Tools for Agricultural Angst

December 09, 2019 12:00 AM
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By Kavitha Srinivasa

Digital Green, is a not-for-profit international development organization, which aims to increase smallholder farmers’ incomes through technology and grassroots partnerships. Their mission is all about putting the power of technology into the hands of smallholder farmers.

Introduction

The manner in which the dice of life is cast can sometimes be surprising. Rikin Gandhi’s dreams soared high. He aspired to be an astronaut in the US space programme. But destiny willed otherwise. He is now rooted on to Planet Earth as he morphed into a ag-tech innovator. His non-profit organization (NPO) called Digital Green keeps his feet firmly on the ground.

A casual visit to a friend’s biofuel project in India threw up complex issues faced by farmers in India. Some more insights followed when he pursued a research project on the agriculture sector while working in Microsoft Research in Bangalore. That’s how Digital Green which was incubated as a research project at Microsoft Research, eventually took off on its own in 2008. From then on, Rikin and his team have worked with all levels of government in over 15,200 villages across India and over 20 countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The process has been satisfying as the NPO has touched the lives of over 1.8 million smallholder farmers in India alone, 90% of whom are women. 

Challenges and Outcomes

Small farmers often lack the knowledge and skill-sets to counter modern challenges to farming such as lack of irrigation, new pests and the changing climate. Digital Green has integrated tech tools along with grassroots partnerships to help smallholder farmers overcome these challenges that compound the effects of poverty.

Technology has been at the heart of the NPO’s outreach. In 2008, Digital Green had introduced informative videos for farmers made by farmers to increase their productivity. About 6,000 community videos in 50 languages have been created. Around 2.3 million farmers in six countries have benefitted from this, of which 1.8 million are from India.

The India story has been possible because Digital Green began to work with the Government of India’s National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) in 2012. Since then, the NPO has engaged with rural communities across nine states to promote uptake of best practices related to agriculture and livelihoods, non-farm practices, financial inclusion and institution building. Nearly 17,000 frontline extension agents use Digital Green’s video-enabled approach to promote uptake of best practices among farmers. More than 55% of farmers have adopted at least one practice promoted in a video they viewed.

In 2015, with video work boosting farmers’ production, it became apparent that farmers needed better access to markets to profit from those gains. Digital Green developed an initiative called Loop, a shared transport-to-market service backed by a mobile phone application that provides direct aggregation, transport and marketing services, market price information and digitized transaction records. Loop matches farmers’ market transportation requests to nearby transporters based on carrying capacity. Transporters collect and deliver the produce to wholesale markets, and farmers are paid via mobile money.

They’ve also developed a mobile application that helps farmers document their requirements. Kisan Diary is an app through which farmers maintain a mobile ledger on their sales and expenditures, which enables them to track their input costs and profit and loss.

Seen in the Indian context, data driven procedures are hardly available for farmers. The absence of such information led Rikin till he arrived at a FarmStack, which enables farmers to have control over their data. This is the next step in the journey for Digital Green. “It’s important for farmers to control their own data. We’re developing a data locker for farmers to take stock of their data and decide what to reveal to the vendors,” reasoned Rikin Gandhi, co-founder and executive director, Digital Green. 

FarmStack is an automated and secure digital content and data sharing platform that integrates information such as weather forecasts, soil conditions, irrigation availability and market price data, to contextualize agronomic recommendations. It also has built-in mechanisms to push advisories to farmers via multiple channels, like face-to-face communication, video, interactive voice response (IVR), SMS and radio.

In short, FarmStack is an open digital knowledge sharing system that can integrate the existing set of disparate systems and data to empower farmers. Digital Green has been developing and testing early prototypes focused on using dynamic weather data to provide farmers with early pest and disease warnings and management advisories.

Impact

Digital Green, which has set its footprint in the villages of Bihar, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, has expanded its base. Agrarian communities in Assam, Uttarakhand and Karnataka have become part of its portfolio.

This year, it’s intended to create common platforms for farmer communities to connect. A directory on WhatsApp farmer groups is another upcoming feature. A digital tool for Anganwadi workers is available in Karnataka. This calendar has helped the workers to organize their working schedule. The tool will be introduced in other states as well.

Since 2008, the NPO has reached 1.9 million farmers in 16 countries and trained 42,500 frontline workers. Its impact — 10x more effective per dollar spent than a classical extension system — with 21% average improvement in farmer productivity.

As an integrated ag-tech service provider, Digital Green plans to leverage a network of partners and communities to layer value-added services that boost farmer productivity. Rikin and team hope to realize this through the offices set up in three locations in the world viz. India, US (San Francisco) and Addis in Ababa, Ethiopia.

A grant from Walmart Foundation in India will help Digital Green develop ‘Farmstack,’ a digital data platform designed to provide better services for and enhance the livelihoods of Andhra Pradesh farmers, specifically targeting lower-income communities in farmer producer organizations.

In Ethiopia, we will be working with the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of Ethiopia, Awaaz.De, Precision Agriculture Development and other partners to develop similar services with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID).

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Testimonial

Manju Devi, a resident of Ababkarpur village in Bihar, India, spent a large portion of her income to purchase vegetables. An agricultural labourer, she is the main income earner for her family of eight. The large family extends to three young grandchildren. Before being exposed to Community Videos through Digital Green she has had to spend lot of money to grow plants.

Things turned around for Manju Devi after Sudhir Kumar, a frontline worker associated with the Bihar Rural Livelihoods Promotion Society and trained by Digital Green, screened a video about sack farming in 2015. Manju Devi resolved to try it and watched many Digital Green videos. Soon she learnt that sack or bag farming method requires little space as sacks are filled with soil from which the plant grows. Having implemented the procedure, she now has six flourishing sack gardens, which she uses to cultivate vegetables for her family’s household consumption.

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