Smartphones are revolutionising farming in India. The tiny gadgets, which were previously far too expensive for rural farmers, have opened up new avenues for obtaining information. To ensure that illiterate farmers can make the most of the smartphone boom, a number of social entrepreneurs have been working on solutions that bridge gaps, build inclusivity and facilitate access to important information.
These days, it seems as though smartphones are everywhere. In India, mobile internet traffic trumps desktop traffic and smartphones have also seen considerable uptake from the farming community regardless of literacy level. Initially the devices were used in some cases purely for entertainment purposes i.e. listening to music while working or watching videos online. The ability to send and receive information has however, hampered farmers with low or no literacy skills in accessing a large chunk of online information.
Enter social enterprise. Mobile Harvest is an App developed by Sachin Gaur to help people with little or no literacy skills communicate with each other and share information about seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, what pests and diseases are affecting their crops, and what yields and prices they should expect. Gaur and his team looked at farmers who've had success through their own enterprises and recorded them giving instructions on how he or she produced such a successful yield and what others can do to replicate their success. The recordings have been catalogued within the app so users can navigate their way through thousands of recordings with the help of a number of symbols tailored to suit people with little or no literacy skills. It is a simple but potentially effective idea that can connect struggling rural farmers throughout the country.
In India, small farmers cultivate 50 percent of the land; however many of these farmers are hindered by outdated, insufficient methods. In recent years crop failure and poor yields have blighted many homesteads. Poor harvests have left some small farmers burdened with hefty debts which they simply cannot afford to pay back. For many the burden is too much and many argue that the rate of farmer suicides is a direct correlation to this issue. It is estimated that since 1995 at least 270,940 farmers have taken their own lives. This is the what spurred Gaur to develop the app. He wanted to help small farm owners increase their yields and be able to make a living from their land. However, he is not the only one promoting the medium of smartphones as a way to help improve the livelihood of farmers.
“We want to empower communities by sharing knowledge, and show that agriculture is a choice, not a last resort,” said Rikin Gandhi, founder of NGO digitalGREEN at a recent Cornell University conference. This NGO provides a platform for farmers to share their knowledge by recording videos of them offering their advice and then posting them online, usually on YouTube. To date there are over 2,700 videos available on the website which have been watched almost 175,000 times.
"Farmers want to be featured in the videos. It helps create a stronger network and allows farmers to become leaders in their community," said Gandhi.
These endeavours could benefit the 500 million small farmers worldwide who are often working in difficult conditions. At the moment they provide over half the world's food supply and more than 2 billion people are dependent on them for their livelihoods. If provided with meaningful access to technology and new farming methods, it is believed they can improve their productivity, make a healthy living from their labours and help sustain food security and benefit their economies. As seen in Vietnam, improving farming techniques can provoke drastic changes. Previously Vietnam was a food deficient country; however, due to advances in farming techniques it is now the second largest exporter of rice in the world. Most importantly, the poverty rate in Vietnam fell from 58 percent in 1979 to 15 percent in 2007.
A report by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (INAD) highlights the critial role small farmers have to play in global food security as well as the need for systems and techniques to ensure a fair chance in the marketplace. Potentially, initiatives like the ones above can help significantly improve the livelihoods of the farmers for generations to come.
Author: Stephen Walsh / RESET editorial