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Among India's Rural Poor Farming Community, Technology Is the Great Equalizer
Huffington Post - 21 Oct 2013

S.  Sivakumar, Vice Chairman, ITC Infotech

While India remains one of the fastest growing major  economies in the world, the sharp slowdown in economic growth in the last two  years has been cause for major concern. The current growth rate of 5 percent --  a 10-year low -- is far below the desired levels and the country's potential.  India's economy was growing at twice that rate just three years ago.

A country that has made significant investments in  high-tech and education, is grappling with a complex set of circumstances that  will require multiple measures to bounce back. Meanwhile, the Indian economy  has been confronted with high inflation levels, and the country's currency, the  Rupee, has plummeted against the US Dollar.

It is not only desirable that the Indian economy reverts  to its 8 percent to 9 percent growth trajectory sooner than later, the growth  should also be inclusive, given the fact that a significant proportion of  India's population lives in poverty. India's poor make up one-third of the one  billion people living in poverty around the world.

And most of the country's poor reside in rural areas  where agriculture is a way of life. The vast expanses of fertile land, a large  pool of agricultural scientists, and hard-working farmers make India the second  largest agricultural producer in the world. Yet, India's farm productivity  remains low, and the farmers remain poor. Most farmers have small holdings;  they lack information on the global supply-and-demand conditions that affect  local prices; have limited access to crop management know-how, and weather  forecasts that impact agricultural operations. Access to such information could  help transform their low-yielding plots to highly productive farms. Making  matters worse, Indian farmers are at the receiving end of an expensive, highly  fragmented supply chain with underdeveloped infrastructure. Largely controlled  by unscrupulous middlemen, these value chains plough back only a small share of  the consumer price to the farmer. Together, these problems keep the farm  incomes low, and lock the farmers into a vicious cycle of low income, low  investments, low productivity and low income.

However, some Information Technology-enabled  interventions, such as the ITC e-Choupal initiative have led to large scale  farmer empowerment and have shown a roadmap to accelerate the growth of Indian  agriculture.

Here's how the ITC e-Choupal works: Lead farmers who  receive extensive training on the e-Choupal system are provided  Internet-connected Computers at their homes by ITC, one of India's largest  multi-business corporations. These lead farmers, in turn, help the neighboring  farmers access information through the specially designed web portals in their  local languages. Such information includes local & global market prices,  crop management know-how customized to the local agro-climatic conditions,  timely and relevant weather forecasts, transparent discovery of prices for  their produce, and much more.

Farmers gather at these kiosks (Choupal means  "meeting place" in Hindi) regularly for the latest information. Such  real-time information and customized knowledge provided by the ITC e-Choupal  equip the farmers to take decisions on cropping patterns, adopting agronomy  practices that improve productivity and quality, right timing to sell their  produce to maximize their incomes.

By co-opting several product and service providers into  the e-Choupal ecosystem, ITC also facilitates access to quality farm inputs and  financial services, and enables purchase of farm produce from the farmers'  doorsteps. The village level e-Choupal network is complemented with specially  built physical infrastructure in the form of Integrated Rural Service Hubs  called "Choupal Saagars", which offer services such as agri commodity  storage, a store-front for agricultural equipment and personal consumption  products, insurance counters, pharmacy and health centers, agri-extension  clinics, fuel stations and so on.

The e-Choupal initiative started with six kiosks in 2000,  and has since grown to 6,500 centers that link 40,000 villages. With 4 million  farmers using the system, it has grown into India's largest Internet-based agri  initiative. ITC e-Choupal has won a series of awards, including the Stockholm  Challenge Award, Development Gateway Award, and the ICC-UNDP-IBLF World  Business Award.

In another use of technology to improve the lot of Indian  farmers, Not-for-Profit Digital Green trains farmers to produce and share short  videos in which they raise issues, share solutions and highlight successes.  Using $200 battery-operated handheld projectors, the farmers show the videos to  gathered villagers in locales with scant or no electricity. Digital Green has  helped more than 150,000 farmers in some 2,000 villages by answering questions  such as how to select crops, how to prepare fields and remove weeds, and how to  transplant crops.

There are other initiatives, such as Nokia Life Tools and  Reuters Market Light that provide customized agricultural information to the  farmers using text messages on mobile phones; aAqua(Almost All Questions Answered) an internet based discussion portal that  also supports text messages; as well as the Government's Kisan Call Centres  that deliver agricultural extension services on toll-free phones.

These initiatives provide a glimpse into what can be  accomplished through innovation, education and information. When farmers gain  access to the information and tools that help them better cultivate the land,  they can start to shake off the shackles of persistent poverty.

Technology means different things to different people. We  all have access to the same Internet and the same gadgets like smart-phones and  tablets; but, when leveraged for the benefit of poor farmers playing in an  uneven field, it has the ability to uplift millions out of poverty and  hopelessness. So let's have more conversations on that kind of technology and  innovation.

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