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Maid in India

How entrepreneur Gauri Singh plans to use technology to disrupt housekeeping.

People often grumble about the limited culinary repertoire of their trusty housekeeper, who has probably cooked up the same tedium for several years. With professional exertions and sometimes kids to manage, no one has the time to teach the household cook new recipes. Those who want to add variety to their diets needn't despair. Gauri Singh, the founder and CEO of The Maids' Company (TMC), has come up with a clever solution: free-to-download maid trainer app DekhoSeekho (Hindi for "look and learn"), launched for Android devices on September 13. (The iOS version is coming in the next 30 days.) A first-of-its-kind app, it has been in the works for two years during which more than 50 domestic workers tried it out. The app seeks to improve the skill sets, and thereby, the income levels of domestic helpers, whose population totals 4 million, a majority of them women.

It is something of a personal mission for Singh, who has spent Rs 1.3 crore of her own money on the app. It furthers the work of her company TMC that has trained 3,000 female workers for 1,500 clients in Gurgaon. The app provides training in the form of instructional videos on how to make shepard’s pie, or rajma chawal, or on how to clean a room in a professional, sanitary manner. There are actually two apps that work in conjunction with one another: DekhoSeekho Manager for employers and DekhoSeekho Worker for the domestic help. (At present, they are only available in Hindi.) Via the manager app, the employer can remotely leave voice instructions and choose from a smorgasbord of European and Indian dishes. The message will be delivered to the maid on the worker’s app, which then provides the video for the chosen recipe. There are 275 recipe videos and another 150 will be released in batches of up to 20 videos every month; there are also 25 videos on how to handle laundry, clean homes, and even on how to fold shirts properly (there should not be more than two middle creases); and another six on ‘etiquette’.

Think of it as a Coursera for maids; easy to access and most importantly completely free. “In our experience, domestic workers who say ‘thank you’ and ‘please’, dress professionally (no untidy hair or stubble), and know that you must always knock before entering a room, can charge a premium between 10% to 25%,” says Singh, who aims to raise $1 million (Rs 6.3 crore) within a year for the app. She believes the app can swing 10,000 downloads in 90 days.

But how will Singh recover her investment, if she doesn't plan to charge either clients or domestic workers for the app? The revenue will come from advertisers on the app, she explains.

Further, the scope of the platform extends far beyond domestic workers, Singh says. It can be used to deliver virtually any form of training videos. “We have built a platform which any company can use to deliver training modules in the hands of their workers.” In this way, a separate paid app using the same platform can bring in the cash in the future.

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The DekhoSeekho app.

Singh has the weight of experience in the housekeeping sector. For more than five years, she has run TMC, which has gained repute not just for providing clients well-trained domestic help but also for upholding the rights of its employees with fixed work hours and type of tasks. TMC's maids are paid salaries ranging from Rs 8,000 to Rs 20,000 a month, significantly higher than market rates. The company's motto, ‘naukar nahin, naukri’ (not servants, but professionals), also resonates with its employees.

Two years ago, Singh began to wonder how to expand her employees’ skill sets, and tried out a bunch of things, including after-work training classes for domestic help. “I discovered that there was little incentive for people, most of them were women, who had to go back from work and take care of their home, their children etc., so couldn’t afford to spend time in a classroom after work,” says Singh.

That puzzle—how to enhance skill sets of domestic workers—has confounded the Indian government for decades. While domestic labour is one of the safest places for impoverished women to work (far safer than, for instance, male-dominated construction sites where sexual abuse and violence is rampant), there are no avenues for professional training to boost the meagre earnings of these workers.

Says Rumjhum Chatterjee, group managing director of Feedback Infra which has studied the skill development problem in the domestic worker sector, "Better skills mean better jobs. But the help does not have the free time to go learn something; they would rather work and make money or take care of their own homes at that time. Solving this problem is a critical missing link."

It is this lacuna Singh wishes to fill. She asked: How could she take skill training to the millions of domestic workers across India?

Technology seemed the most obvious answer. “I would see my workers buy a mobile phone, and as prices came down, a smartphone. They all had WhatsApp and would use the app to interact with the office and clients. They would watch or download videos on the phone all the time,” says Singh, “So tech was the answer.”

Singh is tapping into her network of clients and domestic workers, encouraging them to download and use DekhoSeekho. Each individual video can be downloaded and watched offline. The videos are low resolution, light downloads. The worker app is a fairly snappy download at just 7.48 megabytes.

Says Rinita Singh, group managing director of Quantum Consumer Services, an early adopter of the DekhoSeekho app: “The videos are shot with a focus on teaching and instruction. [The app] is user friendly, has visual icons, and the interface is intuitive. The calendar gives me a record of what the family has eaten over a period of time. And menu planning becomes easier as I do not have to locate recipes and teach. I can sit down and create a week’s menu. The two app thing is really great, it enables me to ensure that standards are maintained and the family gets variety, and most important, it gives my cook motivation and inspires him to take pride in his work.”

Domestic workers, too, find the app engaging. Mamta Yadav moved to Delhi from Kanpur in 2003 and works as a cook (income: Rs 10,000 a month). She has learnt three recipes off the app already—kebabs, baked bottle gourd koftas, and honey chilli potatoes. Another worker, 23-year-old Albisiya Kerketta from Jharkhand says, “I found the housekeeping and how-to-behave videos useful because often one does not know what to do in a situation and can make mistakes. Having it all together on the phone helps.” Kerketta, who is also taking spoken English lessons, has downloaded the app on her phone and uses it regularly.

Chatterjee, who has for many years worked closely with the government on how to improve labour conditions for domestic workers, says: “Just the fact that you can have a domestic help who uses technology everyday bridges what I call the dignity gap. There is more respect, and more income, for such a worker. This is a huge achievement in a country where domestic help as been seen often with some disdain.”

The opportunity before Singh is enormous­—if DekhoSeekho succeeds, it can redefine the relationship between millions of maids and their employers. And if it does that, this free, easy-to-use app could be worth millions.