By Kavitha Srinivasa
1,203,118 and still counting! That’s the number of farmers that Digital Green (DG) has reached out to in 4,627 villages across Bihar, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Of these, 628,222 have adopted at least one practice to which they were exposed, at an adoption rate of 58%. Founded in 2008 by Rikin Gandhi who was till then pursuing a research project in an IT firm in Bangalore, DG epitomizes the vision of a man whose efforts are towards ensuring farmers’ increased access to the latest information and technology to aid increased yield and income. DG’s new five-year strategy is geared toward ensuring deeper engagement to improve impact in terms of productivity and income.
Rikin Gandhi, who once aspired to be an astronaut in the US space programme ended up as a farmers’ activist through his not-for-profit platform called Digital Green. While preparing for his dream job, Gandhi visited a friend’s bio-fuel project in India and was confronted with the myriad of issues faced by farmers in India. A subject that often surfaced in the autobiographies of former astronauts that he read at the time as well.
As luck would have it, Gandhi had found his bearings in Microsoft Research in Bangalore, where a research project was initiated to leverage technology for social development in the agriculture sector.
“Initially incubated as a research project at Microsoft Research, Digital Green’s model was developed by a group of engineers and economists. Their research revealed that the prevalent agricultural extension systems in most developing countries could be costly, slow, and limited in effectiveness. Classical 'training and visit' programs generally involve an extension worker traveling from village to village, door-to-door, and speaking with a select number of individuals in a village, usually males, who own larger farms,” revealed the US-based Gandhi, in an email interview.
The team developed a model that would suit farmers and pioneered the use of participatory videos to strengthen behavior change programs in the agriculture domain. As videos rolled out, people wanted to know the name of the farmer in the video and the village he/she belonged to. It was a lesson well learnt — the content had to be localized — it had to star local farmers to create a connect with viewers. By then, Gandhi had found his calling.
“In a controlled trial, it was found that our approach was 10 times more cost-effective, per rupee spent than a conventional extension system,” he recalled. That’s how Digital Green spun off as an independent entity from a research project in Microsoft Research India’s Technology for Emerging Markets Laboratory in India.
Digital Green offers a community-driven, technology-enabled, knowledge-sharing platform for rural communities to share and promote evidence-based, localized, best practices. The communities are both creators and consumers of knowledge products in the form of videos that feature information about better farming techniques and nutrition practices and are shared in small groups. Produced by and for the community, the videos spur an ecosystem of educational, entrepreneurial, and entertaining content, acting as a kind of village social networking platform.
Gandhi developed a suite of offline solutions like handheld cameras and pico projectors to produce and screen videos along with an online video library to standardize content and enable access to a wider global audience. Data captured on intuitive paper forms is digitized using a data management system, Connect Online | Connect Offline (COCO), that allows users to seamlessly toggle between offline and online modes on the web browser for uninterrupted usage in regions with intermittent Internet connectivity. This data powers a suite of online Analytics Dashboards to help monitor and improve programmatic activities on the ground.
Digital Green has a dedicated technology team that develops tests and maintains all technology platforms, including COCO, Analytics, Training app, Loop app and their dashboards as well as IVR help lines.
With time, it was found that smallholder farmers in rural India spend anywhere from a half to a full day selling their produce at the nearest market while also incurring transport costs. To reduce costs, Digital Green created Loop, a human-mediated mobile phone application that improves farmers’ access to markets by helping them to aggregate their perishable produce.
As part of Loop, DG has nurtured village-level entrepreneurs who recruit farmers, assess daily produce volumes, determine which nearby market offers the best price, arrange transport based on volume, and sell farmers’ produce directly to wholesale buyers. They record volumes and sales on the Loop mobile app, which sends receipts to farmers via text messages. After completing transactions on behalf of all farmers, the entrepreneurs return to the villages to deliver same-day payment and earn their commission.
Farmers feel it’s best to be in the Loop. For instance, Anil Kumar Singh used to cycle to the mandi carrying loads of vegetables. "Now with the Loop vehicle, things have become easier. Ranjitbhaiya the aggregator collects the vegetables from the farm and takes it to the market" shared the 35-year-old who lives in Bihar’s Samastipur district with his wife Poonam Devi and school-going children. Understandably, Anil Kumar spends more time nurturing his crops.
Since its debut in August 2015, nearly 3,000 farmers from over 100 villages in three districts of Bihar have used Loop to sell over 5,800 tonnes of vegetables for nearly INR 61,502,914. Loop has nearly halved the transportation costs and saves time. DG is partnering British Asian Trust and Mann Deshi to rollout Loop in Maharashtra.
Digital Green’s role of a National Support Organization with the Government of India’s National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) has enabled several successful partnerships with the state bodies in Bihar, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. NRLM has committed itself to operationalize Digital Green’s approach. “This transformation has shifted the way NRLM produces and shares knowledge between the research agencies, extension agents, and farmers that it engages as well as how it collects and analyzes evidence for its policies and programs at national, state and local levels,” felt Gandhi.
A grant from Google has enabled DG to enhance their training courseware platform, comprising of a video-enabled curriculum and mobile assessment app, to train frontline community knowledge workers across seven states that support NRLM on ways to produce and share videos on improved agricultural practices among smallholder farmers that boost their food and nutrition security. This courseware platform and curricula was used to train 2,836 CKWs, 58.74% women, since the project inception. These 2,836 Community Knowledge Worker (CKWs) reached out to over 369,144 farmers (95.31% women) with videos featuring improved agricultural practices. By December 2018, it’s intended to train 850,000 farmers in their communities on improved agricultural practices that can boost their productivity by screening videos produced by farmers, for farmers.
Digital Green’s monitoring and evaluation processes have thus far focused on the reach among smallholder farmers. Efforts are on now to map the impact of the work in terms of yield and income.
With the new five-year strategy, DG’s focus shifts from the generic community-based video approach to commodity-centric package of practices (PoP) approach to evaluate the impact of work based on yield increase. In 2017, its teams will identify five-six priority crops across the states it is present in and ensure a sequential PoP, along with more targeted audience and develop a more focused set of indicators to measure yield and productivity.
“Our focus this year would be that the targeted set of farmers is able to see the specific PoPs in a sequential manner and adopt the critical practices and witness an increase in productivity,” he reasoned.
DG is also looking at digital innovations that could complement and supplement the video based approach by linking farmers to markets, introducing them to digital finance and enabling the creation of credit profiles with existing banking infrastructure.
Moving on, DG is now applying its low-cost, community-based video approach for enhanced peer-to-peer learning to address Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child, and Adolescent health (RMNCH+A) nutritional goals. This four-year, USAID-funded project Digital Integration to Scale Gender- Sensitive Nutrition Social and Behavior Change Communication (SBCC) promotes a participatory approach using locally relevant content created by, of and for the communities.
As part of the project, Digital Green will explore complementary ICT platforms that can ensure the most effective way to reach the target populations with focused nutrition messaging.
The goal is to contribute to improving nutrition for RMNCH+A to directly reach at least 200,000 women across a minimum of 2,000 villages in at least four Indian states and indirectly engage over 1,000,000 individuals by rapidly scaling DG’s approach to gender-sensitive SBCC within existing public, private, and civil society channels for agricultural, public health, and nutritional extension.