Can a Community Producer like Samata, from a slum in Mumbai, ever become fully competitive in a mainstream market?

In thinking about Video Volunteers’ future work, I’m realizing we need to develop new models of community video that are scalable and allow for video to be a livelihood for thousands of the world’s poor. We’ve developed a new idea for a program – a fellowship program where up to 200 community members across india (and when we have the resources, many other countries) would be trained in using flip cams to produce very short, very simple advocacy videos on different subjects to be used by different foundations and campaigns. We like the idea because it is low cost and scalable. It got me thinking, ‘what are our key learnings about video as a livelihood option for the poor?’

What we’ve done and learned to date:
• 85 community members currently work full-time within ‘Community Video Units’ set up in partnership with NGOs
• Each Producer earns between Rs. 2,500-5,000 per month, ($50-100)
• 25% of the Community Video Units that have been working for more than 3 years now earn about 20- 30% of their yearly operating costs through earned income
• Video Volunteers has partnered with the leading business school in India, the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, to conduct a research project on how to make CVUs sustainable. This will involve creating business plans for multiple CVUs
• Community Video Units earn money through various means, such as producing wedding videos, renting out their equipment, selling DVDs of their videos in the communities, having villages pay for screenings, doing shoots for members in the community who have things they want documented (ie, a student’s high school graduation or a road that the government is refusing to repair), conducting screenings of films made by other NGOs, conducting trainings in video production, shooting video for TV and producing films for other NGOs
• Producing films for other NGOs is the primary way a Community Video Unit earns money at the moment. By tapping into the strong NGO networks in India that Video Volunteers and their host NGO bring them, they can earn a large sum (say up to $2000 in some cases) from one film. All of the other ways of earning money bring in far less
• The amount of money earned is not necessarily the most important indicator of whether the group of Community Producers is financially viable. For instance, getting ten community members to buy DVDs for $1 each may indicate future sustainability more strongly than a single NGO commission worth two or three thousand dollars. For us, community ownership is key to local sustainability
• Some income has been earned/will be earned from television stations through our participation in projects such as Pangea Day and Beyond Green, a project of Listen Up!, doing shoots for CNN IBN in India, MTV and planned projects with PBS. We need to become more efficient in producing for television because usually the amount earned is far less than the investment we make in producing the video. This is a challenge for all “base of the pyramid” businesses such as women’s textile cooperatives
• With video as a livelihood option, the cost of training and of equipment is very high as compared to other livelihoods the poor engage in. however, the potential for earning is also relatively higher
• Community Producers should be able to work as stringers for local news stations. Often, television stations don’t have people working in the far-flung areas and our producers have the benefit of geography. We intend to explore this further as we launch the fellowship program (described below).

Video Volunteers has developed and implemented several different models for how video can be a livelihood option for the poor, some of which have been more successful than others. The key learnings with each are summarized below:

• Short term, volunteer filmmaker trainings – from 2003-2005 we used a model of short-term intensive trainings of NGO staff and community members, conducted by volunteer filmmakers. Our hypothesis was that one could, given the state of technology today, train 100s of NGOs and community members at extremely low-cost by using existing computers and video equipment in the NGOs and volunteer filmmakers. But this isn’t a financially model for sustained production and livelihood, because you cannot train people to be competitive filmmakers/journalists in a short period of time. We currently train people for 18 months as opposed to 1-2 months

CVUs – our main model, CVUs, described above, has been successful in terms of livelihood in several ways. One, we have demonstrated that community members, no matter how uneducated, can learn to produce meaningful and impactful video on their own. We have demonstrated that community-produced content is popular in communities, thereby suggesting that the market for media inside villages can be expanded. This model is a financially competitive model of video production relative to the higher end documentary market. For instance, for the amount of money a leading NGO in India would spend on average to produce a high quality documentary (around $30,000) an NGO can set up its own Community Video Unit. In doing so, an NGO has gotten far more than a single documentary film – it has built capacities of ten community members to be the voice of their community, given them a livelihood, produced 5-10 ‘video news magazines’, and reached approximately 50,000 people. However, it still requires a capital investment that is available only to NGOs, and not to individual community members. To address that issue, we are developing two new “Fellowship” models that are described below.

• Fellowships for learning TV documentary Production – in 2009, we will be launching VCU.br, a new program in Brazil. The program was inspired by watching some very powerful videos made by youth in Favelas during trainings conducted by NGOs. We then learned that several of the young people we were watching on camera were now dead. Though they had learned this very valuable and monetizable skill of video, they had had no idea how to do video as a job and had gone back to drug-dealing, and ended up dead. In the VCU.br program, we will select ten fellows who are graduates of Brazilian favela media programs, and we will train them over a course of a year in how to make and sell videos for mainstream TV.

Our long-term goal is to ‘create a media industry at the base of the pyramid.’ To do that, we must develop models of creating video in communities that are scalable globally and low-cost. In 2009, we want to develop new programs that we think will be strong in that regard

• Production company – for large numbers of community people to earn a living making videos, it is much more viable if they work as a network as opposed to individually. We are developing business plans for how we can create a production company made up of 100s of grassroots video producers

• Community Video Fellows – another aspect of ‘video for livelihood’ that must be further developed is the idea of extremely low cost production. For instance, if a television station in a developing country is willing to pay, for instance, $100 for a short news piece, then community producers must be able to produce it for $50. And this $50 per video must include all costs of training and organizational costs. We plan to develop a model whereby 100s of community members are given short-term fellowships to produce very simple campaign videos, edited in-camera, on flip cams. The videos would then be used as part of campaigns on particular issues, and campaign partners could be investors in those videos. So far, this looks to be a low -cost and scalable model and we are excited about it.

In summary, video is a good livelihood option for the poor and it is underexplored by livelihood NGOs, in part because people have always doubted whether the production could be high quality. Though the CVUs’ videos are primarily for a local audience and they have a huge amount still to learn, Video Volunteers has more or less demonstrated that it is possible for quality, marketable video to be produced. This finding should encourage other foundations, and even possibly venture capitalists, to invest in the capacity-building of the poor in video. However, we need to always ask ourselves why are we doing this. For Video Volunteers the power of community video goes way beyond livelihood. For Video Volunteers, the primary purpose of community video is to give a voice to communities, facilitate dialog and discussion in slums and villages, encourage local people to take action, provide critical news and information, and use dialog to bring out new solutions to challenges. It may be relatively easy to train lots of community people to make wedding videos, but this fulfills none of the social missions of community video. There is something to be learned here from the experience of organizations that set up village ‘internet kiosks.’ One study (though this may not be the case everywhere) found that in the internet kiosks that are earning revenue, people use them primarily for chatting or looking at porn, and the main users are young unemployed men. They are not being used in ways that accelerate change or accessing critical information. Video Volunteers wants video as a livelihood to make great strides, but we don’t want to compromise on the social mission of empowering the poor with a voice.