Hello? Rural India calling!

The advent of mobile phones in the past decade has led to an undeniable transformation of the landscape of the world. It has touched the lives of everyone – from the banker to the boatman. As the cellular phone continues its surging progress towards ubiquity, we shall examine how it is affecting the lives of the Indian farmer, and changing the face of agriculture in rural India. 

Mobile Telephony in Agriculture

In the field of Information and Communication Technology for Development, or ICT4D, mobile phones are touted as a potent tool for development. The sheer scale of global adoption of mobile phones in the last decade perhaps lends credibility to this fact. Even within India, the last decade has seen a steep rise in mobile phone subscriptions, with a wireless teledensity of 70.57%, as of January 2013. With the saturation of the urban market and the rising popularity of the Bottom of the Pyramid concept, mobile phones have penetrated deep into rural India.

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With its ability to offer wide and rapid outreach across a large geography, it is no surprise that mobile phone technology has its applications in the field of agriculture. Enabling higher speeds of information exchange, it brings farmers, organizations and markets closer to each other, with the direct fallout of greater transparency and leveraging power to the usually downtrodden farmer.

Case Studies: Mobile-based Services for Farmers

The opportunities of using mobile phones in agriculture are immense, and subsequently, there have been a plethora of mobile-based services targeting farmers. Some are listed below:

Reuters Market Light, a subsidiary of Thomson Reuters, provides personalized agricultural information over mobile phones to the farming community, to a cumulative subscriber base of over 1 million across 13 states.

Ekgaon Technologies, started by an Ashoka Fellow, offers a service called ‘OneFarm’ in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu, that provides soil-specific nutrient recommendations to the farmer through an automated system in local language via mobile phones.

Recently, ITC Ltd. Launched an interactive mobile telephony system called ‘Namma Sandesh’, that provides crop advisory, market prices, weather forecast and local news to tobacco and ragi farmers in Karnataka.

The Benefits

The introduction of mobile phones has changed agriculture in multiple ways.

First, it has helped farmers make more informed choices. It has helped connect farmers separated by vast distances, enabling the sharing of knowledge on best practices. Moreover, tailor-made weather forecasts add weight to his crop decisions.

Beyond this, it has enhanced his access to markets and mandis previously out of reach. No longer can the middleman use information asymmetry against the gullible kisan (farmer) – information from markets around the world is now at his fingertips.Beyond these, mobile telephony has helped in rapid transfer of information across vast distances. This is critical because a few hours can make all the difference during a pest or disease outbreak.Finally, it has helped empower the farmer with information, opening new doors in terms of opportunities and knowledge.

The Challenges Ahead

While there has been significant contribution of mobile phones in rural India, there are many hurdles to be overcome.

The major hurdle is simply technological and financial considerations. To develop infrastructure for improving mobile networks in rural India would require the willingness of companies to invest for low initial returns. The financial burden of setting up infrastructure could be reduced by sharing of networks by carriers.

While mobile connectivity is high in rural India, mobile data (or GPRS) is yet to catch up. This restricts farmer-oriented services largely to text SMS or voice as the mode of communication.

This restriction is compounded by the low levels of literacy, and tech-literacy in far-flung areas. As voice is expensive, most services focus on text SMS-based service delivery. However, many handsets do not support Indian language text and English is little-known in villages.   

There is also the issue of the quality of content delivered through various services. From the content to the delivery, there are many challenges faced in designing effective services for the Indian farmer. Innovation and creativity are much-needed, and the content has to be packaged for the local socio-cultural setting.

As a final word, it would be wise to remember that mobile telephony, just like any technological innovation, is not a panacea. Its interactions with the social fabric are complex. For example, in a typical rural family, the head of the house owns the phone – a subtle reinforcement of existing power hierarchies.

Thus, mobile telephony has rewritten the story of the rural farmer. It has shrunk the distances separating him from the rest of the world and brought information to his fingertips. It has brought services that reduce the risk of crop damage or failure, and improved his access and aspiration levels. There is, however, a long way to go. Technological, infrastructural, content-related and social challenges need to be overcome.  

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Girish is a PGP-1 student of IIM Ahmedabad and a member of the Consult Club. Prior to joining IIMA, he graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras with a B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering. He loves music, reading and discussions, and is passionate about the social sector.

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