the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia.

This business support competition for social enterprises in Asia is currently inviting aspiring and practicing social entrepreneurs across the region to apply to join its next cohort and compete for a grand prize of S$100,000 (£50,000). It is open to start-up and existing social enterprises that have the potential to generate positive, scalable and sustainable social impact. Anyone with an idea or existing venture to create beneficial social impact in Asia can apply. If you’re inspired to make change, you can find out more and apply to join the competition here.

To keep updated on Bodhi Health Education, visit their website.

Note: This post, authored by NUS Enterprise, was shared on The Guardian’s British Council Partner Zone section in February 2015.