Picture: Flyer of the SipShala digital platform

2020, what a year it was! If we run a live word cloud session in Mentimeter and trial an exercise, there are high chances that words such as COVID-19, pandemic and lockdown would be the dominating terms for the “most used words” in 2020. Along with these, another term used a lot in 2020 would probably be “Digital”. COVID-19 was an eye opener for people all over the world to acknowledge the power of digital innovations. This might have been the first time ever that the digital technologies were embraced to such an extent that, even after the vaccination, it is assumed that people will continue relying on zoom for their classes, meetings, family trivia and others. But it’s just not limited to that, a lot of communities and ecosystem players harnessed the power of technology and digital innovations and made use of non-conventional innovation tools and methods, which were not necessarily explored, tested or applied before.

As they say, every crisis is an opportunity, the COVID-19 pandemic also provided an opportunity to the governments, development agencies and innovation and digi-tech ecosystem players to make the best out of this expertise, capabilities and skills during the pandemic. A story like this, is of three of the City Mayors of Nepal, when they met with UNDP Accelerator Lab Nepal and CellApp.

It all started with sensing the human influx

COVID-19 didn’t just bring detrimental impacts on health and well-being of people, it also caused an immense impact on the socio-economic status of the people. Livelihood of many Nepalese got compromised, many went out of jobs, many were struggling to earn for their daily meals. Along with this, the country sensed a huge influx of in-coming migrants in the month of March 2020 itself when the lockdown started in Nepal, almost 500,000 Nepali women and men migrants entered through the Indian border to Nepal (acaps, 2020). It’s just not the migrants, but their families are also hard hit by the pandemic. According to a research done by Helvetas in Nepal (2020), over 80% of migrant families responded a significant drop in income; and for more than 60%, this was explained by a decrease in remittances. This was a big issue, sensed by a lot of stakeholders, including the Waling municipality, CellApp and UNDP Accelerator Lab Nepal. This whole situation was seen as a complex and wicked challenge, a challenge to put all our brains to address.

 

Picture: Migrants coming in from one of the Nepal India Borders (Sudurpaschim)

Then, exploration led to a glimmer of hope

While conducting a joint intelligence discussion session with the Returnee Migrants Association of Nepal, eye-opening insights were garnered wherein majority of the migrants who had returned to Nepal saw a ray of light to indulge in economic productivity in Nepal itself, mainly in the domains such as hospitality, eco-tourism, micro-entrepreneurship and agriculture. Returnee migrants, including young women and men, for whom many countries in the region have recognized as the “new poor” and “new vulnerable” groups, are equally important assets for boosting a country’s local economies. The Waling Municipality, Cellapp and the Accelerator Lab together wanted to make the best out of these young minds who have returned to Nepal and who are still in the process of returning, who have skillsets ranging from plumbing, ICT, electricity maintenance, supervising stores, accounting, cooking, plowing field and more!

 

Picture: Joint discussion session with local government officials on Sipshala digital platform

Hope turned into a solution and there was no patience for experimentations

Clock was ticking, time was less. As COVID-19 is a very dynamic phenomenon, we had to ideate something tangible, prototype it and test it to see its effectiveness over a period of time for the returnee migrants. In a matter of two months, we were able to design, develop and deploy an Artificial intelligence enabled digital system called SipShala (Skills Lab), that maps the skill sets of the returnee migrants and matches their skills sets and interests with the opportunity providers through job matching algorithms and support the local governments in database management. Along with Waling municipality, this platform has been recently trialed in other two local governments of Nepal- namely Biratnagar Metropolitan City of Province 1 and Birendranagar Municipality of Karnali province, Nepal.

 

The time is here, to wait and watch, and let the A.I. do its magic

The beauty of the SipShala digital platform is that it has a feature called A.I Magic, which is an innovative tool involving machine learning. This feature is developed to enhance the results of SipShala for better matching of opportunities from providers to seekers. A.I. Magic Module will learn user’s behaviors in terms of their interaction to the system. Such behaviors are applied as iterative feedback into the system and the outputs are further refined as per the increasing volume of user interactions. The system targets to match 100,000 opportunities via prompt outreach and partnership with local governments and private entities this year. As of end of January 2021, the figurative status on the system is as follows:

Opportunity seekers: 942 (after moderation)
Opportunity providers: 274 (after moderation)
Total apps downloads: 428
Total portal visitors: 3,820
Total logins to the system: 1456
Total average daily logins: 304
Total offers: 267
Total matches: 44 (after moderation)

Picture: A young women using the AI. Magic feature of the system

And most importantly - government’s ownership to champion digital transformation!

Making a digital tool is not the end goal but making the best use of it is. This pilot is ongoing in 3 local governments, and so far, the City mayors and their teams have shown commitment in taking it forward. An example that we can consider herewith is of Waling municipality. In Waling, the office of City Mayor is using Sipshala system to gather detailed information of those who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 (but not limited to) and map their skills for job opportunities. Waling also plans to work with other entities of Government of Nepal for data collection of unemployment people. Waling has dedicated IT personnel who looks after this system in close coordination with the Employment Coordinator Officer at Waling municipality office. Also, for better effectiveness, further refresher training to the government officials and human resources assistance in data collection is something that the office is giving priority to. The office looks forward in reducing the unemployment rates in the municipality through this system. 

Picture: Mayor of Waling Municipality (second from left) with his team

It will take some time to show the real impact of the system, as unemployment is a wicked and a complex issue to address. Also, experimenting new tests are not always that easy and fast to show the impact. However, we are together in this digital journey of addressing this complex issue by focusing on investing technical digital capabilities, having more accelerated learning, and exploring further avenues for resource mobilization opportunities for scaling.

 

UNDP and partners would like to thank the Regional Bureau of Asia and the Pacific (RBAP) team’s support with the Digital Catalytic Funds for this pilot implementation.

 

UNDP Accelerator Lab in Nepal is working closely with development partners, the private sectors and grassroot innovators as a “vehicle” to test innovative solutions around unplanned urbanization and unemployment. It is on a quest to invest technical expertise on these two frontier issues in order to map, and explore a portfolio of experiments to foresee more possibilities.

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