Tech-based farming advice should stay people-centred
- Locally-tailored videos can spread farming innovations among smallholders
- Digital Green's videos have reached over 150,000 households in three countries
- Partnerships, not just technology, are needed to make it work
Gauravva Channappa Morabad is a hardworking woman living in Kamplikoppa village, in the Dharwad district of India's Karnataka state. She is part of a women's self-help group called Shri Kariyamma Devi. Morabad attended all 50 meetings the group held to screen agricultural training videos. And she has taken up many of the farming and livestock-related practices they demonstrated on her one hectare farm.
One such practice is producing low-cost vermi-compost (compost produced using worms) that can be harvested every 90 days. Within six months, she harvested 1,700 kg and sold it for about US$75. It was cheaper than the compost she had previously produced, it could be harvested more often — and there was enough to sell.
The videos featuring improved and sustainable agricultural and livelihood practices are produced by rural communities and local organisations working with Digital Green. They give vital support to small-scale farmers in rural communities, who tend to be neglected by government policies. And the scheme shows just how important partnerships are to successful technology-based interventions.
Missed by the mainstream
In India and other developing countries, improved nutrition and health depend largely on local communities adopting locally-relevant practices and behaviours. But evidence-based advice remains inaccessible for most of these small-scale farmers due to limited outreach by extension systems and dated broadcasts.
So agricultural practices are largely influenced by prevalent tradition and farmers' collective wisdom, which does not necessarily translate to optimal productivity and resource management.
For example, public investment in Indian agriculture has fallen in recent decades. Some of this has been offset by the private sector, but private investment tends to concentrate on relatively large, mechanised farms, overlooking the need to diffuse low-cost agricultural innovations.
The organisation I lead, Digital Green, fills that gap by combining a participatory engagement process with producing and then screening training videos. Village-level mediators — trained by the organisation, its partner NGOs and government agencies that already work with rural communities — produce and disseminate videos on locally relevant agronomic and livelihood practices to motivate and educate community members.
The mediators produce videos by farmers, of farmers, and for farmers.
“We tailor the videos to local needs, and they are always in the local language. They cover issues ranging from savings and credit programmes to agronomic practices, aggregation and market linkages.”
Rikin Gandhi, Digital Green
So far, our network of partners and communities have produced about 2,600 distinct videos in 20 different languages. These are shared on a weekly basis among small groups of farmers, mostly women's self-help groups, using portable, battery-operated projectors that are durable, easy to use and adaptable to different environments.
Local is crucial
We tailor the videos to local needs, and they are always in the local language. They cover issues ranging from savings and credit programmes to agronomic practices, aggregation and market linkages.
A facilitator, selected from the community and trained by Digital Green and its partner NGO or government agency, mediates a discussion at the video screening. We gauge adoption of the shown techniques through regular verification visits — which also generate feedback that informs future videos and their distribution.
Pilot studies have found this approach to be at least 10 times more cost effective (on a cost-per-adoption basis) and seven times more likely to result in farmers adopting new practices, compared with conventional agricultural extension work. 
The first questions that farmers often ask when they see these videos are, "What is the name of the farmer in the video?" and "Which village is he or she from?" Some farmers will adopt practices just so that they can be seen in their communities as a role model.
Even showing a plastic bucket in a video can raise questions about the bucket's price and where it can be bought, which intermediaries from the community can help follow-up.
Digital Green began as a project at Microsoft Research India in 2006, and spun off as an independent nonprofit organisation in 2008. It has since expanded its approach to three countries, reaching over 2,000 villages and over 150,000 farming households in India, Ghana, and Ethiopia.
This participatory approach to producing video and mediating its dissemination can be used in any sector — Digital Green is already extending into health and nutrition.
We are also structuring the videos into open online courses that could potentially train and certify our intermediaries.
Scaling up the service at this pace would not have been possible without the foundation our partners have provided in building rapport with communities. Their work has made it possible to mobilise small groups of farmers; engage a cadre of 'grassroots' trainers; combine structured and informal research to develop locally relevant programmes and practices; and establish links with supporting products and services such as banks and government schemes.
People, not pixels
Technology alone is not enough — it is only good at magnifying human intent and capability: improving efficiency and broadening communities' participation. Physical infrastructure, political institutions and finance are also necessary.
But the critical factor is human capital and effective partnership with government, NGOs, and private sector agencies which engage with rural communities.
Only when these pieces are in place can video, for instance, spark farmers' curiosity to take their 'one small step' toward improving their lives and those around them.
Rikin Gandhi is CEO of Digital Green, which he co-founded as a research project at Microsoft Research India's Technology for Emerging Markets. He can be contacted at [email protected]
This article is part of the Spotlight on Ensuring food security for the future.