Through interventions based on modern technology in Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, and Orissa, India, Rikin Gandhi is focusing on the efficiency of information dissemination and application and creating new knowledge networks for agriculture extension services. Rikin’s method entails replacing the old architecture of agriculture extension services with a new one; and the community is involved in the creation, dissemination, facilitation, and evaluation of locally relevant content.
The New Idea
Rikin launched Digital Green after carefully studying agriculture extension services. The success of the system is based on the extension officer and his mobility; often the information only reaches big landowners and farmers. The Digital Green method recreates the relationship between the agriculture extension worker and the community and creates a new ecosystem of community learning where the community creates, disseminates, and evaluates the information.
The intervention uses video as a basis for disseminating agriculture practices. The medium in many ways is optimally designed for interacting with smallholders, as it overcomes problems of illiteracy and is an intuitively accessible technology, especially when the advice and information in the video is conveyed by local and progressive farmers. Cropping patterns, weather patterns and agricultural practices of a particular area are studied and content is created with the help of community members. The videos feature a progressive farmer explaining effective practices that he/she is using to increase yield. Seeing a fellow farmer use a particular method in a context and a language that is relevant creates incentive among other farmers to adopt the practice.
While technology is the tool that is employed in the Digital Green intervention, an integral feature is the feedback mechanism which ascertains the effectiveness of the method. Through this mechanism the community members become creators and facilitators of the content, thereby becoming part of a new knowledge infrastructure.
The Digital Green team is developing a management dashboard to see how many screenings a farmer attended, the videos a farmer watched, the kinds of questions asked, practices adopted by them, and videos in which they can be featured in the future. Community members involved in mediating video screenings in their communities capture this data on customized paper formats and provide follow-up support to farmers in the field as and when requested to do so. The data from these paper formats is relayed to district-level hubs where they are reviewed and uploaded into a central database by the partner staff members and Community Resource Persons involved in video production, to inform the next iteration of videos that are produced and to better schedule the videos shown during screenings. While in the traditional method the cost to convince one person to adopt a farming practice is US$30, in the Digital Green method it is merely US$3. The multiple feedback loops created in the process is what makes Digital Green score over traditional extension services.
To keep costs low, Digital Green works in partnership with other citizen organizations (COs) that have a relationship with farming communities and have an existing system of extension work. Digital Green embeds its tools and training into the work that these partner organizations are doing with the communities. Eventually, Digital Green transfers ownership of the process to the partner organization and moves onto newer geographical areas.
The Indian agricultural situation shows that though farmers spend long hours at their field, productivity and economic benefits continue to evade many of the small landholders. A major reason for this is that access to available technology and inputs in farming is uneven. Food security requires a stronger production response. Agricultural extension services and research can help reduce the differential between actual and potential yield and also promote other goals, such as linking farmers to markets. India has more than 100,000 people employed in the agriculture extension system: The second largest labor force committed to extension services after China. Though enough money has been invested in extension services by the government, the interventions have not had the desired outcomes. This is due to the fact that India is a large, diverse, and complex country. The number of extension workers per farmer is low and there are serious constraints on the mobility of staff to implement and monitoring programs due to limited operational budgets. Due to numerous households being assigned to one officer, it also becomes difficult to establish rapport with all the farmers. The cost of the transfer of knowledge per farmer thus becomes high.
Another problem is that the content that is discussed with the farmers is often not sourced from the community. Given India’s varying climate zones there are disparities between urban and rural, irrigated and rain-fed areas. The “one-size-fits all” assumption creates information that is not locally relevant. In the absence of localized content extension programs fail to optimally encourage local development or adaptation of technologies. Needs of specific categories of clients cannot be addressed and farmer to farmer extension is not supported. Thus, collective as well as individual behavior of farmers cannot be influenced. Often the small landholder and the woman farmer end up being neglected. There is a need to source locally relevant content and create smallholder community networks that will help in sharing information, experience and ideas, and pass them to other farming groups. Local facilitators from within the community need to be identified and trained to achieve a “multiplier effect.”
In the absence of an effective feedback system there is little reinforcement of the information that is conveyed to the farmers. Implementation of a large number of schemes (i.e. state schemes, central sector schemes, centrally sponsored schemes, and externally assisted schemes) with specific targets on demonstrations, distribution of subsidised inputs, and subsidies and training, leaves only a little time for extension workers to assist farmers with advice to solve specific field problems. Often farmers can meet the extension worker only once in a fortnight during his fixed village visit. The nearest office of the Department of Agriculture (DoA) is at the block level, which is far away from most of the villages. As a result, farmers find it difficult to resolve their queries, making their absorption of the shared content low.
In a one-year trial (2007 to 2008) involving 20 villages (1,470 households), Digital Green increased the adoption of certain agriculture practices sevenfold over a classic Training & Visit-based approach. Digital Green builds on the support of the existing extension system, but works to address its weakness and makes it effective by using relevant content and a local presence to connect with farmers on a sustained basis. On a cost per adoption basis, Digital Green was shown to be at least ten-times more effective, per dollar spent, than a classical approach to agricultural extension. Digital Green is scaling its model to 1,200 villages over the next three years through the work of partner COs. Ultimately, they expect 15,000 farmers will adopt the new agricultural practices over 18 months and begin to improve their livelihoods. Rikin eventually plans to scale his model to Uganda.
The final goal of Digital Green is to help famers adopt new practices and technologies and increase their income. This will happen more effectively if the community owns the process as theirs. In order to help them have ownership of the entire process of video creation, Digital Green makes the community participate in both content creation and information dissemination. At the heart of the system are Community Resource Persons (CRPs) and Community Service Providers (CSPs). CRPs help in the creation of the videos: They create a survey of the needs and interests of the farmers and are trained to create a story board, to capture information using a camera, editing the information and finally creating the video. A CRP is chosen based on their background, interest, education (i.e. a high school graduate), knowledge of handling electronics, and some knowledge regarding agricultural practices. The videos are usually 8 to 10 minutes in duration and cover varied topics like seed collection, treating the seed, land development and land preparation, crop pattern systems, vermicompost, and improving land assets. Many videos also cover information which aid agriculture, for example, self-help group formation, credit facilities in agriculture, and access to government schemes. Farmers are divided into groups of 15 to 20 people and the videos are screened one to three times per week. The videos are contextualized to the local conditions of the region. Local and familiar farmers are featured in the videos as opposed to outside experts. Members of the community (i.e. CSPs), facilitate the screening of the videos to ensure that farmers use the content regularly. The video-based content and use of low-cost technologies like TV, DVD player and Pico projectors improve the diffusion of better farming practices and reduces the expert support required for each farmer.
Currently Digital Green is working with partners like Pradan, BAIF, Samaj Pragati Sahayog, Green Foundation in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Orissa. Partners are chosen through a rigorous process in which their domain expertise, scale, and community is checked and verified. Some new partners are also engaging the government’s Agriculture Technology Management Agency (ATMA) program which intends to reform the public extension system through interventions like farmer field schools and crop demonstrations. By working with partners involved with ATMA, Digital Green is trying to develop a better understanding of how best to integrate with the government’s agricultural extension system to achieve scale and sustainability over the long-term. Digital Green is also diversifying its partnerships with organizations of larger and smaller sizes; varying investments that trade intensity and breadth; maintaining their focus on increasing the cost-effectiveness of each partner; and, assuring quality throughout the system.
In the Digital Green model, costs are shared between Digital Green, CO partners and the farming communities. Hardware equipment is split 50-50 in the cost-share structure, as is the cost of a village mediator. The cost approximately amounts to Rs 2 to 4 per community member. The partner organization bears the cost of the CRP.
To measure its success, qualitative in-depth interviews with project participants, including extension staff and farmers, are sampled before and after the project. Convenience sampling is used for collecting the data. All the required information is collected using various types of structured questionnaires. For the purpose of evaluation, populations are matched in terms of geography, agroecology, demographics, irrigation availability, and the prior intervention of a partner.
In order to scale, Digital Green is working on a franchisee model. They will provide franchisees with documentation on their gender strategy, monitoring and evaluation framework, and administrative operations. As franchisees extend the Digital Green model, Digital Green will provide guidance on a case-by-case basis. In particular, they will help franchisees select cost-appropriate technologies, such as video cameras and pico projectors, to ensure acceptable quality content. Franchisees will also be provided with the software tools and processes to maintain adequate systems for capturing data from the field and accessing the Digital Green video repository. Digital Green’s software platform will also allow franchisees and core partners to share content and experiences. The ownership of the system will be transitioned with the current set of partners.
Rikin was born and raised in the U.S. and studied computer science and physics at Carnegie Mellon University. He went on to study Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Growing up, Rikin aspired to join the U.S. Air Force, but lacking perfect eyesight, was told to undergo a very painful eye surgery to be considered. Not one to let go of his passion he decided to go ahead with the eye surgery despite the pain. His aspirations to join the Air Force sparked a journey that led him to work at a private space tourism company, earn a private pilot license, and venture halfway across the globe to make his contribution to the social sector.
Due to bureaucratic procedures, Rikin took a year hiatus from work after the surgery, and then joined the Air Force. This period provided him with a lot of time for introspection and he often found himself thinking about the earth and its sustainable development. During this time, he joined Oracle as a member of the technical staff on Oracle’s Secure Enterprise Search team from February 2005 to September 2006. Oracle was just beginning its foray into developing a search product and he was given the role of a researcher. Rikin investigated the development of algorithms that could be used to search for proper nouns, like a person’s name, based on the way it sounds. He co-invented two pending patents while he worked at Oracle.
After working at Oracle as a software engineer and on the verge of joining the U.S. Air Force, he changed course to see how he could contribute toward eliminating poverty. Rikin “reverse-migrated” to India to help start a biodiesel venture on the wastelands of Maharashtra. During this journey he spent a lot of time in rural India and became conversant with the Indian agricultural system. As the biodiesel venture did not pan out the way he had hoped, he joined the Microsoft Research India team in Bangalore in the Technology for Emerging Markets program where his idea for Digital Green was formed.