Access to ICT4Ag in India


An advantage of having a peer coach is that you may never know what they might lead you to in your own sector. My WhyDev peer coach Eric Couper introduced me to the budding ICT4Ag industry in India when he was in Ethiopia! ICT4Ag means Information & Communication Technology for Agriculture. This introduction is for readers outside of the agriculture and rural development sector.  ICT4Ag in India largely comprises of mobile agricultural advisory services (mAgri) with Digital Green being an exception. Thanks to Eric, I listened to the webinar by Mr. Jawahar Kanjilal of Nokia India on how Nokia is making inroads into the agriculture sector with it Life Tools.

mAgri is the 21st century’s answer to 20th century TV shows like ‘Amchi Mati, Amchi Manasa’ (Our Soil, Our People). DD Sahyadri’s agriculture extention education show was undoubtedly one of the first ICT4Ag ventures witnessed by India and many Marathi families would without fail tune into the show 6:30 PM every evening before the arrival of cable television in India. The show continues till this date.

I decided to get the farmers we worked with to use these services and to know what they think about such services. Here is the story of the roadblocks I faced for the 2 services that I talked to farmers about.  On being explained the use of mobile advisory services for information on weather, crop inputs and market prices, farmers say that they will willingly buy these services. My mAgri popularization flight faced numerous logistical snags in the town of Mandla. It clearly isn’t easy to access mAgri services of several companies. My account here is that of someone operating from a tribal area of Madhya Pradesh, specifically the districts of Mandla and Dindori.

1)      Nokia Life Tools

I had seen this video of Nokia a long time ago but had completely forgotten about it and had never bothered to check out how they were going about it.

I explained Nokia Life Tools and its uses to some farmers in the Ghughri block, Mandla, Madhya Pradesh. People were keen on accessing such a service but here is the hurdles.

1. You have to buy a Nokia phone to be able to use Life Tools. Given that most people I had met already had phones, (Lava/ Micromax), there was no way they were going to buy a Nokia phone just for the sake of the Nokia Agriculture Life Tools service. Villagers say that they prefer the Lava and Micromax phones because they have long-lasting batteries which are necessary given erratic electricity supply in rural areas.

2. Nokia Life is not supported by BSNL cellular services. BSNL is the mobile network available in Ghughri, Mandla. Nokia will face this problem across India where BSNL is the only cellular service provider.

3. The non-availability of Nokia Life in the higher end Nokia phones is problem no.3. A wealthy farmer who has profitable business(es) apart from farming, or a rich sugarcane farmer who can afford a Nokia Lumia model cannot access Nokia Life despite being a Nokia phone owner.

2)      Reuters Market Light

Given that people have to buy a Nokia phone to access its ICT4Ag service, I searched for services that did not require the purchase of a cell phone of a specific brand. I found Reuters Market Light (RML).

RML provides agriculture related information on weather, market crop prices, insect and pest management details during the period for which the farmer has subscribed to RML. The customer has to buy RML direct cards just like mobile talktime recharge cards and activate the service on their existing cell phones.

I explained how RML works to some women’s self-help groups in Mandla block. They did show inclination to buy the RML service because they said that they would go to Jabalpur to sell their sugarcane stock if the prices were higher there as compared to Mandla. Moreover, the Mandla block does not have network connectivity problems as much as the Ghughri block does due to its mountainous and forest terrain. I checked the website of RML to know where one could buy RML cards. You can buy them only in Aadhaar stores.  The closest Aadhaar store was in Indore, 610 kms away from Mandla!  I decided to explore other ways of getting RML to our women farmers.  I found Mr. Manav Khosla of RML on Twitter.

I called up the RML toll free number. They put me in touch with their distributor for the Jabalpur division. This gentleman explained that customers will have to make the payment to the nearest branch of State Bank of India (SBI). The RML service will be activated on the basis of this payment. Nice!

Instead of sending the whole village to the SBI office in Mandla, I decided to visit SBI myself to understand the procedure. Turns out, that the SBI officials weren’t very sure themselves about proceeding with this and how to accept payments. Their lack of information ensured that I was turned into a shuttle-cock for a quarter of an hour as they sent me from one manager to another. After being tossed from here to there about 5 times, I finally got to the right person. Here is what he had to say.

“The RML people had visited us some months ago to make a presentation about RML. We do accept payments for RML but only if the customer has a SBI bank account.”

My question, “So if a person does not have a SBI bank account and wants to subscribe RML service, they’ll have to open a SBI bank account first?”

SBI Bank officer said, “Yes, madam.”

The problem over here is that the more popular bank in Mandla is the Central Bank of India (CBI), not the State Bank of India. Most villagers have accounts with CBI . RML should have kept the option of subscription via CBI open. People aren’t going to open bank accounts in SBI to access RML.

Moral of the story: SBI gets to decide whether RML can have more customers or not in areas that have no Aadhaar stores.  Methinks this marketing and sales strategy needs to be updated.

Given the logistical difficulties for getting the people we worked with to use ICT4Ag services, I decided to leave ICT4Ag alone and focus on the work I already had on hand.

Now for the famous LEARNINGS:

1. Purchasing ICT4Ag services in India is not yet as easy as subscribing to a mobile connection & buying mobile recharge.

2. Certain ICT4Ag services are dependent on specific cellular network providers.

3. Farmers across India aren’t yet aware of the existence of ICT4Ag services and this calls for better advertising and marketing.

4.  Indian farmers are keen to pay for ICT4Ag services for accessing market prices, weather information and insect & pest management information.

The Indian ICT4Ag sector is still setting itself up. Access to these services will simplify in the next decades. While there are studies on the content delivered by ICT4Ag services in India, a lot more feedback is needed from the customers for their perspectives on the ease of purchasing these services.

P.S.: Thank you WhyDev & Eric!

Edited on May 1, 2014 to include a better code for the Nokia presentation from Slideshare thanks to Nalini Kumar Muppala.