February 10, 2009

The Impact of Mobile Phones on India's Agriculture Sector

This entry is a follow-up my entry, "India: The Impact of Mobile Phones," where I outline the findings of Vodafone's Policy Paper on the benefits mobile phones have in India. Over the past decade, India has made significant progress in developing a sophisticated information and communications technology sector. However, agriculture remains a vital sector in India's economy "where it contributes close to 20% of GDP and where 60% of the population depends on agriculture either directly or indirectly." The purpose of this entry is discuss the report's investigation into the impact of mobiles on agricultural productivity. Although the focus is on India, the conclusions are applicable to any nation where agriculture has a significant role in providing income for its citizens.

Surabhi Mittal, a Senior Fellow at ICRIER specialising in Agricultural Economics, Sanjay Gandhi, a consultant with expertise in private sector development, and technology and business strategy in emerging markets, and Gaurav Tripathi, a researcher at ICRIER address four questions:
  1. Which types of agricultural information have the most value for farmers and fishermen?
  2. Are mobile phones in practice being used much for agricultural purposes, and if so how?
  3. Have mobile phones helped drive agricultural productivity improvements for farmers and fishermen, and if so how?
  4. What constraints are there on the potential for mobile phones to improve agricultural productivity?
Mobile phones are an essential tool in accessing valuable information in three areas including know-how (crop choice and seed variety), context (weather, plant protection, cultivation best practices), and market information (market prices, market demand, and logistics). "There are an estimated 127.3 million 'cultivators' in India. The majority of them are farmers subsisting on small plots of land less than 5 acres in size....A national survey of farmers found that only 40% of farmer households accessed information about modern agricultural techniques and inputs."

Farmers require access to a wide-range of accurate information. The report explains, "Of this range of information requirements, we found that small farmers prioritized weather, plant protection (disease/pest remediation), seed information and market prices as the most important. In Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, close to 90% of farmers reported seed information as the highest priority while over 70% cited market prices as the most important category."

There are a few mobile-enabled information services available to farmers in India. The Vodafone report evaluated two mobile services targeting farmers, IFFCO Kisan Sanchar Limited (IKSL) and Reuters Market Light (RML). IKSL delivers five free voice messages daily with weather information, crop/animal husbandry advisory, market prices, fertiliser availability, electricity timings, and government schemes. A helpline is available at Rs. 1/minute.

RML delivers four daily SMS-text messages containing weather information, crop-advisory, market price (2 crops and 3 markets of choice), and news (commodity specific and general - occasionally includes market demand estimates). There are a few subscription options: Rs. 175 for a three month package, Rs. 350 for six months, and Rs. 650 for one year.

With respect to the impact mobile phones have on India's agriculture sector, the report found the following conclusions:
  • Customization and frequent updating add substantial value. Generic information triggers dissatisfaction and reduces the frequency with which farmers access the service. The most frequent criticism we heard was that information was old and routine.
  • Secondly, where literacy concerns are not paramount, text messaging offers significant advantages over voice-based delivery in terms of convenience and content flexibility.
  • Finally, information should be in the local language and any platform should be intuitive for subscribers to understand. Most of the farmers we interviewed were prepared to pay for information services as long as they felt that they would get the information they wanted – relevant, timely and reliable.
Aaron Rose is an advisor to talented entrepreneurs and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of Solutions for a Sustainable World.

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