Empowering Indian Farmers through ICT: Practices and Challenges
Posted in Finance Articles, Total Reads: 6152
, Published on 26 April 2014
During one of my train journeys earlier last year, I had a short conversation with the attendant who serves food. I was complaining about the bad quality of the meal and the ever-rising prices, and he gave me a long lecture in return about the rate at which farmers are falling out of the profession due to several issues, and how food security should increasingly be everybody’s concern. He was not wrong, the facts corroborate his woes. A UN report envisages that by 2050, earth will be home to over 9 billion people. To feed this massive population, global food production must increase by as much as 70 percent. And India, currently the second largest in terms of population, is slated to take up the prime position very soon. This thought stuck in my mind and has formed the basis of this article on empowering Indian farmers such that they can derive benefit out of the practice and help achieve food security.
Despite playing the most important of roles in food security, a farmer faces several problems. The high input costs and the inefficiencies associated with the unsustainable farming practices have made it very difficult for them to survive. They face capital and credit crunch, and even when it is available, the money is at such steep prices that it becomes unviable for them to repay it after some time. The lack of a collective bargaining force makes them bereft of options and profitable market places, so most of them end up struggling. More than 50% of our population earns its living through agriculture, and this is thus an issue that would affect a substantial base of our population. The need of the hour is to provide farmers with efficient and useful solutions that can help empower them, and using information and communication technology can go a long way in helping achieve this goal.
Stakeholders in the Agriculture Ecosystem:
For improving the life of the farmer, a single isolated change would not be helpful, and the entire ecosystem of all stakeholders has to be invested in the idea. The most important stakeholders are shown below:
To understand where technology can play an empowering role, let us analyze the farming cycle and the needs at the various stages.
The needs of the farmers at these stages are:
• Information on Weather
• Soil testing
• Inputs like seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.
• Time and Techniques for Harvesting
• Best practices
• Pest Management
• Market Information
• Commodity Prices
• Mandi Information
• Alternative Market Channels
ICT in Agriculture:
Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) can play a major role in helping farmers receive the various types of information that they need at the above-mentioned stages . Over the past decade, there have been several projects initiated to tap this idea. Initially, it started with the setting up of the kiosk model in villages, with a computer at a central location that could help provide information to the farmers and help empower them. ITC’s e-Choupal is an oft quoted case study on how a corporate giant can play a crucial role in empowering the farmer community . At the heart of the model are 3 things - an internet enabled kiosk, an internet connection to make it work, and dedicated services via the e-Choupal platform. Not only does the system provide information, it is further extended to help the farmer in the delivery part of the value chain with a Rural Service centre serving 40 e-Choupals, and these act as collection points where farmers can come to sell their produce at best prices. But there are several issues in the kiosk model. For one, constant electricity supply is needed. The kiosk has to be operated by a person, and it was only a central hub to where people came to get their issues cleared, so it was more of a pull model. These limitations stifled the prevalence of this idea on a large scale. But of late, the one gadget that has grown in numbers at a rapid pace and penetrated almost every household is the mobile phone. A research report by TRAI in 2012 shows how mobiles have begun to fast catch the fancy of rural India, and this is depicted in the graph below
Fig 3 – Wireless subscriber base in rural India, source TRAI
Thus mobiles are the new convergence technology that can be used to disseminate information easily to the farmers in a large-scale manner. In fact, there are several Agricultural Extension projects that have been implemented over the years using mobile phones. The basic framework for them with the corresponding stakeholders is as shown below:
Some of the interesting projects  that have also achieved considerable success are briefly described below:
i. aAqua Mini - This is a for profit model that offers real-time decision-support tools. The services provided are include localized remote crop diagnostic solution, audio prompted guide application, remote crop & land properties based disease diagnostics, micro-weather info and SMS enabled register and query mechanism.
ii. mKrishi - TCS has pioneered this Mobile Agro Advisory System interface that connects farmers with an ecosystem that empowers them to mitigate risk. The farmer can make a query from a mobile phone in his own local language and receive advice that is relevant in the same in local language.
iii. Fasal - Most Indian farmers sell their produce to intermediaries/agents who work in large mandis. Fasal gives farmers real-time prices of crops in different markets through SMS. Each farmer gets an SMS customized for his particular crop, location and land holding.
iv. Reuters Market Light - A revolutionary application that offers farmers local and customized commodity pricing information that is latest and up-to-date. It also provides news and weather updates.
v. IFFCO Kisan Sanchar - The idea is to make use of IFFCO’s extensive reach in the rural market. This is a brilliant example of a corporate coming into play as IFFCO has tied up with Airtel to market its telecom products and services while providing free daily voice updates on VAS platform.
Challenges with ICT in Agriculture:
The most important aspect of any ICT project is that it has to be timely and localized. Thus, something that has succeeded in one state has to customize again to scale for each state. It thus needs to adopt a dynamic business model and a flexible ICT technology to implement and sustain in the long run. 
Using the ICT application to collect information on agriculture can also be difficult if the interface is not simple. ICT illiteracy, acceptability of technology due to the relevant information being provided is also key to its success. Finally, the awareness and willingness to adopt a new technology is the factor that can make or break its usage. Some of the major gaps in the way the technology is prevalent or perceived and how that can be improved are summarized in the following table:
Ways to mitigate
Largely Push based services and information delivery at undesired time
Requirement of right information at right time as time desired by farmer
No direct interaction with the with expert (for push based services)
Requirement for personalized advisory
Generic Information Delivered
Requirement for farmer’s specific information
Language / Literacy Barrier
Requirement for voice & Image based information Exchange
Limited records of the farmers & their farming details
Requirement for Updated info
No direct interaction with expert (for push based services)
Requirement for personalized advisory
Service available only at prescribed time
Service timing required as convenient to farmers
Limited records and database of the farmers
Requirement for complete & updated database - Farm & Farmers
At the end of the day, accessibility, acceptability, simplicity, timely & useful information related to agriculture in their respective locations/area is what would help the farmers in the long run and make the ICT services seem attractive.
This article has been authored by Nikhil Mundra from IIFT
1) Narula, S.A. (2010), “ICTs and Agricultural Supply Chains - Opportunities and Strategies for Successful Implementation”
2) Rao, Kasina V, Ramamritham, Krithi and Sonar, R M (2012), “ICT intervened Agri advisory services: A comparative study of four projects from India”, 8th Asian Conference on Information Technology in Agriculture, 03- 06 September, AFITA/WCCA-2012, Taipei, Taiwan.
3) Kokata, K.D. & Singh, A.K. (2013) “Use of Mobile Technologies for Empowering Small holder farmers in India”
4) Rajvanshi, Anil (2013), “Is Precision Agriculture the key to India’s food security?” New Indian Express
5) Mandal, Subrata (2008) “Precision farming approaches for small-farm agriculture: Scope and Prospect”, Journal on Agriculture Technologies and Practices
6) ITC e-Choupal case study (2012) - World Business Council for Sustainable Development
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