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Partnerships promoting digital platforms

Women trying out use of tabs
Women trying out use of tabs

Over the last few decades massive technological development and new opportunities have transformed people’s lives. However, these opportunities have not benefited the agriculture sector in a significant way. Access to timely and relevant information can benefit all stakeholders in the agriculture ecosystem. Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) will play a key role in knowledge exchange, targeted recommendations, market integration and access to finance to make agriculture a profitable enterprise.

Agricultural production issues cannot be considered in isolation from environmental issues. The use of digital tools in agriculture helps the diverse set of stakeholders in any given context to meet the competing demands of increased production, ecological sustainability, food security, economic viability, resource conservation and social equity. Use of modern ICT tools in agriculture help reduce transaction costs; improve market transparency; promote efficient logistics and provide financial inclusion and insurance. Tools ranging from data analytics and remote sensing to information delivery through mobile phones helps stakeholders coordinate and improve efficiencies across the value chain. This enables every actor in the value chain deliver the goods and services required by the other actors, thus acting in unison to promote agroecology. Timely information helps stakeholders act in a concerted manner to create a win-win situation for all.

India has a long history of use of ICTs for agriculture. Some of the early pioneers were Warna Wired village (launched in 1998), Gyandoot (launched in 2000), Nokia Life (launched in 2009), Reuters Market Light (launched in 2007), e-Sagu (launched in 2004), e-Krishi, e-Choupal, iKisan. Initiatives like Gyandoot, Warna Wired Village and Nokia Life were not limited to agriculture. They also provided information on other aspects like education, health, entertainment, provision of government services like birth/death certificates, copies of land titles, information on government schemes, government subsidies, and a variety of other information and services. The other initiatives mentioned above are more focused on providing information and services related to agriculture only. There is a mix of government-led projects, non-government organization (NGO)-led projects, as well as private sector driven projects. In terms of information delivery channels, the primary channels are: (i) operator-mediated computer kiosk; (ii) telephony (call centers and mobile phones); (iii) web portals and (iv) different combinations of first three channels.

One of the primary premises behind the use of ICT in agriculture is that lack of information is a major impediment to improving farmers’ livelihoods. Hence the deployment of early generation ICTs has been primarily for information dissemination. However, today we have at our disposal tools for (a) capturing and processing large amounts of data; (b) analytics tools and decision support systems; (c) systems that can be operated and monitored remotely.

ICRISAT has been continuously innovating in working with smallholder farmers to meet the contemporary challenges of agriculture. These challenges have evolved from the merely technical to also include social, cultural, economic and particularly environmental concerns. Using new tools like drones, ICRISAT has innovated beyond the traditional use of ICTs for information delivery. Described below are some of our initiatives that use modern tools as well as traditional ones to enable all stakeholders work in concert to improve the lives of smallholder farmers across sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

A woman trains others in the use of digital tools
A woman trains others in the use of digital tools

Data analytics and business intelligence to empower farmers

A new sowing application for farmers combined with a Personalized Village Advisory Dashboard will help farmers pick the right sowing time, thus helping them avoid uncertainty due to climate change. This is being piloted in Andhra Pradesh. The sowing app will help farmers achieve optimal harvests by advising on the best time to sow crops depending on weather conditions, soil and other indicators.

The sowing application utilizes powerful artificial intelligence to interface with weather forecasting models provided by USA based aWhere Inc. and extensive data including rainfall over the last 45 years as well as 10 years of groundnut sowing progress data for Kurnool district. This data is then downscaled to build predictability and guide farmers to pick the ideal sowing week. When combined with other data collected from, it can create rich datasets that can be processed to build predictive models for the farmers.

Similarly, the Personalized Village Advisory Dashboard provides an instant overview across several environmental factors that determine a healthy crop yield. In a pilot that is currently in progress, information will be sent to farmers about the sowing date via SMS in Telugu. Data collected manually from 10000 hectares each in the 13 districts of the state by ICRISAT field officers has been uploaded to Microsoft’s Azure Cloud.

Men using mobiles to access information
Men using mobiles to access information

The use of advanced analytics in agriculture will help streamline and strengthen farming practices. The Sowing App and Personalized Village Advisory Dashboard provide powerful cloud-based predictive analytics to empower farmers with crucial information and insights to help reduce crop failures and increase yield, in turn, reducing stress and generating better income. It has been developed through a partnership between Andhra Pradesh government, Microsoft, aWhere, and ICRISAT under the Rythu Kosam project funded by the Government of Andhra Pradesh.  A local grassroots organisation, Chaitanya Youth Association, working in Kurnool, is supporting this initiative in the field.

On the ground

Shivappa is one angry farmer. “How come I don’t get any messages that the others are getting,” he protested vehemently when the ICRISAT team visited his village. So did Yusuf Basha and Madanna Kandappa of Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh, India.

Since 15 June farmers of Devanakonda village in Kurnool have been getting advisories as text messages on their mobile phones informing them the right time to sow and the preparations needed before sowing. Currently 175 farmers, out of around 1,000 farmers, are receiving these advisories informing them the best time to sow depending on weather conditions, the crops they grow, soil health and other indicators.

Sample text messages sent on 27 June

1.   Sowing rainfed groundnut crop can be initiated

2.   Before sowing, seed treatment is essential

3.   Prevention of seed and soil borne diseases is very important

4.   Treat one kg seed with 3g of Thiram or Captan or Mancozeb

5.   Wherever white grubs are problematic, treat one kg seed with 6.5 ml Chlorpyriphos before sowing

6.   While sowing, ensure optimum soil moisture

7.   Place the seeds at a depth of  about 5 cm in the soil

Farmers in Devanakonda and surrounding villages are primarily dependent on rains for farming. Around 60% of the cultivated area is under groundnut followed by cotton (22%) and castor (17%). Other crops grown are pigeonpea, chillies and vegetables.

The advisories, for groundnut production, are sent in the local language Telugu as well as English. Many farmers own first generation feature phones which may not support the local language, hence messages are also sent in English. To overcome the literacy barrier, some designated farmers are given the responsibility of conveying the message to others and the possibility of sending voice messages is being explored.

Ms. Rameshwaramma is very happy with the advisory service. She planted groundnut in 1.5 ha and followed all advice such as gypsum application, opening up furrows for moisture conservation, intercropping with pigeonpea and micronutrient application. Today she has a healthy crop to show for her efforts.

Many farmers like Shivappa who were not subscribing to the messages earlier are now eager to sign up, seeing how their neighbours have benefited. Tracking the farmers shows that from 24 June when the farmers were advised to start sowing, the percentage of area sown went up from 15% to 100% by 4 July.

Rameshwaramma in her groundnut fields
Rameshwaramma in her groundnut fields

Conclusion

This initiative brings together a cross-section of stakeholders on a common platform to empower smallholder farmers. In the face of climate change, helping farmers reduce risk by empowering them with information to take the right decisions, introducing crop diversity in farming systems as a risk mitigating measure, introducing tools and technologies for climate-smart agriculture require diverse stakeholders – farmers, research institutes, government, NGOs and the corporate sector – to come together and work in a coordinated manner to make agriculture profitable and sustainable.

Acknowledgements: I wish to thank Dr Suhas Wani, Research Program Director – Asia and Theme Leader- ICRISAT Development Center, ICRISAT, who is leading this project; Dr AVR Kesava Rao, Honorary Fellow, IDC, ICRISAT; Mr G Adi Narayana, Scientific Officer, ICRISAT, Kurnool; Mr V Gopinath, Research Technician, ICRISAT, Kurnool;  Dr Prabhakar Pathak, Consultant, IDC, and District Coordinator, Kurnool district, AP Rythu Kosam Project and Mr C Madhusudan, Project Officer, and other staff of Chaitanya Youth Association. This work was undertaken under the AP Rythu Kosam Project funded by the Government of Andhra Pradesh.

Amit Chakravarty
Senior Manager
ICRISAT, Patancheru
Hyderabad
E-mail: a.chakravarty@cgiar.org