Sunday, August 01, 2010

Sowing the seeds of change via S-M-S

By Jaideep Hardikar

It is 8 am and on a cloudy day in June Sunita Bhajipale is anxiously awaiting a message on her cell phone -- quite unusual for a female farmer in village Jhilmili in Vidarbha’s Gondia district. As the ringtone on her handset buzzes, Mrs Bhajipale smiles, and checks the message. “Not a good time to start sowing yet.”

The s-m-s is today’s ‘weather advisory’ from Reuters Market light (RML), a professional content service for farmers from the Thomson Reuters group. “RML is my friend,” she says, as she informs her husband that it was not the right time for sowing. She encodes the message: 95% chance of rains, 2 mm rain. It might rain today, she explains, but not enough to commence sowing. “Let’s wait for two days.”

Among the progressive big farmers, the Bhajipales are pool in their entire family land – 100 acres all put together among several brothers and cousins – to introduce new cost-effective farming techniques and new crops – from grains to vegetables to fruits. RML, they say, has augmented their income.

Four text messages a day at an annual subscription of Rs 850, Mrs Bhajipale says, is not bad. “We get all information about weather, crop, commodity prices at different markets, and future projections.” In one year that the Bhajipales have subscribed to the RML, the daily text messages, she says, have helped jack up their profits by at least a lakh rupees. “Until last year, we sold our bananas to traders at Bhandara or Gondia at a price they quoted; now we show them RML message, if they quote less,” she says. “It helps us in making considered decisions,” she says. “Like: should we sell our produce today; or wait.”

Welcome to the ICT-enabled farming – where a complex web of activities are revolutionizing on the one hand, the way content is generated, tailor-made, and disseminated, and on the other, the way peasants use this information to do smart farming, and make considered choices: which crop to sow; when to sell the produce, and where to sell it. “Information,” Mrs Bhajipale says, “gives us an edge and confidence.”

RML – an idea born in Stanford, California, US; incubated in London; and tested in Vidarbha – is making a silent but deeper penetration among peasants in India’s vast rural landscape. From a couple of thousand subscribers who received it free during the test-run in 2007, RML today reaches 250,000 peasants in 13 states, signaling a staggering growth driven by greater rural consumer interest. Also factor this: A farmer who subscribes to RML on his cell-phone invariably shares the information with his fellow-villagers.

“What we do is manage the risks at one level and try to maximize farmers’ gains at another,” says RML vice president (operations) Ranjit Pawar. “We give them information and leave the decisions to them.”

RML’s USP: It’s affordable; easily accessible, and customized for the needs of an individual farmer. If you choose to get information on soybeans and cotton, two major globally-traded crops of Vidarbha, you’ll get it. At any stage, if you intend to change your choices, you could, by dialing a toll-free number.

“When the idea got coined, we said, we now have the device that makes it possible, workable,” the RML managing director, Amit Mehra, says. “It only had to be affordable and accessible for farmers.”

It is simple, and user-driven. All that you do is dial, 18002708090, a toll free number to enquire about RML. Buy a scratch card available at retail shops and Krishi Gramin Bank branches, and in a couple of simple steps activate the service. What makes RML spread fast is it can be accessed from any handset and mobile operator. No language barrier too; one can choose to get messages in regional language.

Conceived at Stanford in the Reuters Digital Vision program by Mans Olof-Oars, a Reuters’ employee, the idea got selected for the Reuters Innovation Program, and backed by funds.

When the idea originated, Mans had emerging markets in sight, Mehra says. India – where two out of every three new mobile subscribers came from rural India – emerged a natural choice.

For, the country’s mobile telephony was booming and economy was expanding at a rapid pace, RML Vice President (Operations) Ranjit Pawar says. Plus, India has 150 million farming households, largest in the world. To top it all, Bangalore is the hub of the Reuters global data operations that the project think tank thought would naturally aid the project in accessing technology and tackling the initial hiccups.

The Reuters innovation foundation formed a team that looked at the potential test field. Maharashtra, Vidarbha in particular, emerged as a choice, driven by several factors: a significant farming population; deeper rural penetration of mobile; marketable surplus of commodities; and internal assessment.

The first year (2006), Pawar says, went into a lot of field research and consumer feedback. “We engaged research agencies to know the top-most information needs of the Indian farmers,” he says.

The research assumptions were obvious: That there was an information asymmetry; farmers did not get timely crop and weather advisories; and the information about schemes and government programs was hardly easily accessible. When consumer surveys were analysed, the assumptions stood vindicated.

Why Mrs Bhajipale subscribed to the service when she first heard of it at a farmers’ convention in the district, is, as she puts it, “I needed this information.” Her need, in essence, is what creates the RML’s business opportunity. This one’s a new segment of customers; and new area for content generation.

In highly volatile global markets, getting accurate market intelligence and a picture of futures trend is crucial to farmers, who had no access to such specific information, says RML editorial head Sunil Tambe.

The RML subscribers benefited immensely last year, when markets were bearish, in contrast to the long term experience. “Our analysis showed that soybean prices would collapse later, because of the bumper crop in Agrentina and South Africa, when usually the soya prices start to climb at a later stage. The RML subscribers told us they sold the crop early and averted the losses. In cotton, our advisories suggested a rising trend in global prices at a later stage, so the farmers decided to take long position with cotton.”

“Content has evolved and been shaped by the subscribers over the time,” Tambe says. “For instance, we equip farmers with market intelligence, and prices of different markets which helps them understand broader current trends and future projections,” he says. “Now farmers growing soybeans in Vidarbha, want to know the plant delivery prices; meaning the procurement price at soya oil extraction plants. This information gives them an idea of the global trends: is the market going up; or down!

Based on the farmer-subscribers’ feedback, RML synthesized prototypes of text messages and sent it to some farmers in Maharashtra, particularly Vidarbha. “They liked what they saw”, Pawar says.

In 2007, the pilot product was launched.

Instead of providing the product on the java-enabled mobile hand-sets RML team chose to provide text services to the universally used handsets; the technological change was from applications based to text messaging, the latter mode making it easier for the farmers to receive and understand the content.

“We could have tested in two-three states,” Mehra says. “But we decided to test it first at a small scale in Maharashtra before scaling up the operations in 13 other states with farming families.”

Having validated that the product is replicable and full-proof now, the RML is ready to go beyond Indian shores. “We are gearing up to introduce the product in other countries of the developing world,” Mehra says. “That’s the reason why we scaled it up in India because it’s a model that works accurately.”

Accuracy of information and credibility, Mehra says, are the RML’s soul. “The fact that we are part of the broader Reuters network brings in the integration of best human resource, content, and technology.”

The value chain, Pawar says, is equally important. The Thomson Reuters does everything on its own: It sources the content; manages it; disseminates it on its own; looks after the billing and sales (it is its own pre-paid vouchers); and also handles customer care and support.

The whole of market intelligence is available for farmers, for whom it reads like a simple text message.

But it’s the synthesis of a complex set of fast-paced global activities: from collecting data, deciphering it and disseminating in a way easy to be read and understood even by illiterate peasant-subscribers.

Global market intelligence and information is sourced from various market reports and analyzed by experts. Granular information and intelligence is collected by market reporters posted at APMC markets.

It’s 2.30 pm, and a motley group of traders begin the auction of local and hybrid gram that has arrived at the grain auction yard number 7 in Nagpur’s sprawling 125-acre Kalamna market campus.

Standing attentively in one corner, Sarang Pimpale, 24, jots down the price at which the buyer closes his deal. “Rs 2160,” he notes, and moves on to the next auction site. At 4 pm, after three different auctions of gram and soybeans in a typical off-season when the arrivals are sluggish he texts a report on his cell.

The first year BA student is a farmer’s son, and RML’s market correspondent. “He’s our eyes and ear at local mandi,” says Shrinivas Pande, chief market reporter. Every day, between 11 am and 5 pm, Sarang taps on the prices at this market of 20 different commodities – from fruits to grains to vegetables.

After cross-checking his message, Sanrang shoots it to a system’s unique short code, after which it gets structured at the Reuters’ data-centre in Bangalore, before appearing in minutes on an internal prices application portal. Sitting in his Nagpur office, Pande surfs through the messages on his laptop, when he taps on Sarang’s entry. It reads: Soybean- Maximum price-2024, Minimum price-1951, Average price-1975, Arrival at Kalamna market-800 quintals, Wheat- Maximum price-1199, Minimum price-1176, No average (since only two auctions took place that particular day), Arrival-700 quintals…”

Pande clicks on “approved”. The message heads for the production desk and is ready for dissemination, within no time, among the subscribers as per their market and commodity preferences.

The content-spread is mind-boggling. It covers 250 crops; 1000 markets and 3000 weather locations.

Just look at the size of operations: 300 people in 13 states source information at granular levels; another 13 editors source information from global markets, and keep tab on global commodity trends, activities at the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT), and dozens of advisories issued by governments worldwide.

RML sources about 5500 data points, of which 680 are in Maharashtra. For instance, soybean prices at Nagpur market forms one data point. Local level market reporter is the primary source, and foundation of the Market Light product. The Reuters editorial network and its premium services are its backbone.

Weather forecast, Pawar says, is one of the top 4 information needs of a farmer.

Subscribers’ information consumption behavior is changing, Pande says. “Earlier,” he says, “They expected a message once in 3-4 days; now they want it few times a day, particularly in harvest season.” Some farmers call RML reporters any time, curious to know more about crop and market situation, and new government schemes that have been recently launched.

“It can play a big role in extension,” Gondia sub divisional agriculture officer Rajratan Kumbhare says. “I see a qualitative change in the way RML subscribers in our area farm, aided with information.”

RML is evoking curiosity among the researchers. The Oxford University is studying the impact of market light product on the farmers, who use it, to differentiate with those who don’t.

A research paper by ICRIER last year on the “Impact of Mobile phones on Agriculture Productivity” found “evidence that mobiles are being used in ways which contribute to productivity.”

The ICRIER researchers found the RML model – of some other non-commercial parallels – most suitable to the farmers given its customized nature and easy access. A number of subscribers reported that the RML advisories helped them avert potential losses by reacting quickly to weather and pest information, which in turn “generated positive economic benefits”.

Take for instance, Ravindra Lindal, a marginal farmer in Beed’s Rohtalgaon village. Two years since he subscribed to RML, Lindal has preserved every single advisory he received on his cell phone. Last season, he says, he could add Rs 64,000 to his profits, thanks to one particular RML market advisory.

“One s-m-s advisory suggested the soybean prices would drop in a week’s time, and I decided to sell my produce immediately,” he said. “I would not have sold it otherwise. Prices did drop. I was saved.”

Some farmers, like Sarjerao Sahebrao Kharwade, a five-acre rain-fed farmer in Beed’s Gevrai tehsil, are clubbing their age-old wisdom with RML service. “I’m able to sell my produce at an appropriate time due to this information,” he acknowledges. “I am persisting with it, since it’s giving me dividends.” No wonder, in his sleepy village, Kharwade’s now a rising star and one-stop guide to his fellow villagers.


Bedazzled said...

that was a GREAT story. We never know whats buzzing in this great country of ours :)

Unknown said...

Good to know about this awesome messaging system, direct to farmers. And that Reuters is leading it--talk about news media changing lives of people! I wonder how big is RML clientele among Indian farmers. Also, if Reuters or any other organization is thinking of ways to increase the pool of farmers and how?

Devinder Sharma said...

Oh, my God ! have our farmers become so helpless. It only tells me that they have forgotten even how to farm.

The so called market intelleigence is nothing but a marketing exercise. I know many such companies which have tie-ups with Monsanto/Syngenta and they suggest to farmers for instance that the weather is going to be cloudy for the next few days so better spray fungicide A to ward-off the threat of a fungal attack. What a clever way to sell your products.

Devinder Sharma