Fuelling Agricultural Yield through Technology

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Digital GreenAgriculture is undoubtedly the soul of civilisation, however, its link to modern day economy remains tenuous with persistent drought conditions, decreasing soil fertility due to excessive dependence on chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and compounded by the lack of farmers’ direct access to markets leading to low incomes that is causing an increasing alienation among the traditional farming societies.

As per India’s census of 2011, 263 million people are engaged in the agriculture sector. Although, its contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is now around one sixth, it provides employment to 56 percent of the Indian workforce. Apart from contributing to overall growth by other agro-based industries the agriculture sector is also a key to reducing poverty by providing employment and food security to the majority of the population in the country.

Notably nearly 70 percent of India’s farming community is comprised of small-scale farmers who experience deep economic and social inequities. Recent studies have in fact revealed that most small-scale farmers are no longer viewing farming as a sustainable livelihood source.

Farmers have largely been left alone to fend for themselves. Agricultural practices are often influenced by traditional practices and farmers’ collective wisdom, which do not necessarily translate to optimal productivity and resource management. However, there have been significant advancements in the field of agriculture. Science has discovered and uncovered useful information and new technologies and practices that would benefit farmers. However, despite several efforts to transfer such information and knowledge to small-scale farmers, the current extension system often fails to effectively communicate with them. This is largely due to generic, top-down content, which the farmers cannot relate to and the farmers cannot easily grasp, either due to language barriers or because it is presented in brief or in a manner that is too technical and abstract.

“Ghanjeevamrit keeps the soil light and helps it retain moisture, which in turn keeps the plants greener and healthier. The vegetables also taste good. I am really glad that I watched the videos on natural farming and have adopted it,” shares Somia Devi of Nikaspur village, Samastipur District, Bihar, India.

“Earlier, when I heard about this new method, I was quite unsure. I used to wonder if my field would adjust, but now after watching the video and adopting this method I am very confident and also motivated others to adopt it. It was difficult for me to convince myself before I watched the video,” adds Somia Devi who owns a plot of 1 Kattha (1 acre is 22 kattha) where she grows a variety of vegetables.

The video Somia Devi refers to is a part of the unique model used by Digital Green, a not-for-profit international development organisation that uses innovative digital solutions and community engagement in the areas of agriculture, livelihood, health, sanitation and nutrition, to improve lives of rural communities across Asia and Africa.

Bridging the Information Divide

Digital GreenInitially 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 can be costly, slow, and limited in effectiveness. Classical ‘training & visit’ programs generally involve an extension worker travelling from village to village, door to door, and speaking with a select number of individuals in a village, usually males who own larger farms. Farmers may be slow to adopt external extension trainers’ techniques due to several factors: external agents often do not possess location specific knowledge, their visits can be infrequent and erratic, and their information rarely reaches farmers with the lowest yields, who often are women. Alternatives to the ‘training & visit’ mode, such as farmer field schools are believed to have a better impact, but at a dramatically higher cost. Cost-effective solutions are rare.

Digital Green trains development agency employees and people in the communities where they work how to produce and distribute content, mainly in the form of videos. These videos (of 8-12 minutes’ duration), feature information about better farming techniques and nutrition practices and are shared in groups formed by motivated and talented community members. 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.

This model has demonstrated that a participatory process of engagement combined with simple technology solutions can enable small-scale farming communities to produce and penetrate information on best practices for improved productivity and sustainable livelihoods. Initial pilot studies not only indicated a higher uptake of practices through the video-based approach, but also revealed that the Digital Green model was more cost-effective than classical systems of agricultural extension. Gandhiet al. (2009) state that the Digital Green approach was at least ten times more efficient and seven times more likely to encourage farmers to adopt new practices compared to conventional agricultural extension systems.

Digital Green offers a community-driven technology-enabled knowledge-sharing platform for rural communities to share and promote evidence-based localised best practices. The communities are both creators and consumers of knowledge products such as digital videos, using the thrill of appearing “on video” to increase the organisation’s reach within the communities’ social networks.

“The video-based approach of Digital Green was introduced in my area in 2011 helped me communicate agricultural best practices and other such information to my friends and neighbours in a more effective manner. Now, I don’t have to visit each villager’s house to share this information. Instead, the villagers assemble to view the video at a pre-determined time and venue. Like other farmers in my SHG and community, I too find it easier to understand and explain the best practices in the videos, which feature farmers like us. Operating the handheld (pico) projector has been a smooth experience, since it is similar to operating a mobile phone.

“Around 50 farmers in my village have adopted Systematic Rice Intensification method and 35 have kitchen gardens in their homes after attending these video disseminations, increasing their farm output and gaining food security and ensuring nutritious food for their families,” shared Pinky Devi, 30, mother of three, from Nalanda district, Bihar, part of a self-help group (SHG) since 2009 organised by JEEViKA, a partner organisation of Digital Green.

Bridging the Digital Divide

Digital Green has been at the forefront of innovation to address the information gap for rural communities through appropriate technologies. They combine offline solutions such as handheld camera and projectors to produce and screen videos along with an online video library to enable access to a wider global audience.

Data captured on intuitive paper forms is digitised using an innovative 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 Dashboard to help monitor and improve programmatic activities on the ground. The public, private and civil organisations they partner with deploy the offline and online solutions to increase the efficiency of their extension services and help improve the lives of rural communities.

Digital Green’s suite odd mobile solutions currently comprise of responsive web tools, mobile applications and interactive voice response systems (IVRS).

Tech Aids to Help Access Markets

In addition to time and labour on the field, farmers have to spend anywhere from a half to a full day on transporting their produce to the nearest market. Often, travelling to a market a little farther away could yield better price, but farmers lack real-time, comparative pricing information to make this decision. To help farmers bridge this information divide, Digital Green created Loop, a mobile phone application that improves farmers’ access to markets by helping them to aggregate their perishable produce.

Using the Loop app, aggregators (Village Resource Persons) work with clusters of villages to recruit farmers who would use this service to sell their produce, assess daily produce volumes, determine which nearby market offers the best price, arrange transport based on volume, and sell farmers’ produce directly to wholesalers. By aggregating, they are able to choose and pay for transport and negotiate sale prices more efficiently. Aggregators record sales on the Loop app, at which time each farmer receives a sales receipt by SMS. After completing transactions on behalf of all farmers, the aggregator returns to the villages to deliver same-day payment.

Since, it was launched in August 2015, nearly 600 farmers from 20 villages have used Loop to bring their vegetables to market. Over 60 percent of these farmers have been using Loop again and again. Loop has cut their transportation costs in half and saves them anywhere from 4-8 hours on each market day.

Global Partnerships

Digital Green is a trusted National Support Organisation (NSO) of the Government of India’s National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) an extension advisory service and one of the largest poverty alleviation programs in the world. In 2014, they entered into a national level memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the National Rural Livelihoods Promotion Society (NRLPS) as a National Support Organisation (NSO) to expand the Digital Green approach to state rural livelihoods missions and partners. 

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 analyses evidence for its policies and programs at national, state and local levels. This partnership, aims to reach 1 million farmers across 10,000 villages by the end of 2016.

Digital Green is currently partnering with nine state rural livelihood promotion societies in India, namely, Bihar, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. They have partnerships with over 20 organisations across India, Ethiopia, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Malawi, Guinea, Papua New Guinea, and Tanzania.

Since 2008 and as of June 2016, Digital green has reached over 1 million individuals across 13,592 villages through 4,426 videos, which demonstrated best practices and as many as 574,222 of the viewers have adopted one or more of the best practices promoted through these videos.

In Ethiopia, Digital Green is providing support directly to the federal-level Ministry of Agriculture and regional-level Bureaus of Agriculture, extension agents, and community mediators to build an evidence-based package of services that can be widely deployed and sustained. Digital Green has successfully reframed the way Extension Advisory Services (EAS) are understood in Ethiopia – from looking at the technology and research aspects to understanding how these innovations and information are contextualised within the lives of communities they reach, and how timely feedback of data serve not only to report on success or shortcomings of particular activities, but also promote a virtuous cycle of program improvement.

Digital Green developed training curriculum on the use of its community-based video approach for two Agricultural Technology Vocational Education Training (ATVET) Institutes. We have already conducted training-of-trainers with the ATVET teachers to deliver these 60 and 80 hours’ credit courses to all the Development Agents who join the ATVET.

Scaling with Quality

Digital GreenTraining, monitoring and evaluation are essential elements in the Digital Green approach, since much of the work is cantered on enhancing the capacities of their partners as well as the community. Digital Green trains community people in both video production and video dissemination.

Digital Green has been innovating ways of applying its own learning from the field in its training modules as well. They have developed a training video course in Hindi comprising of a set of videos, which describe how to use a pico projector, and a handout, which gives more pico model-specific details. Trainers can learn how to use these videos in a training though the Pico Operation Training Manual. It is accompanied by a score-sheet, which can help assess how much the participants have learnt about pico operation.

An Android training application was also developed and released to support Digital Green and NRLM trainers as they build the skills of field level agents and evaluate their progress, tracking their enrolment, course completion, and accreditation. The data collected through this application enables the central training team to look at the individual participant’s scores for pico operation and documentation. When this data is linked to the Quality Assurance data, it would help track a participant’s performance in the field and enable the trainers to identify gaps in skills of the individual participant and provide relevant and targeted refresher trainings. 

The training data also helps analyse the performance of the trainers. It allows the central training team to see the number of trainings given by each trainer, the average scores of the participants they have trained and where the gaps are. For instance, they can easily see if most of the participants of a particular trainer are scoring less in pico operation than the average. This helps in identifying that the trainer herself/himself needs better training skills for teaching pico operations.

The shift from paper to mobile-based data collection is also significant given the near-real time access it now provides in resolving issues faster and maintaining historical data in a more transparent and accessible manner.

Road Ahead

While Digital Green moves forward with vigour in implementing low cost technology to improve agricultural yields making inroads into the health and nutrition sector. After several successful pilots in health they have found that the rural poor communities in Asia and Africa who have been traditionally depended on agriculture have had little or no knowledge about best practices related to care for the pregnant or new mothers and infant and young children, which also include practices such as ensuring a varied and high nutrition diet that are closely related to agricultural best practices of multi-cropping, organic cultivation and livestock management.

The potential among the rural poor to come out of poverty is high, but the knowledge transfer is slow and tedious. Digital Green provides a plausible solution to magnify development efforts to improve agricultural yields and health indices among the vast untapped population of small and marginal farmers.

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* Contributed by Digital Green