Monday, February 15, 2010

Dialing Up Knowledge—and Harvests

Nothing is currently having a more profound effect on farmers in the developing world than telecommunications networks. Cell phones and expanding broadband Internet coverage are helping farmers boost yields by disseminating information.

EMBALAM, INDIA—In the open-air hall of a Hindu temple in this village in southern India, five farmers in smart white cotton shirts sit cross-legged on a carpet and explain how cell phones have changed their lives. A few years ago, says Poonathan, who like many in Tamil Nadu State has only one name, "I would have to drive into town to check the price that rice was fetching or find out where to buy high-quality seed." These days, like many other farmers across rural India, he instead stays home and dials a cell phone to get everything from the weather forecast to primers on how to use less seed, fuel, and fertilizer but still reap bigger harvests.

"We now have money to spend on our children's education, and many of us don't need to borrow anymore to buy seed and fertilizer," says a second farmer, Krishnaswamy, who with dusk falling swats at mosquitoes attacking his bare calves. Few of the 5000 or so inhabitants of Embalam miss out on three meals a day, he adds—an impressive accomplishment in light of India's 200 million or so malnourished people. Krishnaswamy nods to a group of worshippers lighting candles in front of a statue of the monkey god Hanuman, praying for good fortune. "We consider ourselves lucky," he says.

From paved roads that carry crops to market to modern grain silos that reduce postharvest losses, infrastructure is critical to achieving food security. But nothing is currently having a more profound effect on farmers in the developing world than telecommunications networks. "The future of food security in the developing world depends more on knowledge than on resource-intensive agriculture," says Venkataraman Balaji of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Patancheru, India. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, the ubiquitous cell phone and expanding broadband Internet coverage are revving up an experiment called Village Knowledge Centers (VKCs), the template for an ambitious initiative to help farmers boost yields by disseminating information. A similar effort has just gotten under way in India's northern neighbor, Bhutan.

"Cell phones are responsible for an amazing transformation," says Anburaj Thiagarajan, a Puducherry-based adviser to the Jamsetji Tata National Virtual Academy for Rural Prosperity, a forum for honoring social workers, farmers, and others who have made a difference to their home villages. The transformation is going on speed dial: India's government intends to launch up to 100,000 new VKCs by the end of 2012. Pulling off that feat won't be easy, says Uma Lele, a former senior adviser to the World Bank. "It is a daunting challenge to get communities actively involved when scaling up a carefully nurtured pilot project," she says. Meanwhile, Green Revolution pioneer M. S. Swaminathan is prodding the government and private companies to recruit tech-savvy volunteers in each of India's 600,000 villages who, he says, can "get science into the hands of more people."

Telecom revolution. In Bhutan, a new cell phone service should help farmers fetch better prices for produce. Cell phones have already transformed life for farmers in Embalam, India (inset).


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Getting the word out

The M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai opened the first VKCs in Tamil Nadu in 1998 to spread the fruits of agricultural research to farmers. The centers started off as spartan offices that distributed pamphlets and offered hands-on training. At the time, "nobody could see the applicability of mobile phones to rural life," says Suchit Nanda, a Mumbai-based consultant. The couple of dozen VKCs here have since morphed into multimedia centers that communicate with each other via broadband and send dispatches on info such as commodity prices to farmers via cell phone.

It's a model that's being emulated by Bhutan's new Market Information System. Last month, the Netherlands Development Organisation (SNV), Bhutan's agriculture ministry, and Bhutan Telecom established the network, which allows farmers to use cell phones to get daily price ranges of major crops in five market centers.

The system aims to ameliorate a common problem in isolated farming communities, which in mountainous Bhutan means almost everyone: the temptation of middlemen to rip off farmers who are not aware of prevailing prices. "A lot of farmers are being caught like that," says Rob Erskine-Smith, an SNV consultant based in Thimphu who helped develop the system. By dialing up timely prices, farmers will be able to negotiate better deals with middlemen and commission agents—and capture more of the cash needed to improve their operations. Unlike similar setups that use text messaging, the Bhutan system recites prices in the country's four main languages—a big advantage in a country with a high rate of illiteracy. The key to long-term success will be ensuring that prices collated by the agriculture ministry and Food Corporation of Bhutan are not manipulated to favor buyers or sellers.

To provide wiser counsel to Indian farmers, Swaminathan is raising an army of village volunteers. In 2005, with support from the Tata family, prominent Indian industrialists, MSSRF created the Jamsetji virtual academy, whose 1000-and-counting members receive MSSRF-led training and share experiences at annual gatherings. "MSSRF has been able to identify ordinary people and enable them to do extraordinary things," says Nanda.

Swaminathan dreams that the academy will eventually tap at least one man and one woman from each village—some 1.2 million people. As villages acquire VKCs and get better connected thanks to cell phones and the Internet, information should flow easily from researchers to farmers and from farmer to farmer. It's the kind of infrastructure that Swaminathan hopes will help India build on the Green Revolution in the face of a growing population—and climate change.

- Richard Stone

From Science Magazine

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