Artificial intelligence can be harnessed to solve large scale global challenges, said Romesh and Sunil Wadhwani Aug. 12 evening, during the launch of Indiaspora’s Philanthropy Leaders list, which recognized 100 prominent Indian philanthropists in the U.S. and around the globe.

The Indian American tech entrepreneurs are the founders of the Mumbai-based Wadhwani Institute for Artificial Intelligence. Launched in 2018, the Institute is currently focused on three initiatives: eradicating pests that hamper productive cotton farming; the health of pregnant mothers and newborn babies, and early detection of tuberculosis.

“Artificial intelligence can be used for social good,” said Romesh Wadhwani, chairman and CEO of Symphony Technology Group, at a panel discussion moderated by Indiaspora founder MR Rangaswami. His brother Sunil Wadhwani, co-founder of Mastech, noted that artificial intelligence is fast becoming a prevailing force in many industries, but will impact only two to three billion people at the top or middle of the economic pyramid.

“But what about those who have no internet, no electricity, people who are living on a dollar or two a day? There’s very little happening there,” he said.

To eradicate bol weevils, which can wipe out an entire crop of cotton, Wadhwani Institute researchers hang strips at farms in India to correctly calculate the number of pests invading the area. The data, combined with data from other farms and previous years, can be used to advise farmers when to spray pesticides and when to harvest for a maximum yield.

Similarly with low birthweight babies, nurses can photograph a baby with a smartphone. An app, connected to a larger network, can equip nurses with solutions, said Romesh Wadhwani, noting that the data collected by the Institute can be used throughout the world.

Sunil Wadhwani said the goal of the Institute is to reach 100 million families in India by the year 2027, India’s 80th anniversary post Independence. “700 million people in India don’t have access to health care. AI can play a role in accessing health care, food security, and livelihoods,” he said, noting the need to work with governments. “It’s very tough to scale if you don’t.”

Indiaspora’s list of 100 prominent philanthropists featured many well-known names from around the world. The list, along with bios of each honoree, can be viewed here: The launch was held in two sessions: the first focused on philanthropy among the Indian diaspora, and the second focused on philanthropy within India.

Indian Americans have about $1 billion in philanthropic power. Rangaswami said he hopes to double the giving of the community over the next five years. “We want to create the most philanthropic community in the world,” he said.

Indiaspora has its own philanthropic initiative, ChaloGive, which raised $3.5 million during the Covid pandemic to provide relief in India. It also hosts an annual philanthropic summit.

Indian American philanthropist Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande — the founder of Sycamore Networks and chairman of the board of Akshaya Patra, which provides a mid-day meal program to millions of low-income children in India — was the keynote speaker at the Aug. 13 launch. The Deshpande Foundation, founded by the entrepreneur and his wife Jaishree, has funded many innovative projects in India and the U.S., including the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation at MIT; the Hubli Sandbox in Karnataka, which fosters social entrepreneurship; and the Deshpande Center for Social Entrepreneurship in Hubli.

Deshpande advised philanthropists against going into the development sector with cookie cutter solutions. “It is very hard to understand the needs of people who live on $1 or $2 per day. Don’t go in with solutions. Work with the community to create solutions,” he said.

Deshpande noted that there is a lack of competition in the development sector. “We must focus on cheaper, better, faster, to scale the impact,” he said. “All the methods we use in the business sector can also be used in the development sector.”

The foundation, with help from the Ratan Tata Trust, is currently focused on farm ponds, which allow communities to create ponds for rainwater collection and harvesting. “Water is the biggest multiplier,” said Deshpande.

The project has built more than 100,000 ponds across India. Farmers pay Rs. 20,000 for equipment to build the pond, and the State Bank of India offers a loan of an additional Rs. 80,000, explained Deshpande. The project has been especially useful in drought-prone areas, and allows farmers to cultivate more than one crop per year, increasing their revenue by 50 percent. Several farmers can jointly use one pond.

The Aug. 13 launch included a panel discussion featuring Lata Krishnan, who co-founded the American India Foundation with former President Bill Clinton; Indo-Canadian entrepreneur Aditya Jha; and Sarosh Zaiwalla, founder of the London-based law firm Zaiwalla and Co.

The second launch, in India, featured Ronnie and Zarine Screwalla, founders of the Swades Foundation; Atul Satija, founder of GiveIndia, a platform through which many Indian Americans made contributions to India during the height of the Covid pandemic; Anu Aga, former chairperson of Thermax and founder trustee of Teach for India; Anand Deshpande, founder, chairman and managing director of Persistent Systems; Ashish Dhawan, founder and chairperson of Central Square Foundation; Vikram Khanna, associate editor and economic affairs commentator at The Straits Times; Naghma Mulla, CEO of EdelGive Foundation; and Abhishek Sharma, CEO of Foundation Holdings.

Both sessions can be viewed on Indiaspora’s YouTube channel.

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