Emerging innovations in communities where people solve problems in scarcity situations can be a huge (and legitimate) source of learning and are ,by no means, anomalies or deviant cases. Some of these solutions may be so efficient that they are worth scaling up. Image: CO-LabAr - UNDP Argentina

The case of the “Con Vos” network for digital inclusion


Grassroots innovations arising from problem solving in scarcity can be a huge (and legitimate) source of learning, and they are, by no means, anomalies or outliers. Some of these solutions can be so efficient that they are worth scaling. But how do we know which of them work? Experimenting! Here is a tale of finding, testing, and scaling a grassroot solution to foster digital inclusion and community markets, while preventing the spread of the COVID19, all at the same time.

Before telling our tale, let me first explain why grassroots innovations matter. When I was a little girl I was impressed by how MacGyver could solve very complex problems with just a few resources at hand. While this creativity has been honored with a verb MacGyverit, in Argentina, we have a sort of analogous expression: “Lo atamos con alambre” (we tie it with a wire) that has very pejorative connotations instead. When you “tie it with a wire” it means that you do not apply the best solution, but that you rustle it up. It means that someone is lazy, seeks the easiest solution, is not prepared enough for the task or just lacks the resources to solve the issue at hand with the right solution. The “tie it with a wire” result, by default, will be suboptimal, improvised, informal and, in the best case scenario, a "laugh now, cry later" solution.  

However, while some problems are very urgent, the best proven solutions sometimes are too costly, take too long or just arrive too late for those who are affected by these problems. As a result, in the meantime, in these contexts, people's resourcefulness emerges. We believe that we can learn from these resources. And here we share an example.

In 2019, we first learned about a solution by which a young local store owner from a low  income neighborhood helped her neighbors doing digital mandatory tasks when they felt they were not proficient or lacked the devices to do these tasks by themselves. This solution became crucial when, overnight, all (shops, government subsidies, payments) became fully remote during the strict lockdown established due to the COVID19 outbreak in 2020. The solution is very intuitive, in some cases, carried out by shop owners, in others by local leaders or just peers who support other neighbors with their online tasks and charge a very small fee for their services. But why has this solution worked? What are its effects? What can we learn from it?

We have three hypotheses in relation with the contribution of this solution. It fosters digital literacy and, therefore, digital inclusion because people will count on (and learn from) the help from their peers to do their digital tasks -such as paying bills, enrolling their kids in school or making an appointment to renew their driver’s licence-. It also helps to decentralize crowded offices in the context of the pandemic because when people find help near their homes to do online tasks they will be discouraged to go in person to these offices. And lastly, it will help with the development of community markets as local stores can increase sales and new clients will go to the stores seeking for these services.

To know if this solution works we have just launched an experiment in partnership with the municipality of Concepción del Uruguay, Entre Ríos, Argentina. Together we created the “Con Vos” network that today gathers 31 local stores that help neighbors do basic digital tasks.  

In the experiment, we wanted to know why people choose to do their online tasks in these shops, if having information about the shops in the network or discounts -regardless the fact stores get a very small fee for their services- would encourage neighbors to go to their nearby stores, if they go to these stores for the first time and also if they buy some products while doing their digital tasks with the help of the shop owner. In addition, we wanted to find out if giving some support to the shop owners would encourage and make it easier for them to offer the “Con vos” services.

To answer these questions we designed three experimental groups. For the first group, we delivered neighbors coupons with different discounts to use the “Con vos” network in the shops of this group that were also listed in the coupons. We also gave them printers and advertising material.

The second group of shops is not listed in the coupons nor do they accept them. But we also did give printers and advertising material to them. Lastly, the third group (control group) remains constant.

All the information necessary to reply to the questions stated above is being collected through Google forms that shop owners must fill out and also thanks to regular visits from people of the municipality.

.It is still too early to know the answers to these questions. So far we have learnt from a grassroot innovation and singled out its main components to use these inputs to solve a persistent problem: gaps in digital inclusion and the backwardness of community markets. We have sketched a number of relevant hypotheses attached to this innovation, and we are testing them in the field. Not without mentioning that, in the meantime,  we have already left an installed capacity in a municipality thanks to the network of shops within "Con Vos". The experiment is still running and we are very excited to evaluate its results!

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