Entrepreneurs are taking substantial steps towards using technology to help those who till the soil and harvest the sea. The information is there; it needs to be delivered
India is—sit back and think about it—a booming economy, an IT hub, a business outsourcing hub, and has an extremely high mobile subscriber growth rate… and is also a country where farmers kill themselves out of monetary debt and poor fishermen mark their graves at sea.
The economist will tell you that waiver of debt or providing subsidies is not the way out for the farmer. The weatherman will tell you that forecasting is not enough to warn the fisherman at sea. So what can be done to help farmers and fishermen, two classes with shared problems? Technology can help: it need not only be for the middle class. It is about supplying the right information at the right time, making the unpredictable more predictable.
It’s About Information
If our farmers need to harvest the benefits of a booming economy, they need information: accessible and affordable, timely and customised, usable, searchable, and up-to-date. Large sections of society—mostly rural folk—do not have access to the huge knowledge base built by scientific development. The content is not in the local language, and not deliverable in a form of immediate use to them. For example, a monthly farming magazine cannot report the likelihood of a pest infestation in the weeks to come.
A Portal To The Rescue
Understanding this need for the exchange of information from and to rural communities, a multilingual, multimedia-based agriculture portal called aAQUA (www.aaqua.org) was launched late 2003 by the Developmental Informatics Lab of IIT Bombay in collaboration with the Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) (Agricultural Sciences Outreach Centre) at Baramati (Maharashtra) and Vigyan Ashram at Pabal (Pune district). There are several KVKs across the country.
aAQUA, short for Almost All your Questions Answered, attempts to help the farmer who does not have access to expert advice. Addressed here are farmers’ queries based on location, season, weather, and crop, and other such information that farmers or their agents and representatives provide.
How It Works
The farmer (many a time illiterate or semi-literate) puts forth his question regarding his crop or livestock with the help of a local computer operator at an Internet café, commonly referred to as an Internet kiosk, as or through a literate farmer who has an Internet connection at home. There are relevant forums on the portal he can access for this purpose. The portal supports Hindi, Marathi, and English as of now. Experts from Krishi Vigyan Kendra—Farm Science Centre, which provides training skills on scientific farming practices for farmers and the rural youth in Baramati, then answer the questions.
The portal also maintains a repository of question and answers. Upon registration, one gets details such as the weather forecast for the location. If a farmer cannot post a question online or e-mail it (to email@example.com), he can SMS it. Industrial (agriculture-based), financial, and legal advice is dispensed. aAqua experts say that once they receive a question, they are time-bound to reply within 48 hours.
Other than providing expert answers, aAQUA provides an online digital library called Crop Doctor, which displays images related to crop disease. Farmers can identify relevant photographs and look for control measures. A library of seasonal crop recommendations by experts from KVKs can be found under the Crop Recommendations. Even updated prices of agricultural commodities in different markets of Maharashtra, collected by the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMC), can be located under a section called Bhav Puchhiye.
A multilingual meaning-based search engine called Agro Explorer allows the user to search for content in a local language (though the site currently supports English, Hindi, and Marathi), and view the document in that language irrespective of the language of the original document. aAQUA’s architecture is designed in such a way that it allows users to navigate and search through all aAQUA forums even when connectivity is disrupted. The information repository on the local computer gets updated whenever Internet connectivity is established.
In the past year, the aAQUA portal has seen 5,760 posts and about 6 lakh views. From incpetion, questions have been received from 290 of India’s 600 districts.
In Their Footsteps
Following aAQUA’s success, a new social venture firm came up, based out of IIT Bombay’s Business Incubator. The team behind it comprises Anil Bahuman, Dr Krithi Ramamritham, Dr Kadarbhai, Dr Yogesh Kulkarni and Dr Bishnu Pradhan. This social venture, called Agrocom, goes a step further: unlike in aAQUA, a farmer need not visit an Internet kiosk for a weather update.
Agrocom realised that though aAQUA has been a success, there were more issues that needed to be addressed. For information from aAQUA, farmers needed to walk miles to get to an Internet kiosk; and what with villages being plagued by power outages or low voltages, making it difficult to install and run PCs. Agrocom addresses these issues by sending out timely weather reports and disease and pest warnings—to farmers and farming organisations that have subscribed to the service—using SMS text. When more detailed information is needed, Agrocom uses e-mail.
Agrocom has realised about Rs 9 crore in savings for farmers in the past 11 months of operation. The cost per month for a weather forecast is Rs 100, and for a disease alert, it’s about Rs 250. For e-mail-based weather forecasts for an organisation, the charges are Rs 800 per month per village. More than 300 farmers have subscribed to the SMS service.
Information through e-mail is more elaborate—it includes reports of humidity, solar radiation, air temperature, precipitation, leaf wetness, and dew point.
Farmers use disease forecasts to plan a preventive spray schedule. This drastically reduces crop damage due to insects and diseases. This is also good for the environment, as it means fewer pesticide residues in the crop. And now, given the growing consumer awareness of pesticide residues and the premium that consumers are willing to pay for farm produce with low-level residues, farmers can demand better prices in the domestic as well as export markets.
Agrocom also offers bulk purchase of SMS credits, which are then distributed to farming organisations and KVKs. Agro universities and KVKs buy these services so that they can interact with the farmers and forward relevant information, they depend on government grants for this.
Agrocom also supports infrastructure-building projects, providing consultancy and support to farming organisations that want to install automated weather stations for purposes of farm-level disease forecasting, weather record validation for weather insurance, and weather forecasts for decision support. Agrocom’s predictions have been shown to have an accuracy level of 80 to 90 per cent, based on random surveys.
Mobile At Sea
The M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), a Chennai-based research body that works on agricultural and rural development as a part of community service, has been providing weather information to a fishing village called Veerampattinam, and a neighbouring village, Nallavadu, since 1992—and has been saving fishermen’s lives. But since the announcement is through a public address system at 3 AM (when fishermen venture out) there is no way to communicate sudden changes in weather when the fishermen are out at sea. MSSRF therefore developed a simple solution to address the issue: use the cell phone.
QUALCOMM, a pioneer in CDMA communication technology, and actively involved in various social projects the world over, partnered with MSSRF and developed a user-friendly mobile application, called Fisher Friend. It has a user-friendly interface and provides vital, real-time information to fishing communities—anytime, anywhere—at the press of a button.
The application, developed by Indore-based Astute Systems Technology, on the BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless) platform—QUALCOMM’s open solution for wireless applications development and device configuration— allows users to access information through an interactive menu. It allows fishermen to know if it is the right time to venture out to sea; it provides vital updates like the location of fishing shoals, risks, and fish trade information in the local language (Tamil at present). The information channels the energy of fishermen in the right direction, optimising time and fuel.
Satellite images are the basis for the information regarding weather and fish concentration; it is accumulated in a centrally-located server at MSSRF. This information is then analysed by MSSRF, and sophisticated technical information like sea wave heights is processed to make it usable. The processed data is sent to Astute to be encoded for the BREW platform. The project is now in the trial phase, and involves 10 fishermen using Tata Teleservices in Veerampattinam. Created in Tamil, the appication will be first rolled out in places where Tamil is understood.
The service is available in the 10 to 15 kilometre range within domestic waters, which covers about 80 per cent of fishermen’s requirements. Extending this limit is not possible because regulations do not currently permit mobile communication in international waters.
The technology is all there, but only a few rural entrepreneurs take it to a stage where those as yet unempowerd by that technology can use it. We must not forget that technology is not for and by the middle class alone. If we can have IT parks, we can have services such as those we’ve discussed rolled out all over the country… and that would benefit not just the farmer and the fisherman; we would all benefit in return—individually and as a nation. Certain ideas—such as “the illiterate cannot use technology”—must be wiped out. After all, tech enhances life, wherever, whoever.