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Sowing seeds for a brighter future, with a little help from ICTs

by Vani Viswanathan

Some 50 kilometres from Delhi – in Sonipat, Haryana – Surendar, a farmer, is wondering what to do about his lemon trees that have perished. Why did these trees die, while others survived? How can he insure his crop so that he does not have to face these losses in the future? How much would insurance cost? Where can he get information on the insurance process?

Stories like Surendar’s are prevalent across the agricultural sector in India. While structural, political and fiscal issues are endemic, so are inadequate modes of knowledge sharing, awareness building and selling produce at farmer-friendly prices.

Governments and NGOs have been working to bridge this gap for many decades now, but much of this has been relying on imparting information face-to-face, which limits the number of farmers it can reach, or the information is not contextualised for the farmer. Even as Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) can help make an enormous difference, they have to be appropriate for the communities in question: accessible, relevant, contextual and beneficial.

This is where Mobile Vaani, using an IVRS platform that enables simple but efficient two-way communication, comes in. Over the last five years, Mobile Vaani has worked with partners on several interesting interventions in the spectrum of agriculture: from providing information on government schemes, to raising awareness about good agricultural practices, to establishing market linkages.

Identifying where the gaps are

Developing solutions first requires accurately identifying the problem. Mobile Vaani has the ability to incorporate quantitative and qualitative feedback or information collection, which helps identify and map a problem in both its scale and context.  Studies have been done leveraging the Mobile Vaani platform at several stages on the agriculture value chain.

Let’s take the pre-sowing stage, for instance. Even as governments at the state and centre level have rigorously promoted soil testing for years, not much has trickled down to the small landholding farmer.[1] One of Mobile Vaani’s recent studies focused on farmers’ awareness about the need for soil testing, whether they knew where and how they can get it done, and whether they face any issues with soil testing.

Results showed that 70% of farmers surveyed – from Bihar and Jharkhand, half of whom owned 1-2 acres of land – knew about the importance of soil testing and how frequently it was to be done. But it was low on priority, for several reasons: they had to travel far to get it tested (two-thirds of respondents had to travel anywhere between 5 and 20 kilometres) and then travel again a couple of times to get the report; they had to spend on the travel even if they did not have to spend on the soil testing; they did not get sufficient information from the soil health cards on fertilizer management, which crops to plant, or techniques to increase production.

This survey highlighted to us the importance of training for farmers on the importance of soil testing, but also the critical need for better and more accessible government soil testing labs – and the scope for small, simple-to-use devices that will give farmers key inputs quickly.

And what happens when farmers want inputs on what to sow, which fertilisers are required, what to do if a crop fails, etc.? Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs), government centres that provide agricultural support and advisory, have been established in most districts across India. Kisan Mitras are employed in each block to give farmers information on key requirements. They were envisioned as go-to resources for accurate and timely information.

But ground realities tell a different story. A Mobile Vaani survey among farmers in Bihar, over half of whom only own 1-2 acres of land, highlighted an interesting aspect of the source of information: most farmers went to fertiliser shops for consultation if crops failed (49%) or for information on seeds, fertilisers, quantity to be used, etc. (57%). KVKs or Kisan Mitras were consulted by less than 20% – with each agricultural extension worker in India covering close to 1,200 hectares of farmland on average, this poor utilisation of the extension services is understandable[2]. Focus group discussions with farmers in select geographies across Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh revealed that they are interested in receiving information on mobile phones, and were willing to pay a small fee to receive this information. 

Bridging gaps in awareness and best practices

Mobile Vaani’s deep community embedding – thanks to years of work and volunteer reporters from the community – helps us get insights that are rich in detail and identify the right stakeholders to engage about any issue. This enables us to develop solutions that are relevant and contextual for the farmers – in essence, solutions they find feasible, in a language they understand and where their voices are heard.

Mobile Vaani has collaborated with leading organisations working on improving agricultural practices at the grassroots to convey information and help drive behaviour change. Our research has shown that fertiliser shops are key sources of information – not because the information is of high quality, but because farmers often find information from KVKs to be too advanced, and are not sure where they can access the products suggested to them. Through our peer-to-peer networking capability, we work with several organisations to provide accurate, scientific but simplified information that is also completely localised, and usable.

With Digital Green and PRADAN, for instance, we package information that they convey through videos, on our IVRS, which improves the reach of this information tremendously. Our episodes with Digital Green, for instance, have been heard close to 100,000 times in the 3 years since we began our collaboration. Topics covered include tips on growing specific crops, harvesting, building a nursery, preparing the field for sowing, etc. Farmers find this information relevant because those presenting it are fellow farmers from their communities.

With our research showing that farmers are willing to pay a small fee for receiving this information, this also presents opportunities for organisations considering a monetised service.

Building resilience against weather woes

Another area where farmers find themselves without sufficient, accurate information, is crop insurance. Mobile Vaani has been able to collaborate with an organisation that provides crop insurance to convey, through a radio ‘drama’ series, information about crop insurance and why it is beneficial, types of crops that can be insured, crop failures that are covered, government and private insurance schemes and how to go about obtaining these and filing for claims.

Through this campaign, Mobile Vaani also encouraged farmers to share their doubts and experiences related to crop insurance. Two-thirds of the calls from farmers were about government schemes, risk coverage, types of crops covered, etc. This content demonstrated to us that there is a huge gap in awareness among farmers on how insurance works. The need for a helpline that would answer doubts and forward grievances related to crop insurance is evident.

Identifying new linkages

The potential of mobile phones in linking the hitherto-unconnected has been well-established, and success stories abound. Mobile phones have become increasingly indispensable to farmers too, with our survey showing that 44% of farmers use their mobile phones for buying, selling, advice/guidance, price information etc.

But most of this information is scattered, collected based on one-on-one connections rather than through a systematic, established value chain. What if we were to bring a farmer’s entire value chain on to ICTs?

Adding ICTs to a value chain has the potential to accelerate efficient market linkages and information availability, as well as drive the adoption of cashless payments. For this, we envisage an ICT-enhanced value chain where the different players are connected – say, a farmer, a crop insurance company, a fertiliser seller, a rental for agricultural tools (which our survey showed a strong need for, with 2 out of 3 farmers renting equipment), the local mandi – and information flows freely between them on costs, doubts, government schemes, products and solutions. Grievance redressal can be localised and accessible. Also, with all value chains on ICTs already, adding digital payments is a small but significant step; when all of a farmer’s key stakeholders accept digital money, the farmer has more incentives to make the switch from cash. More information about this ICT-enhanced value chain can be found here.

In its five years of operation, Mobile Vaani has been able to identify several areas where ICTs can make a difference in the lives of farmers. Our research and concurrent monitoring capabilities can add tremendous value to organisations looking to strengthen the playing field of agriculture in India. With agriculture and allied sectors occupying over half of our workforce – but accounting for less than a fifth of our GDP – the need to improve lives and livelihoods of farmers remains an urgent priority. Write to us at contact@gramvaani.org if you see scope for collaborations in the agriculture sector.


[1] Take the instance of the 2015-announced Soil Health Card scheme. For the period 2015-16 and 2016-17 (Cycle 1 of the scheme), about 80% of the target number of Soil Health Cards were distributed, but only 25% of the cards have any data from them, and there are already several improvements suggested improving the scheme.

[2] http://www.ras.org.in/public_sector_agricultural_extension_in_india