Cell of change

Written by Sanjib Kumar Chaudhary, SNV, Nepal

Mobile technology has greatly aided farmers in India; Nepal should emulate such practices.

The hills of Almora in Uttarakhand of neighbouring India resemble the landscape in Nepal. The culture and way of life of the people are similar too. However, farmers there are a little more fortunate than Nepali farmers. They can obtain information on market prices, weather conditions, agricultural policy news, and tips on farming cycles via short message service (SMS) from Reuters Market Light (RML). The RML service is delivered in the form of a simple SMS that fits into the daily workflow of the farmer in his/her preferred language. Information can be obtained on 450 crop varieties in eight different languages.

Mobile power 

A woman hidden behind a veil narrated to me her experience with mobile technology. She had laid out the whole lot of crop to be dried out in the sun. It was a sunny day and there was no sign of rain in the horizon. Then she received an SMS from RML. Being illiterate, she ran to her daughter who read it out. The SMS predicted rain.

All at once, she collected her crop and stored it in a safe place. It rained just after that but her crop was safe. A lean farmer standing next to her shared a similar experience. He was ready to spray pesticide on his standing crop of vegetables. But he changed his mind after receiving an SMS notifying him of a light shower. It saved both time and money.

Such is the power of information. And it is a blessing when it comes to a mobile set worth a few thousand rupees and in your preferred language. In Uttarakhand, the RML services are free of charge, sponsored by the Department of Telecommunication and the German development agency, GIZ. In other parts of India, RML services can be availed of through a paid subscription. This service is being used by over 1.2 million farmers in 50,000 villages across 17 states of India. Even the information can be personalised based on the type of crop, region of the crop, region of the country and local language. This enables farmers to make informed decisions, reduce waste and maximise their profits.

Farmers are well informed about the prices of their produce in two nearby markets. It helps them sell their products at a fair price to buyers. The service also has a provision of flashing the name and mobile number of a farmer or a trader who wants to sell or buy the commodities. The seller and buyer can then negotiate with each other for an agreeable price.

Likewise, RML flashes the name and contact number of successful farmers periodically. The farmers end up receiving thousands of calls from fellow farmers asking them about their success mantra.

The farmers can also enquire about diseases and pests affecting their crops with experts and specialists through a toll-free number provided by RML. They simply need to dial the number and record their problems with the call centre employees. The problems are then discussed with experts and the caller gets a reply-call with prescribed solutions.

With the ever-growing use of mobile phones, farmers in Nepal are also discovering ways to make their life easier. Now they can enquire about the price of their produce at major markets and negotiate prices with middlemen, avoid unnecessary travel to fetch agricultural inputs (especially if it is not available in the market) and seal deals with buyers. Farmers in Surkhet and Dailekh in the Mid-West development region can find out the price of vegetables and fruits through an SMS service provided by the Agro Enterprise Centre. Likewise, by calling a toll-free number, they can find out the prices of vegetables and fruits through voicemail. This service was piloted by Practical Action.

Mobile innovations 

While we are being hit hard by loadshedding, farmers in India have found a unique method to deal with power cuts. With the help of a device designed by Vijay Bhaskar Reddy Dinnepu, founder of Vinfinet Technologies, they can direct their irrigation pump motors to switch on and off whenever they choose.

Through the device, the motor can also call back the farmer if there is voltage fluctuation or a power cut. The device connects to farmers’ mobiles through an interactive voice response system (IVRS).

With the provision of krishi meter (electrometers measuring subsidised electricity for agriculture), Nepali farmers can now irrigate their crops even during the dry season at cheaper prices. A device similar to that of Vinfinet Technologies could help them cope with regular power cuts and they can avoid staying on their fields for the whole day and night—in the cold and heat—waiting for power to resume.

The brains that developed the popular Android application ‘Taxi Meter’ which calculates the price of the distance travelled in a taxi and prevents travellers from being fleeced by taxi drivers must not leave behind farmers and agriculture in the ‘mobile revolution’.

Ever growing mobile users 

Cellphones, which are a necessity these days, is ubiquitous even in the remotest corners of the country. People living below the poverty line, above the line and the ultra-rich, all have access to mobiles and the telecom network. What aid workers could not do in decades has been accomplished in years by mobile operators. While the thought of building toilets in every household seems to be a dream, Nepalis from all walks of life hold mobiles in their hands. The private telecom service provider, Ncell, boasts of having reached the mark of 10 million subscribers while state-owned Nepal Telecom has similar claims (including Namaste, CDMA and 3G subscribers).

Like RML in India, across the developing world, mobile services in agriculture have focussed on sharing and obtaining information. The programmes developed so far provide farmers access to research and best practices, weather information and market prices via SMS, IVR or call centres. With the rise in population and intense competition in agriculture, it is of vital importance for farmers to increase their production and raise incomes. This is possible only if they have access to right information at the right time through mobile technology.

Recently, in an Information Communication Technology workshop held in Rajbiraj, one of the presenters asked the participants about the best way to reach people who do not have access to the internet. Three hands quickly rose in unison. The answer was the mobile phone in their hands. With millions of farmers with mobiles handy, what we need now is the right technology, like RML. It could be a ‘game changer’ for Nepali agriculture.

Article originally appeared: http://www.ekantipur.com/2013/11/10/related-article/cell-of-change/380562.html