Among India's Rural Poor Farming Community, Technology Is the Great Equalizer

Among India's Rural Poor Farming Community, Technology Is the Great Equalizer
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While India remains one of the fastest growing major economies in the world, the sharp slowdown in economic growth in the last two years has been cause for major concern. The current growth rate of 5 percent -- a 10-year low -- is far below the desired levels and the country's potential. India's economy was growing at twice that rate just three years ago.

A country that has made significant investments in high-tech and education, is grappling with a complex set of circumstances that will require multiple measures to bounce back. Meanwhile, the Indian economy has been confronted with high inflation levels, and the country's currency, the Rupee, has plummeted against the US Dollar.

It is not only desirable that the Indian economy reverts to its 8 percent to 9 percent growth trajectory sooner than later, the growth should also be inclusive, given the fact that a significant proportion of India's population lives in poverty. India's poor make up one-third of the one billion people living in poverty around the world.

And most of the country's poor reside in rural areas where agriculture is a way of life. The vast expanses of fertile land, a large pool of agricultural scientists, and hard-working farmers make India the second largest agricultural producer in the world. Yet, India's farm productivity remains low, and the farmers remain poor. Most farmers have small holdings; they lack information on the global supply-and-demand conditions that affect local prices; have limited access to crop management know-how, and weather forecasts that impact agricultural operations. Access to such information could help transform their low-yielding plots to highly productive farms. Making matters worse, Indian farmers are at the receiving end of an expensive, highly fragmented supply chain with underdeveloped infrastructure. Largely controlled by unscrupulous middlemen, these value chains plough back only a small share of the consumer price to the farmer. Together, these problems keep the farm incomes low, and lock the farmers into a vicious cycle of low income, low investments, low productivity and low income.

However, some Information Technology-enabled interventions, such as the ITC e-Choupal initiative have led to large scale farmer empowerment and have shown a roadmap to accelerate the growth of Indian agriculture.

Here's how the ITC e-Choupal works: Lead farmers who receive extensive training on the e-Choupal system are provided Internet-connected Computers at their homes by ITC, one of India's largest multi-business corporations. These lead farmers, in turn, help the neighboring farmers access information through the specially designed web portals in their local languages. Such information includes local & global market prices, crop management know-how customized to the local agro-climatic conditions, timely and relevant weather forecasts, transparent discovery of prices for their produce, and much more.

Farmers gather at these kiosks (Choupal means "meeting place" in Hindi) regularly for the latest information. Such real-time information and customized knowledge provided by the ITC e-Choupal equip the farmers to take decisions on cropping patterns, adopting agronomy practices that improve productivity and quality, right timing to sell their produce to maximize their incomes.

By co-opting several product and service providers into the e-Choupal ecosystem, ITC also facilitates access to quality farm inputs and financial services, and enables purchase of farm produce from the farmers' doorsteps. The village level e-Choupal network is complemented with specially built physical infrastructure in the form of Integrated Rural Service Hubs called "Choupal Saagars", which offer services such as agri commodity storage, a store-front for agricultural equipment and personal consumption products, insurance counters, pharmacy and health centers, agri-extension clinics, fuel stations and so on.

The e-Choupal initiative started with six kiosks in 2000, and has since grown to 6,500 centers that link 40,000 villages. With 4 million farmers using the system, it has grown into India's largest Internet-based agri initiative. ITC e-Choupal has won a series of awards, including the Stockholm Challenge Award, Development Gateway Award, and the ICC-UNDP-IBLF World Business Award.

In another use of technology to improve the lot of Indian farmers, Not-for-Profit Digital Green trains farmers to produce and share short videos in which they raise issues, share solutions and highlight successes. Using $200 battery-operated handheld projectors, the farmers show the videos to gathered villagers in locales with scant or no electricity. Digital Green has helped more than 150,000 farmers in some 2,000 villages by answering questions such as how to select crops, how to prepare fields and remove weeds, and how to transplant crops.

There are other initiatives, such as Nokia Life Tools and Reuters Market Light that provide customized agricultural information to the farmers using text messages on mobile phones; aAqua (Almost All Questions Answered) an internet based discussion portal that also supports text messages; as well as the Government's Kisan Call Centres that deliver agricultural extension services on toll-free phones.

These initiatives provide a glimpse into what can be accomplished through innovation, education and information. When farmers gain access to the information and tools that help them better cultivate the land, they can start to shake off the shackles of persistent poverty.

Technology means different things to different people. We all have access to the same Internet and the same gadgets like smart-phones and tablets; but, when leveraged for the benefit of poor farmers playing in an uneven field, it has the ability to uplift millions out of poverty and hopelessness. So let's have more conversations on that kind of technology and innovation.

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