In 2018, Delhi-based ZMQ Development won businessline’s Changemaker Award for digital transformation. The award was for the many digital innovations on health and education that ZMQ had pioneered, especially its mobile phone channel MIRA, or Mobile Integrated Resources for Aurat. This channel delivered important health information in a fun and interactive way to pregnant women and adolescent girls in rural India, Uganda and Afghanistan, thereby saving lives.
What has changed for ZMQ since then? Well, plenty – its work has scaled spectacularly. But the problems it was tackling has got added complexity, thanks to the pandemic and increased conflicts in society.
In August 2023, ZMQ turned 25, and its founders, brothers Hilmi and Subhi Qureishi, who had passionately told businessline in 2018 that they would rather touch a billion lives than earn a billion dollars, say they feel humbled when they look back on their journey of initiating social behaviour change.
For, since 2018, ZMQ has scaled in a big way – from India, Afghanistan and East Africa, it has now expanded into West Africa. It has also set up an international NGO in Quebec, Canada.
“India is a strong leader of the South. Activism on social change has been happening here for over 200 years, with leaders like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Vinobha Bhave. So, many social change programmes are tested here and can be taken to other developing countries,” says Hilmi.
A passionate advocate of Global South-South cooperation, Hilmi says it was logical to take their ideas to countries that had problems similar to India. “Africa is like India. There are similar issues about healthcare, education, poverty, hunger. Any social innovation tested and proven in India can work there. And India being an elder brother in South-South relations should help others,” he says.
While East Africa, which was largely Anglophone was not a problem, Hilmi says they faced challenges in Francophone West Africa. As funds were coming from French speaking countries such as Belgium and Canada, it decided to set up the NGO in Quebec for interventions in West Africa, he explains.
While ZMQ’s work has scaled globally, Hilmi says India still remains a major laboratory for the company. “We do maternal child health education interventions, programmes on tuberculosis, women entrepreneurship, and immunisation here. But the whole model is the same,” he says.
And, it’s the technological innovations of ZMQ that have led to partnerships with several international non-profits such as the Red Cross. “Red Cross has projects in eight countries in North Africa. While they have a huge infrastructure and network, they lack the expertise of technology. We basically supplement the technology for their solutions,” says Hilmi. “Our objective is to help them scale the impact through use of technology,” he says.
In 2018, when businessline spoke to Hilmi, he had emphasised how ZMQ had developed technology to work in low-resource settings. “But in five years, things have changed quite a bit. We have moved to very complex settings. The settings are still low resource and backward, but now issues have been compounded by the Covid pandemic, climate change, migration and conflict,” he explains.
This has an impact on how they train communities on the ground, and the technology. The MIRA channel is widely used, but ZMQ is now adding AI to its technology pack. The areas of intervention, too, have expanded — from teaching mothers how to spot pneumonia in children to financial literacy and awareness about SRHR (sexual and reproductive health and rights).
Looking back at the 25 years, Hilmi says, “We could never have envisaged we could have done so much. It’s largely because of technology which has a tendency to help scale.” He insists that being in India has given a big boost as the whole ecosystem of technology and social transformation is now well developed here.
Subhi Querishi describes how in its early days ZMQ had an entry-level literacy toolkit for rural adults, women and youth, which involved carrying bulky computers to villages. Over the years the learning was that you cannot design solutions in a Metro office but that communities where the intervention was happening needed to be part of solution-design process. Thanks to the mobile revolution, ‘Technology for Development’ organisation truly took off.