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Oct 26, 2015

TATA consultancy services – empowering farmers with mobile technology

CSR   /   CSR Asia

Agriculture is a vital sector to the Indian economy, contributing to 23% of its GDP and employing half of the workforce. However, most rural Indian farmers remain poor and illiterate, with limited access to information and services to improve farming techniques. With over 20 official languages across the country, the language barrier adds to the challenge for services to reach rural farmers across the country. Moreover, the agriculture landscape in India is characterised by the involvement of numerous intermediaries and the lack of access to information often leaves farmers exploited by traders, having to accept whatever prices they offer.

In 2007, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) set up a research team and conducted intensive interviews to understand how technology could help tackle the challenges faced by farmers in India. In addition to understanding the information need of farmers, the team discovered that most farmers do have mobile phones, which became the target medium for TCS to deliver services. In 2008, TCS created mKrishi, a customizable Mobile Agro Advisory System, with two primary goals:

1.To enable farmers to send queries specific to their land crop and receive personalised replies from agricultural experts;

2.To build a consortium of partners to provide integrated services to farmers that generate fee-based revenues for the company.

Approach

The name mKrishi is a combination of “m” for “mobile” and ‘krishi”, which refers to agriculture in many Indian languages. The mKrishi service provides information in local languages on weather, soil conditions, fertilizer and pesticides, the price of grains, and other agriculture-related advice. The initial pilot was implemented in the Borgaon region of Maharashtra. This was chosen because of the availability of agri-experts willing to work for TCS and progressive farmers eager to use new technology. Initially, 25 farmers used the service for more than a year and benefited from the convenient access to much needed information.

The mKrishi platform offers three different levels of services. The most basic one is mKrishi Lite, an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system with which users can send and receive voice messages from the agri-experts. With mKrishi Regular, farmers can receive messages after downloading the mKrishi application, while mKrishi Plus offers an Automatic Weather Station (AWS) along with the mKrishi Regular service. The AWS uses sensors placed on the farmer’s land and sends updates about rainfall, temperature and moisture at regular intervals. The monthly cost of the three levels of services is 60 rupees (US$1.2), 100 rupees (US$2) and 150 rupees (US$3) respectively.

Adapted from BCtA "mKrishi Business Operations Model"

As shown in the operational model above, TCS’s role in the project is to utilise its technology expertise and build up a platform that connects farmers with different stakeholders, as well as to bring together a consortium of partners to deliver integrated services to farmers. TCS has also set up mobile mini sites in selected villages to assist farmers to install the mKrishi application. Based on the success of the pilot project, TCS decided to expand the initiative. Since then, TCS has introduced 12 additional projects in other Indian states, currently serving about 10,000 farmers in all markets.

In terms of the financial sustainability of the project, the mKrishi platform is mainly funded through the research and development budget allocated to TCS Innovation Labs by Tata Group. While TCS is able to generate revenue on fees paid by farmers, the biggest source of revenue is from companies using the platform to reach farmers, including farm machinery companies, irrigation and crop insurance companies, as well as warehousing companies that provide agricultural product storage services.

Outcomes

Since 2008, more than 20,000 farmers in 400 villages have subscribed to the mKrishi service. As the platform uses local language interfaces, including a voice messaging system, mKrishi makes it possible for illiterate farmers to get access to much-needed agricultural information and advice. It is anticipated that the farmers will spend less on pesticides and fertilizers and will experience increased crop-yields. Moreover, the access to real-time local market prices enables farmers to negotiate more effectively with food traders and agents.

The mKrishi platform also benefits a broader group of stakeholders in the agricultural value chain. It saves costs for companies servicing farmers, helping them access real-time information of the supply and demand of farmers. This increases the efficiency of the whole value chain. The access to field micro-data is also a valuable resource for scholars and policy makers and can help enhance the accuracy of agricultural research and planning. Several organisations have approached TCS with an interest in joining the consortium of partners, offering services through the mKrishi platform to farmers.

Key Success Factors

• Field research: The interviews and field research before the launch of the pilot program is a key step for the team to understand the needs of the farmers and the potential tools to be utilised in engaging with them.

• Cross-sector partnership and technology expertise: The project was implemented collaboration with partners including Tata Teleservices, M.S. Swaminathan Foundation, Tata Chemicals & Rallies, National Centre of Grapes, Cotton Research Centre and National Commodities and Derivatives Exchange Limited (NCDEX). This helps TCS overcome many technology challenges and build up the agricultural expertise that could be provided to farmers.

• Scalable model: An IP has been generated and TCS has received a provisional patent in India, while mKrishi has also been trademarked. These preparations will help TCS scale up this model through local franchisee operations.

Lessons Learned

• It is important to identify the needs of farmers in the villages from the beginning. Setting up village development committees with members from different strata of the village could be an efficient approach to meet this objective.

• It is challenging to convince farmers to explore the features and benefits of mKrishi, even at a subsidized price. At the experimental stage, it would be helpful to target progressive farmers, whom other farmers typically trust. Once the progressive farmers can prove the effectiveness of the product and service, the rest of the community will follow.

• Other than agricultural knowledge and skills, farmers are also in need of business management expertise, including skills for negotiating with distributors and companies, in which area mKrishi could further enhance.

Quotes

“The initial trigger was my informal interactions with farmers from Yavatmal. I found them distressed. After listening to their plight, I thought ICT could play an important role in alleviating their misery. So I started working on the idea of customised agriculture advisory service, taking farmers to the expert rather than expert visiting the farm...”

-Dr. Arun Pande, founder and director of IT Innovation for Masses and former head of TCS Innovation Labs

“Telecommunication is likely to bring about meaningful, large scale, transformation in developing countries, especially in rural areas where infrastructure is limited. IT has both business interest and social responsibility in enabling these transformations. mKrishi is an experiment in this direction.”

-K. Ananth Krishnan, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Tata Consultancy Services

The India Responsible Business Forum (IRBF) Index 2015 is an initiative by Oxfam India in partnership with Corporate Responsibility Watch, Praxis and Partners in Change, non-profits which look at corporate accountability and business responsibility.

 

References

1.Business Call to Action (2012), “Tata Consultancy Services: Providing Advisory Services to Indian Farmers.” http://www.businesscalltoaction.org/wp-content/files_mf/tataconsultancyservicescasestudyforweb.pdf (accessed August 20, 2015)

2.Tata Consultancy Services website, http://www.tcs.com/offerings/technology-products/mKRISHI (accessed August 20, 2015)

3.CSR360 (2010), “mKRISHI – connecting India’s rural farmers.” http://www.csr360gpn.org/magazine/feature/mkrishi-connecting-indias-rural-farmers/ (accessed August 21, 2015)

4.Devin Banerjee (2010), “Mobile-Phone Farming,” Wall Street Journal, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703846604575447420497483404 (accessed August 22, 2015)

5.Shanthi Kannan (2009), “Harnessing technology for farmers,” The Hindu, http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/article332365.ece (accessed August 22, 2015)

6.Interview with Dr. Arun K Pande, founder and director of IT Innovation for Masses and former head of Tata Consultancy Services, Innovation Labs on September 16, 2015

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