E-Agriculture

Sharbendu Banerjee

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Sharbendu Banerjee
Sharbendu BanerjeeCAB InternationalIndia

Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; and any such capacity, necessitates the need to have information, the need to communicate the information to those who need that information and lastly available technologies to make that happen. In my work with the farmers in Asia and Africa, the common thread that I have found everywhere is, if there is anything farmers are always worried about is the shock of climate change and inadequate market access.  Although these are the symptoms, and there are many causative factors lying underneath these symptoms, but it is undoubtedly the most omnipresent pain-point of any farming community, be it commercial growers such as coffee farmers in Vietnam or smallholder subsistence farmers in Africa.

However, it is also important to consider the human side of ICT. Technology in itself neither creates nor solves any human problem; it is how we use the technology that matters. This why it has been widely observed that technology solutions often fails to get traction and scale up, after initial success with a small group of users. So in my opinion, technology should be designed for the human not otherwise. Interestingly Human Centric Design approach can help much in this area and increasingly technology solutions providers are adopting this.

Hence, according to me, in order to build resilience in programs, projects and most importantly in communities, one need to work backwards, taking the pain-point as beginning and reverse-engineer the solution in a step by step iterative and collaborative process rather than create a solution first (with own perception or just because it was a brilliant idea) and then seeks out whether the solution can help solving a particular problem. Hence, having an immersive experience of the use cases and life processes of the particular project, program or community is very important for the ICT solution architects.

Secondly, the robustness and resilience of the technology itself (contextually) has also to be kept in mind. For example, if a mobile technology based solution for natural disaster information and management depends heavily on network capacity (data speed) it may not work at all when natural disaster happens, since many of the mobile towers would be dysfunctional, resulting in inadequate data or no data at all. However, if basic telephony such as voice or SMS is used, it might still work with less functional infrastructure support. Similarly many market information system looks only at price discovery (market price alert) by farmers without considering the information need of other actors such as aggregators, wholesalers and logistic service providers. In my personal experience with CABI’s Direct2Farm project (www.direct2farm.org), I realized that although we made it possible for the farmers to know about the various price points of agriculture commodities in the market, this itself did not guarantee that the farmers produce will be sold at that price because of various other factors in the value chain. Hence, at the end, farmers would know the market price, but are not able to derive any economic benefit from this knowledge. 

In summary, its not ICT/s alone, but smart and contextual use of ICT/s that helps in building resilience.  

Sharbendu Banerjee
Sharbendu BanerjeeCAB InternationalIndia

Most of the respondents have already talked about farmers’ need assessment and mapping, which are two critical components for agro-information services. I will like to highlight a few more which, according to me, plays equally important roles in making a service success or failure.

In my experience in both development world and business world, I have found that mostly people in development world would take a one-sided stand, when it comes to developing services for people. While it is very important to design services that would deliver certain benefits to the community from pure development point of view, it is also very important to see how the same benefits will continue to reach the community even after the development intervention has stopped.

 

This call for a business case for development work and many NGO-s and development agencies do not consider this as a key factor while designing mobile services. While working with NGO-s in India, what we have found that, in most of the cases, NGO-s expects the community to carry on the service, once the support is over, since it is bringing in considerable benefits to the community. However, in reality, although community derives significant benefits, they often lack the motivation and competency to manage such services on their own. At the same time, if there is no business (read profit), businesses do not find any interest in adopting such services, resulting into eventual death or even if the service survives, it never reaches scale.

 

Mobile operators, on the other hand, mostly make mistake, considering agro-advisory services to operate on the same principles of other value added services (mVAS) like entertainment or news. While the target customer segments for both may be same, the decision factors for subscribing to such services are completely different. Entertainment VAS would bring in instant gratification of user needs (someone likes a song and downloads it, then and there) while utility VAS (e.g. agro-advisory) will only provide a deferred gratification provided the service is used by the user continually (farmers may get better yield or manage pests with lesser pesticides if they listen to the agro-advisories). Hence utility VAS needs high degree of “trust factor” in the user’s mind in order to make the user stick-on to the service even if it does not bring in any instant benefit to them.

 

A case in point is IKSL service in India, which is backed up with the goodwill of IFFCO, the largest and most preferred fertilizer supplier in India, whose name itself brings in some amount of trust to the farmers. Hence IKSL service is trusted by farmers more than other similar services that ore offered (even free!).

 

Accordingly, the marketing channel of the service also needs to be different from a conventional entertainment VAS. Conventional promotions like push SMS or Out Bound Diallers (OBD) not necessarily convinces a farmer to subscribe to a mobile agro-advisory. Alternative channels, like affiliation to farmers groups, bundling with agri-inputs, customization to contract farming etc are some of the innovative approaches which have been tried in India. However, there are still lot of scope for innovation in this area.

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Sharbendu Banerjee
Sharbendu BanerjeeCAB InternationalIndia

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Lastly, MNO-s and NGO-s also need to design the services keeping in the mind that information alone does not solve all problems of farmers. Even simple things like market rates etc, which do not need any further action from the information provider’s side, needs lot of value addition in terms of hyper-localization, demand and supply syndication etc in order to make it valuable and interesting to the farmers in long term. Hence an information-service which links various service delivery agents like, agri-input marketers, warehouses, laboratories etc will have better attractiveness for farmers in comparison to simple information push service.

Sharbendu Banerjee
Sharbendu BanerjeeCAB InternationalIndia

I agree with Ben and to add up;  one key mistake not only NGO-s but other development/commercial projects commit is putting all their bet on mobile phones. Like any other technology, mobile phones are “effect multiplier” and it only works when there is an underlying robust system (either an agro-advisory or private extension) which effects get multiplied. If there is no underlying system or process and mobile phones are just introduced, as a magic bullet, it seldom works.

Sharbendu Banerjee
Sharbendu BanerjeeCAB InternationalIndia

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5. Lastly according to me, to reach scale in a successful way, the service provider should be able to increase serviceability without matching investment in infrastructure (use of technology for increasing service efficiency). Intelligent applications and new technologies (e.g. Cloud computing, inference engines, iconic SMS-s etc) will play critical role in that.

Simultaneously, agri-info service providers and MNO-s should also look for innovative infomediary models, to be attractive enough for rural youths as business. This will in time may evolve as a major non-conventional marketing channel for MNO-s which will ensure that agro-info services will get enough investment commitment from MNO-s to build and grow their business.    

Sharbendu Banerjee
Sharbendu BanerjeeCAB InternationalIndia

 

There are very insightful comments from participants, provoking us to think out of box. Here are my few ideas to add up to this thread...

 

1. When we think of intermediaries, somehow we start imagining them as interpreters of information, while they can actually play a much larger role. As interpreter of information (the so called knowledge workers) no viable business model can evolve (One World South Asia-Lifeline, is a case in point). However, as Information brokers, buying and selling information at farm gate, there is a possibility of evolution of a sustainable business case. Question is who will buy what information and at what price and in which delivery model. There is no readymade answer, but according to me it is worth investigating this new business concept, as information brokerage is fast growing as a business in non-agriculture segments for example while one searches Google, in the back end there is a business model of advertising revenue.

2.  Another point which comes up from the discussion is reduction/removal of layers of intermediaries for information reach the target user. I fully agree with that and CABI has already taken up this as new focus area of research through the Direct2Farm project, which key objective is enabling farmers to seek and source information, tailor-made to their individual need, at any time in any form/format. This is why the project is called Direct2Farm, which means we do not see the role of intermediaries as interpreters of information to the farmers. However, this needs significant innovation in terms of technology and user interfaces, considering that the farmers have simple questions which need highly sophisticated scientific knowledge to resolve. Today very few technology organizations are working on practical farmer centric applications (mobile applications to be specific) and this is according to me one key bottle neck.

3. The third issue is uptake by users (farmers). Even if the information reaches the farmers, how many of them are ready to buy them? Uptake is one key consideration factor which in my experience keeps MNO-s apprehensive about investing in mobile agriculture information VAS. There are several aspects of this. Unlike entertainment VAS, utility VAS like agriculture information may not be purchased by user just simply because it is available. One of the key apprehension which farmers have is about quality of information (accuracy, effectively and trustworthiness of information provider). Agriculture information is dispersed amongst various institutions with completely different set of operation principles and organizational set up. Hence it is very difficult to establish a quality standard, and in reality lot of time information sent to farmers are not at all correct or applicable. Farmers only need actionable information to solve their problem and they are not interested in general knowledge. Agri-information service providers must keep that in mind if they really want to achieve scale of their services.

4. Even when there is information, which farmers really want to buy, there is issue of a sustainable business model to sell them. Rural ARPU is much lower than urban ARPU while agro-information subscription will always be costlier than a caller tune. So even if farmers are ready to pay, MNO-s cannot sell them the service if the farmers do not have enough talk-time available with them. In India, “life-time free SIM cards” enables a subscriber to keep on receiving calls while there is no talk-time available. This is more so in case of rural customers and this is one of the major reason for high churn out of rural utility VAS customers. Here a talk-time based model like IKSL probably can work better.

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Sharbendu Banerjee
Sharbendu BanerjeeCAB InternationalIndia

Thanks to GSMA for starting off this very important discussion thread on e-Agriculture Forum. We expect many insights from the participants in coming days. Here are a few thoughts of mine as I think about today’s discussion question.

 

I think the key success factor for any service, that mobile network operator may be interested to launch, would be the scale, because that’s the only thing directly linked to their profit and will determine whether they would invest that service or not.

 

However, unlike entertainment VAS, Mobile Network Operators cannot sell agriculture service through promotion alone, since the customer would expect continuous value derivation in terms of better crop yield and higher economic profit from the advices, and currently the customers (farmer) are not very sure about how these things will be delivered through mobile operators. Hence they are sceptic and uptakes of agro-services are low.

 

Hence, any agriculture partner, should bring in clear distinct experience and expertise in these areas in terms of understanding of farmers need, ability to solve their problems and ultimately to help them with inputs and services to implement the solutions. 

 

This as a whole determines the serviceability of the agriculture partners and if that match the scale, the mobile network operators are looking at, would be a winning partnership to evolve into a successful business model and long term profitability.