In order to find out what information the farmers needed, they put up simple wall posters in Tamil, a local language, across two districts in Tamil Nadu. The posters requested rural citizens to call a particular telephone number for any information they might need. Within three months, their call centre received an astounding 10,000 calls. “Most of these queries were on agriculture, banking procedures, jobs etc.,” Saroagi reports. “Farmers specifically wanted information on weather, local market (mandi) prices, commodity rates, and so on.” The next step was to find out how this information could be given out to them. “We found out that most farmers used their mobile phones for calling. The messaging facility was seldom used,” Saroagi adds.
This was a cue. The founders thought that information could be provided through voice in local language. However, the information had to be customised according to the needs of the end user.
Amudha, a small-time paddy farmer from the village of Vellalur in Tamil Nadu, India gets up as early as four in the morning to take a bus to the nearby market. She has to get hold of a newspaper to find out if the water level in the nearby lake is high enough for irrigation, and she also checks if the weather report is favourable for cultivation. After harvest, a local agent will pick up her produce from the market. As reliable price information is difficult to get, Amudha has to accept the price fixed by the agent. Access to timely information on prices, weather conditions, etc. has always been a matter of concern for farmers. Usually they are forced to take resort in information provided by a chain of middlemen.
In India, the government and agribusinesses are spending resources and time in employing agents to disseminate and receive information from farmers. However, there are deterrents. One of them is that India is a country of diverse languages and dialects, and one language or a single business model for all farmers will not work. Second, mass messaging on services will not be help the farmers as they look for specific information on their crops or geographical conditions. Hence there is a strong need for customised solutions. Third, not all farmers can use messaging service because of literacy barriers. Fourth, these services should have the ability to function with a basic phone that the farmers use on a daily basis.
The solution: AgriConnect
Uniphore, an Indian software company, has introduced a product, AgriConnect, which could eliminate the barriers mentioned above. By enabling a customised voice solution (in native languages) that could work in any low-cost mobile, the produce gives a more inclusive information service for the rural population. AgriConnect uses a native speech recognition system and voice biometrics for the above-mentioned purposes. It gives farmers the freedom to speak in their native languages and dialects. This mechanism can convert their voices into texts. The biometrics system also captures the unique characteristics of an individual’s voice (like a fingerprint). The businesses can use biometrics to verify the authenticity of the speaker in a secured way. The working mechanism is simple. AgriConnect can make an automated voice call and give the customised information to the farmer. On the other end, the farmer can call to get information from the system or record a query in his or her native language.
Getting to know farmers’ Needs
The founders of Uniphore, Ravi Saroagi and Umesh Sachdev, worked with the Indian Institute of Technology’s (IIT) Rural Technology and Business Incubator (RTBI), which has incubated many projects in rural India. As they realised that there was a huge information vacuum in the rural market, they started setting up Uniphore. In order to find out what information the farmers needed, they put up simple wall posters in Tamil, a local language, across two districts in Tamil Nadu. The posters requested rural citizens to call a particular telephone number for any information they might need. Within three months, their call centre received an astounding 10,000 calls. “Most of these queries were on agriculture, banking procedures, jobs etc.,” Saroagi reports. “Farmers specifically wanted information on weather, local market (mandi) prices, commodity rates, and so on.” The next step was to find out how this information could be given out to them. “We found out that most farmers used their mobile phones for calling. The messaging facility was seldom used,” Saroagi adds.
This was a cue. The founders thought that information could be provided through voice in local language. However, the information had to be customised according to the needs of the end user. For instance, if a farmer was cultivating paddy crops in Nagapattinam, he would require specific inputs about the cropping cycle of paddy, the weather report for Nagapattinam, etc.
In the voice market, currently, Uniphore is the only Indian company that offers combined services in both speech recognition and voice biometrics. AgriConnect is currently offered in over 14 Indian languages (100 dialects). Their system is used by various companies. One example is ITC, one of the largest business groups in India, who are using AgriConnect for their ‘Namma Sandesh’ (means ‘Our information’ in Kannada, a local language) project. Its Agribusiness Division has availed the call scheduling and automatic speech recognition technology services for tobacco farmers in Mysore region, Karnataka. For this purpose, a new call back facility was introduced. Sometimes, farmers may not be able to take the call at a stipulated time. This facility was introduced so that the farmer will be able to listen to the latest call that has been scheduled. A ‘missed call based registration’ feature ensures near-zero registration errors, which is critical to ensure that the right information is disseminated to the right group. ITC provides these solutions as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative to give best practice inputs to farmers. Hence, ITC offers mobile advisory services to farmers for free.
An ICT Solution for Sustainable Tobacco Cultivation in Mysore s strategy, challenges and effectiveness in tobacco farming, it has been proved that around two million kilos of crop has been saved by their timely dissemination of precautionary measures. ITC started this initiative with a group of farmers in 2012. They have since reached out to 10,000 farmers.
Reuters Market Light (RML) is a pioneer in giving out information to farmers with mobile phones. They have reached over nearly 1.3 million registered unique subscribers in more than 50,000 villages in India. Early studies suggest that farmers using RML benefit from an average five to ten per cent increase in incomes because they have access to accurate information. For some farmers, the share is up to 23 per cent.
According to a sample survey conducted by the Indian Market Research Bureau 60 per cent of farmers reported that they chose which market to sell their produce at based on the price information they received each day. World Bank’s study in 2010 indicated 8 per cent increase in price realisation to RML farmers who directly sold to traders.
Killing several birds with one Stone
The State of Tamil Nadu has seen phenomenal performance in agriculture as farmers are getting more responsive to changing technologies there. The State Government took the challenge of achieving more growth in the sector by promoting schemes such as intensive integrated farming, comprehensive watershed development activities, micro irrigation systems, etc. To send out timely and contextualised advisory messages, the government was using multiple channels like flyers, radio announcements, field agents, etc. This was costly and ineffective. Also, getting feedback on the state-run programmes was a challenge.
Through automated voice messages, Uniphore took on this project. In 2012, they delivered region-based voice services to 500,000 farmers. Details on the state’s programmes for their region, local commodity pricing, weather details were some of the services offered. Later, a requirement for sending out emergency messages within 24 hours came up. The company delivered an end-to-end system to address this. Manual intervention to get information was eliminated, and the turnaround time for processing it was reduced. By end of 2013, the state government scaled up the project to reach over 1.8 million farmers in the Tamil Nadu. This time, crop-specific announcements were made. The service is completely government-financed.
Statistics show that AgriConnect reached more than 75 per cent of the 1.8 million farmers in the first call, with about 70 per cent of the people tuning in listening to the full call. This ensured a sizeable reach for the government’s initiatives. Feedback calls enabled clearer numbers on the project’s impact on the farmer’s yield. The State department also cut down costs on human resources and different channels employed earlier. One positive side effect was increased transparency. As voice authentication ensures that each individual farmer gets the right subsidies offered by the government, it removes the middlemen who eat away the farmer’s benefits in the normal scenario.
AgriConnect is directly useful to the farmer in giving information, query handling, customised marketing and feedback solutions via inbound and outbound calls. This even works in a mobile phone with a basic feature set. Moreover, field agents who previously wasted a lot of time and energy in paperwork can now use AgriConnect’s mobile application in their smart phones to update field activities and farmer registration, or even capture images of crops. This could also enable GPS-based land or farmer mapping. The information stored in the backend is a key resource in gaining a farmer’s personal preferences.
Advantages of AgriConnect
• Farmers can use speech-like voice interactions to access, record or ask for information on crops, market prices, etc.
• It works in any low-cost, non-GPRS mobile phone.
• It is easily accessible for the non-English speaking population.
• It has the potential to be farmer’s Google as it enables farmers to use speech to navigate information portals/databases.
Sharada Balasubramanian and Catherine Gilon, Journalists, India