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Lack of information services: A disservice to Indian farmers

Lack of information services: A disservice to Indian farmers

Agriculture in India is a core sector for food and nutritional security, sustainable development and poverty alleviation. The sector contributes about 17-18% of Gross Domestic Product and provides employment to over 50%, according to a report in the Financial Express about the latest Economic Survey.
Information and Communication Technology (ICT), also known e-agriculture, has the potential to revolutionise the Indian farming sector and benefit all farmers, including small, marginalized and poor farmers. ICT-based services like information services attempt to address several agricultural challenges.
In 2008, the United Nations referred to e-agriculture as "an emerging field", with the expectation that its scope would change and evolve as our understanding of the area grows. (wikipedia.org)

Why information services are crucial


Improved agricultural production is the major weapon in the fight against world hunger, improving rural livelihood and increasing economic growth. (computerscijournal.org)
Despite the availability of farming resources …, there always remains a lack of agricultural information, sometimes most basic, related to seeds, farming practices, climate, diseases and pests, harvesting mechanisms, application of farm machinery, post-harvest strategies and finally proper marketing. Lack of information or untimely-given information, when coupled with other factors like environmental shocks leads to a huge loss in the crop produce or quality or sale price, and ultimately the farmer suffers. Therefore, strategies should be made to equip farmers with all types of information from seed sowing to harvesting to marketing in a timely manner to reduce losses and promote rural livelihood and food security. As farmers become mobile and internet friendly, the penetration of useful agricultural information regarding crops, soils, climate, cultivation practices, financing, storage of produce and marketing among the farming communities is becoming easy, popular and critical. (e-agriculture.org)

Scope


ICT-based information services are becoming the facilitator of socio-economic development in rural India.
The information related to policies and programmes of government, schemes for farmers, institutions through which these schemes are implemented, new innovations in agriculture, Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs), Institutions providing new agricultural inputs (high yielding seeds, new fertilizers etc.,) and training in new techniques are disseminated to farmers through use of Information Technology to ensure inclusiveness and to avoid digital divide. Access to price information, access to agriculture information, access to national and international markets, increasing production efficiency and creating a 'conducive policy environment' are the beneficial outcomes of e-Agriculture which enhance quality of life of farmers. (insightsonindia.com)

Existing services

Kisan SMS Portal: Farmers get SMS messages about information services or advisories from experts, scientists and officials after opting for the messages on various agricultural practises and crops of their choice. The messages are customized based on a farmer's preferences in the language chosen by them. Existing databases of farmers, available with central and state government, are being integrated with the portal. Those who are not registered need to sign up on the portal. They can also register by calling the Kisan Call Centre's toll free number or through the SMS-based registration system that is available. The services of the portal include crop production, including horticulture, animal husbandry, dairying and fisheries. It sends messages relating not only production, but also marketing, weather forecast, soil testing, etc.
The Sandesh Pathak application, developed jointly by C-DAC Mumbai, IIT-Madras, IIIT Hyderabad, IIT Kharagpur, and C-DAC Thiruvananthapuram will enable SMS messages to be read out loud for farmers who may have difficulty in reading or cannot read - a large share of farmers belongs to the latter category. (insightsonindia.com)
Village Knowledge Centre (VKC) serves as information dissemination centres that provide farmers instant access to the latest agricultural information/ knowledge, and covers everything from crop production to marketing. A "VKC In-charge" looks after the operations. (insightsonindia.com)
Village Resource Centres (VRC) The VRCs are connected to Knowledge/Expert Centres like Agricultural Universities, Skill Development Institutes and Hospitals. Over 6,500 programmes have been conducted by the VRCs in the areas of Agriculture/horticulture, Fisheries, Live stock, Water resources, Tele health care, Awareness programmes, Women empowerment, Supplementary education, Computer literacy, Micro credit, Micro finance, Skill development / vocational training for livelihood support etc. (insightsonindia.com)

Existing players


The existing information service providers can be broadly categorised as central, state governments and private organisations, with many telecom service providers offering agricultural extensions following the introduction of National Telecom Act, 2012.

Challenges


Some of the problems plaguing the effective use of information services are:
The reach of these services is still very poor and a large chunk of farmers are still ignorant about the various channels and information that is available to them. The rural ICT infrastructure is not uniform and regional disparity persists. (insightsonindia.com)
Access is not the only hurdle when it comes to information services and new technologies, adoption is a critical factor hampering the potential of the sector. The price of information services is also a factor that determines its adoption.

Limited phone penetration in rural areas


With 1,151.94 million mobile subscribers, according TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) data as on January 31, 2018, rural India has just 499.09 million subscribers as opposed to 652.85 million in urban areas.
Of the total mobiles in rural areas only 109 million users own smartphones, according to a Financial Express report. Hence, less than 22% of all mobile phones in rural areas are smartphones. And the mobile internet penetration in rural India remains as low as 18%, a LiveMint report quoted an Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and KANTAR-IMRB report.

Network (mobile) issue in rural India


Telecom and network connectivity have widely been seen as enablers of a nation's socio-economic growth, a McKinsey study cites that a 10% increase in tele-density contributes to 0.6% of GDP growth. Though urban India is reaping the benefits of the telecom revolution, rural tele-density is still low.
The 'wireless tele-density' in rural India amounted to just 56.25% as opposed to 159.39% in urban areas, according to the latest TRAI report. Wireless tele-density means the number of cell phone connections for every hundred individuals living within an area.

Advisory Services


Advisory services like soil management, water management, seed management, fertilizer management, pest management, harvest management and post-harvest management are the important components of e-agriculture where technology aids farmers with better information and alternatives. It uses a host of technologies like remote sensing, computer simulation, assessment of speed and direction of wind, soil quality assays, crop yield predictions and marketing using Information and Communication Technologies. (insightsonindia.com)

Advisory Service Providers


Some of the mobile-based agro advisory service (MAAS) providers are:
1. Airtel Green Sim
2. Awaaz De
3. Behtar Zindagi
4. Digital Mandi by BSNL
5. Electronic Solutions against Agricultural Pests (eSAP)
6. Fasal
7. Havaamaana Krishi by UAS Dharwad
8. Hello Uttam by Chambal Fertilizers and Chemicals Ltd.
9. IFFCO Kisan Agricultural App
10. Intelligent Advisory System for Farmers (IADS)
11. Interactive Information Dissemination System (IIDS)
12. KHETI (Knowledge Help Extension Technology Initiative)
13. Kisan Call Centres (KCC)
14. Kisan Mobile Advisory by ICAR-KVK's
15. Kisan Suvidha
16. KISSAN (Karshaka Information Systems Services And Networking) Kerela
17. Krishi Mitra
18. Lifelines India
19. Mahaagri SMS
20. mKISAN
21. mKRISHI
22. Mobile Based Agro-Advisory System In North-East India (M-4 agrinei)
23. Reuters Market Light
24. Vodafone Kisan Mitra
25. Voice Krishi Vigyan Kendra (VKVK)
26. Warana Unwired




How committed are MAAS Providers


mKisan

According to the Census 2011, there are 118.9 million cultivators across the country.
Now, the Government of India's MKisan website claims to have sent 19,469,204,970 (19.46 billion or 1,946 crore) SMS to 27,653,329 (27.65 million or 2.76 crore) farmers since May 2013.
This means on average they have sent 704 calls per farmer in 5 years, assuming all subscribers signed up from the very beginning.
If there are 2 farming seasons annually. The mKisan portal has provided about 70 SMS per farmer per season since the inception of the counter.
According to the report published by GSMA titled HandygoMidline, 48% push content users found the SMS not useful, 30% found it somewhat useful, 9% very useful, 8% cannot read SMS and 5% did not know whether it was useful or not.
Using this report on mKisan as a guide, around 13,273,597 (13.27 million) found the SMS not useful, 8,295,998 (8.29 million) thought it was somewhat useful, 2,488,799 (2.48 million) very useful, 2,212,266 (2.21 million) could not read the message and 1,382,666 (1.38 million) not did not know whether it was useful or not.


The calls are of the following 5 types:
1. Agriculture-related news and alerts: News and up-to-date information on government or cooperative schemes in rural areas
2. Agriculture: Agronomic advice on over 50 different crops covering different phases of the crop cycle
3. Livestock: Information on feeding, housing, hygiene and disease management for five livestock types
4. Market price: Up-to-date information on market prices for selected crops
5. Weather: 1-5 day weather forecasts
Subscription to the mKisan service costs Rs 1 per day, purchasable in packs of Rs 10, Rs 20 or Rs 30. The package includes regular push SMS messages with agronomy advice and market price information, in addition to access to advisory services through IVR. After informing the user, the subscription service automatically renews at the end of the subscription period.

IFFCO Kisan


Now, let us examine the IFFCO Kisan report. It claims to have 16,14,382 active users of its Voice Activated Services. And it claims to have delivered 1,18,815 messages in 2015-16. Which is around 13 calls per user or 7 to 8 calls per user in the two sowing seasons.
They claim to have Customer base of over 3.9 million with 400,000 IFFCO Kisan Mobile app users. However, they send just 74,000 a year and answered around 500,000 plus calls for the 6 types of info-services that they offer. This means that less than 14% of their users utilise the service on an annual basis.

Information Services Potential


Now, let us quickly try and understand the potential of the info-services sectors in India.
By simply multiplying the number of farmers in India, which is 118.9 million, by 5 - the types of advisory calls a farmer needs per season. We get 594. 50 million per season or 1.18 billion information service messages annually.

Benefits of information services


There are numerous benefits for farmers using Information services, here are some of them
Give a Man a Fish, and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Man To Fish, and You Feed Him for a Lifetime.
Similarly, providing farmers with the right information timely can improve production and ultimately income.
Better decision making: With the necessary information, farmers— big and small - can make better and more informed decision concerning their agricultural activities. Decisions like whom to purchase grains from to where and who to sell it to, can be made efficient using information services. Knowledge exchange across borders and between various agriculture organizations can make farmers more aware of the variables that they need to consider before taking a decision.
Better planning: Farm related information services, including softwares and apps, can keep better track of crops, predict yields, ideal sowing time for a particular crop, whether to grow multiple crops or focus on one, or determining the inputs required for the current crops. This services help improve production and farmer income. Personalised information about an individual farm is vital.
Agricultural breakthroughs: When there is an agricultural breakthrough, information services can be the fastest method to inform farmers. When scientists develop new and improved grains or find techniques to help winter crops withstand the cold, farmers can benefit by just being informed about the breakthrough. They can then decide when and how to adopt the breakthrough.

What World Bank Says About Information Services


In Kerala, a state in western India, 72% of adults eat fish at least once a day. Further, over one million people are directly employed in the fisheries sector. Between 1997 and 2001, mobile phone service was introduced throughout Kerala. In a short period of time, the adoption of mobile phones by fishermen and wholesalers was associated with a dramatic reduction in price dispersion and the complete elimination of waste. In particular, variation of prices across fish markets declined from 60–70 to 15% or less. Waste, averaging 5–8% of daily catch before mobile phones, was completely eliminated. As a result, fishermen's profits increased on average by 8%.
Enabling the Business of Agriculture Report, 2017, World Bank Group

The ability to connect to the internet in remote areas using mobile devices can make a significant difference to farmers in terms of their food security and commercial viability. It can provide them with a wide range of opportunities—from obtaining real-time data on market and transport prices, to information on seed varieties, pests and farming techniques, as well as basic information on the weather and analytical and management tools for production and marketing processes. Ultimately, the use of mobile applications and other information and communication technology(ICT-) enabled services can stimulate access to markets and increase the income of smallholder farmers by improving agricultural productivity, reducing costs for input suppliers and enhancing traceability and quality standards.5 For example, Indian farmers using the Reuters Market Light (RML) mobile information service, which reports on market prices, have benefited from an average increase in income of 5–15%.
Enabling the Business of Agriculture Report, 2017, World Bank Group


Vision for new age info-service


Utilisation of 4G and reduction in tariff

The uptake of 4G services in the rural areas is steadily increasing. Of the total 238 million 4G subscribers in India, 83 million or a third belong to rural areas.
This means one out of every three 4G subscribers are from rural areas, according to a report from the research firm Cyber Media. The potential to expand ICT-based information services which are dependent on the internet is huge. With the penetration of high speed internet in rural India, apps and software that focus on improving farm production by providing farmers with customised information needs to be developed and distributed.

Some Essential Information Services


While there are numerous types of information services that can be provided to a farmer, some have been identified as essential. Here are some of the ICT-based services that are essential to farmers - crop and market advisory, weather updates and alerts, information related to government schemes, agricultural breakthroughs and technologies as well as nearby information about storage and warehousing facilities.

New age approach to deliver information service


Among the many private organizations that are invested in this sector, a 2-year-old startup FarmGuide is bring about a new age approach to providing information services to farmers.
FarmGuide's Crop Advisory Calls help farmers with information that can help prevent losses due to pest attacks, overuse of fertilizers and other agricultural inputs.
Its Weather Advisory Service provides farmers with location specific, quantified forecasts and weather-based crop management strategies. Farmers are also alerted by FarmGuide's Contingency Information Calls about sudden changes in the weather.
FarmGuide also provides information on Government Schemes, but also informs the farmer on ways to reap maximum benefit from the wide array of schemes that are on offer to them. The calls are hyper filtered by region, crop and cropping cycle.
Market Advisory Services are critical for farmers, and Farmguide offers information on markets with the location of the nearest mandi along with the price of their specific produce. This helps farmers make the decision about which market to sell their produce so as to derive maximum profits.
FarmGuide also provides information on the nearest available Warehouse or Cold Storage unit and whether it can store their produce on a real-time basis.

Timing of information


Another crucial factor to keep in mind while providing information services is timing. Deciding when the information is given to farmer can make the difference between a failed and bumper crop. For example, during the Kharif season, farmers needed to be provided sowing information around 15 days prior to the arrival of the monsoon in their region. The timing is crucial as it will dictate the final output of their harvest.

Expected outcomes


All stakeholders in the agriculture sector should aid the process of providing information to farmers so that the entire country benefits from the overall increase in farm produce. This will ensure food security and an overall increase in per capita income, since over 50% of the population is directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture.

Rise in income


The current government has set out to double farmer incomes by 2022, and an important step in this direction can be taken if information services are given the much needed boost. With the World Bank also endorsing the need to boost agriculture so that food security can be secured, ICT-based information services can help increase farm income so that it becomes profitable for cultivators to continue toiling in the fields.

Reduction crop loss


Information service when delivered timely and to the correct farmer has the potential to prevent crop loss. As weather patterns are constantly changing due to climate change, farmers need to be updated with localised information so that they can plan how to reduce damage. Information services can also prevent post-harvest losses by providing the farmer with information on best markets to sell their produce along with prices, warehousing and storage information without having to physically travel to various units with their crop. The moment a crop is harvested it begins to deteriorate in quality and with the right information, a farmer can reduce waste during transportation.

Conclusion


Information Services have been existence in India for some time with advisory being provided over All India Radio and in the days prior to wireless telephone services. Today as mobile phones and internet services are becoming widely available and affordable, India needs to push its information services into the new age. With hyper local and customised information reaching each and every farmer, individual farms – of even the most small and marginal farmers - can get the correct information so that they can improve production efficiency levels which will result in an increase agricultural income.


Vishal Menon

Vishal Menon

Vishal Menon works with Farmguide, an organisation that is instrumental in building the crop insurance scheme of India


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