Initially, Rikin Gandhi was taken aback. He was in the Swedish capital in mid-May for the biennial Stockholm Challenge, seated during a banquet attended by a collection of dignitaries and most of the owners of 145 world-class information-communication-technology research projects selected as award finalists.
Gandhi’s project, Digital Green, was among the 145, and he was proud to be included. He had arrived in Stockholm only the day before, and he settled in to applaud the winners of the challenge in six separate categories.
First award up: Culture. Twenty-three projects had been selected as finalists in that category, outstanding efforts from nations spanning five continents.
And the winner was … Digital Green.
“It was most impressive,” says Gandhi, as assistant researcher in the Technology for Emerging Markets group within Microsoft Research India. “We’re surrounded by all these really impressive projects. I had spoken to a bunch of the people who were working on them, and a lot of them were friends whom we had interacted with before and whom we had been inspired by. Ours was a young project in comparison with most.”
The Stockholm Challenge award is a testament to the strides the Digital Green project has made since its inception in September 2006. An effort to develop a participatory framework for agricultural extension, it has shown real promise in its early stages.
The project seeks to disseminate locally relevant agricultural information, in conjunction with established extension services, to small and marginal farmers in India via mediated digital video that encourages grass-roots learning.
“What we’re trying to do,” Gandhi says, “is to take what these existing, people-based extension systems already have going, a strong force of extension officers meeting one-on-one with farmers, and using video to take a one-on-one demonstration to many farmers.
“We’re taking the production of videos to the grass-roots level to create something like a YouTube or a Netflix type of system, where farmers are shown adopting better practices and other farmers who watch can say, ‘Oh, this is something I can trust, because these farmers are my vicinity.’ It’s creating a social-network dynamic with video at the local level.”
It was using such new-media techniques that garnered Gandhi the Culture award in Stockholm.
“It’s a good way to get recognized,” he says, “and to show the others who are there, as well as beyond, what we’ve been up to and to see how we can expand what we’ve been doing.”
The Digital Green system is designed for flexible integration into organizations involved in agricultural development. The project focuses on the production and the distribution of content that can be shared across organizational and geographical boundaries, and experts worldwide can provide suggestions or outlines for new content, with local counterparts localizing the information to pertain to the needs of the community.
Such structure applied to a traditional, informal vocation improves the efficiency of extension programs by providing targeted content that can help farmers improve management of their operations with reduced field support.
“The extension officers are already out in the field,” Gandhi notes. “We’ve found that using this local support of a facilitator plus a community TV and DVD player, we can improve the efficiency of extension officers by 10 times, because they now have local support.”
The system consists of a digital video database—for farmers by farmers—that emphasizes participation in content production, a structure for informal training, and a sequence for introducing the Digital Green concepts into new communities. The plan is to spread the model to encourage sustained involvement via a hub-and-spoke network that enables scalable content production and peer learning.
“Adding video as a medium to the extension system seems like a no-brainer,” Gandhi says, “but at the same time, we have to consider how video fits in with that existing extension system. There are lots of variables you can try to see what connects best with a community. Who should we feature within the videos? An outside expert from a university might be able to give a great lecture, but the farmers might not be receptive to it. They want to hear from people in the local vicinity who can give them that motivational factor.”
It’s at the village level, particularly in a country like India, that the system really delivers much needed value.
“Before,” Gandhi observes, “the extension system would rely on contacting the bigger, more progressive farmers who were willing to listen to these extension officers. Now, when you have more regular programs at the village level with local facilitators, they can understand social dynamics and run programs on their own on a regular basis. The extension officers become more like managers who make sure things are going well and to monitor what’s happening. If there’s some specific problem that needs attention, they can offer on-site support. But they can now reach a larger number of villages.
“Just like anyone else, farmers are more receptive to listening to people from their own vicinity whom they can trust as someone who faces the same resource constraints as they do. Some farmers are even incentivized to appear ‘on TV’ to be featured as a better farmer. We’re taking the information already being exchanged at the village level to involve a greater part of the community.”
In emerging nations, such an approach seems natural.
“Educating farmers about better agricultural practices and technologies is crucial for developing countries,” Gandhi says. “For example, 60 percent of India’s 1.1 billion people still depend on agriculture for sustaining their livelihoods. Indian farmers are largely smallholders who own one to two acres of land and earn $1 to $2 per day. Governments around the world have developed large extension programs to raise the productivities and incomes of farmers. India, for instance, has 100,000 civil-service extension officers who periodically visit farmers on their fields to train them on better agricultural practices and technologies.
“Obviously, it’s a very time-consuming and logically challenging task, especially in India, to reach such a vast population that is so diverse in terms of cropping systems, cultures, and socioeconomic situations across the country.”
Gandhi, a son of Indian expatriates who was born and raised in the United States, joined Microsoft Research India in September 2006 and immediately began work on Digital Green. He came to India to investigate potential participation in a biodiesel project, and while that didn’t pan out, he met Rajesh Veeraraghavan, then an associate researcher in the Technology for Emerging Markets group who since has relocated to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of California Berkeley.
“Rajesh was just coming off a project to use a SMS [Short Message Service]-based system to help manage the internal operations of a sugar-cane cooperative in [the Indian state of] Maharashtra,” Gandhi recalls. “He was also interacting with Randy Wang, a researcher at Microsoft Research India, who had developed a system called Digital StudyHall that uses video for improving village school education.
“Rajesh was interested in trying to see how technology can be applied to agriculture in India. The SMS-based project was mostly addressing higher-income farmers who were members of the sugar-cane cooperative, and he wanted to see how we could apply video-based media that he saw being pretty successful in the educational domain for agriculture, particularly for subsistence, small-holder agriculture.”
Veeraraghavan encouraged Gandhi to go into the field to spend time with a nonprofit working at the grass-roots level to spread improved agricultural practices and learn how a video-based approach might help.
“That’s how I got started working on developing Digital Green from its inception,” Gandhi adds, “figuring out how to be receptive to the interests and real use of this media for farmers to apply on their fields.”
The idea was to investigate how cost-realistic technology could improve the speed and the effectiveness of existing agricultural extension systems. Gandhi spent eight months in the field, learning how effective the extension systems were at reaching farmers and transferring knowledge to rural communities and whether better farming practices were being adopted. He began to experiment with how the video system could work to lend a technological helping hand.
Meanwhile, as Gandhi was performing his field work, Veeraraghavan was preparing to leave for Berkeley, and the project transitioned into Gandhi’s sole ownership.
Even before the award, Digital Green was achieving early success. A pilot, in conjunction with a non-governmental organization, the GREEN Foundation, and a governmental department of animal husbandry and veterinary sciences, produced and distributed more than 300 videos, averaging eight minutes in length, in the local language of Kannada to a dozen village communities in the state of Karnataka.
Video-recorded demonstrations are not a complete extension solution because they lack the interactivity that is the hallmark of good extension. Digital Green relies on a village facilitator, whose role is to pause or repeat video occasionally to engage audiences with discussion and to capture farmers’ feedback. Local facilitators are hired on a part-time basis in each village to reduce the logistical challenges of regularly visiting a village and to provide local access to agricultural knowledge from a familiar source. Each week, the mediators conduct a minimum of three screenings, at times and locations accessible for the community. They conduct on-demand screenings, transport Digital Green equipment to different segments of their communities, maintain attendance records, and track the interest in and the adoption of promoted technologies.
The one-year controlled research study represented the first phase of the Digital Green project. Gandhi wanted to produce a system that could be replicated and scaled up cost-effectively. More than a thousand farmers were involved in content production and dissemination, and the number who adopted better agricultural practices increased sevenfold.
Now, Digital Green has moved into a second phase, extending the research to more villages, located in varying agricultural and socioeconomic environments, A third phase, slated to begin this fall, will be scaled even further. The goal is to encourage public and private partners to follow suit and to encourage individuals to participate.
“We’re extending this system by establishing new partnerships,” Gandhi says. “We’re working with nonprofits in other places in India to see how the system integrates within different types of environments.
“The next three states we’re looking at are Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand. We’re trying to extend the model toward the northeastern parts of India, where there are even higher levels of poverty. We want to see how the system functions in poorer regions where it could have a larger impact.”
Much research remains. Gandhi is conducting rigorous evaluations to answer many outstanding questions. He hopes to be able to extend the system to cover a much larger collection of villages and farmers, with the hope of contributing toward the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals of sustainable agricultural productivity and the security of food and nutrition.
In addition, the project is investigating other avenues toward the same objectives. An initiative called Audio Green is using the audio tracks from the videos in MP3 players to facilitate group discussions led by the village mediator. Another study looks to improve interactions with farmers during the video screenings by using subtitling and video annotations. Digital Green also is investigating ways to provide better feedback mechanisms, perhaps through mobile phones or optical marker recognition to enable extension staff to focus on the videos in which farmers are most interested.
“We’re at the phase where we’ve seen a very significant impact of Digital Green,” Gandhi says, “a factor-of-10 improvement per dollar spent in the effectiveness of the agricultural extension system. The next step is to take it to the next level and try to partner with organizations across South Asia and Africa, organizations that are already trying to reach farmers and are facing resource constraints and difficulties connecting with farmers. Digital Green has both social as well as technology-based elements.”
Plans are for the Digital Green project to become an independent nonprofit that will train other nonprofits, universities, and governments on incorporating the social and technology-based components of the system to benefit farmers all across the developing world. For Gandhi, it’s an intoxicating vision.
“You can see the receptiveness,” he says, “especially of the farmers themselves as they come out to view these videos and to be featured in videos. It’s really cool to see them share what they know and to learn from others. Many things are changing, especially in India, and the partners who have been engaged in this agricultural extension work for a long time know that something amazing is going on.
“That’s the most satisfying part. It’s pretty amazing that it’s happening so quickly, but it’s just great to be out in the field and see it in action.”