August 2010

Phone the expert

Tata Consultancy Services has been working with farmers in rural India to develop new technologies that help them enhance their yield and productivity

There were 25 of them, farmers from neighbouring areas, each with small holdings that ranged from a single acre to two-and-a-half acres. Notwithstanding that, they were obviously doing well, the conspicuous signs of recent prosperity sitting comfortably on their persons: flashy watches, pens in pockets, sunglasses dangling out of their shirts. Most of them had come on motorcycles, one or two of them shining with perceptible newness. Though most of the men wore shirts and trousers — a surprise for farmers in Sangli, Maharashtra — they were comfortable sitting on the large dhurrie (rug) set out for them.
 
We were in the house of Subhash Arve, a successful grape-grower in Sangli. But Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) had partnered with him not because of his prosperity; it was because he was a progressive farmer, more than willing to share his good fortune with his neighbours.
 
It started with Mr Arve’s older brother. He had gone to the US years earlier, had got vines of seedless grapes, developed them and shared them with other farmers. Productivity in the region showed dramatic improvement. Mr Arve was struck by how open each farmer was to new ideas and how keen each was to get information relating to agriculture. So when TCS asked him to be a partner in trying out new technologies, he was more than willing.
 
TCS began with the premise that the farmer needed help. Yields from Indian farms were often a third of those of developed countries, whatever the crop. The oft touted reason for this is the small size of most farms in the country, but analysis suggested that it wasn’t the only reason. An agriculturist with a large plot of land had the wherewithal and access to inputs generally unavailable to small farmers. Getting those inputs was easy; what wasn’t was the delivery system: how do you relay the information to the farmer, and how do you get it to him quickly and inexpensively?
 
The explosion in mobile telephony provided the answer. Handsets were now ubiquitous in the country. Their unit prices had not only come down dramatically, intense competition between service providers had also brought down the cost of using a cell phone and maintaining it so substantially that most people could now own one. Competition had also resulted in networks becoming extensive, and it was possible to use mobile phones almost anywhere in the country. The challenge now was to load the phone with newly developed software that would enable a handset to carry the inputs the farmer needed, and make them accessible to him easily. And since a phone is a two-way communication system, the user should also be able to send additional queries through the handset, and get the response in a reasonably short time.
 
Picture this: here were 25 farmers sitting on a dhurrie under the shade of a large tree, a bucolic scene so common that it would be a cliché. Yet there was a telling difference: they had quickly moved into a tight group to look at a mobile phone in the hands of a TCS engineer. She was showing them the latest developments in the programme, how easy it was to scroll down to get the information that was needed, and how easy it was to send a further question to an expert at the other end. She was using a Tata Indicom mobile, which works through a CDMA network. (It is generally accepted that a CDMA network is more advanced and versatile than GSM for data applications.)
 
The inputs most commonly needed are related to fertilisers. Most farmers tend to use too much urea, often on the advice of the retailer, who also recommends using whatever nutrient he has in stock. This may not necessarily be what is needed; the quantity recommended is often wrong, and in the long run damaging to the soil. But until now, the retailer was the only ‘expert’ the farmer knew.
 
Another common question that needed to be answered was related to water: how much is too much, how much is right, the frequency, the optimum time and so on. As water is generally a scarce resource, the right quantity for a particular crop is not in the farmer’s interest alone but in the national interest as well.
 
On the market side too there were queries: What were the correct prices of inputs? What should be a fair price for the produce once it was ready for the market?
 
Many of these questions form a standard set of queries requiring a standardised set of answers that could be dealt with by an Artificial Intelligence System, but there are others which needed personalised attention from experts. For example: “My crop seems to be getting some kind of disease. What do I do?” The mobile phone camera, a regular part of most handsets, could now be more than just the toy it is for urban users. Here, the farmer could take a photograph of the crop and send it to the expert, who could magnify it, make an assessment and recommend suitable treatment and the right pesticide.
 
Weather station
To give more detailed inputs to farmers, the system obviously needs more information about local conditions. Mr Arve takes you around his very large vineyard, but it’s not to show you the quality of the grapes. At strategic places in different locations, sensors have been placed to measure leaf wetness, sap flow, soil moisture at different ground levels and to monitor rainfall. Other sensors measure temperature, pressure, pH and salinity levels, and wind direction. The information is collected by a server in Thane and transmitted to experts in Pune or Nagpur.
 
Not all these sensors will necessarily be needed. These are field trials which will determine what inputs are essential and what are redundant. The sensors, imported from Australia at the moment, cost around Rs800,000 ($17,112 or £10,248)1. A local vendor has now been identified, a step that will help halve the price. Considering that a set of sensors can cover 2,000 to 5,000 farms, the price per unit will ultimately be affordable.
 
Once the trials are over, will you be willing to pay for the service? ‘Yes’ say all the assembled 25 men in unison, and without the slightest hesitation. They are also in agreement on what they need urgently and what they don’t: information on fertiliser can wait a day, but queries about water or disease eradication need to be answered as promptly as possible. They are happy with the local mandi (market) rates displayed on the screen and also approve of the weather graphics that give a seven-day forecast of precipitation, cloud cover and temperature variation for a specific village.
 
Would they like to get the latest news on their handsets?
 
“Yes, as long as we don’t have to pay for it,” one of them says to general laughter.
 
In a sense, TCS has redefined the cell phone, extending it from a voice device to a multi-functional system. Built on Qualcomm's BREW platform, the phone allows the user to send queries by selecting an icon, or by responding to voice or text prompts. Local languages are used for both voice and text.
 
The session is over, but the farmers are reluctant to leave. They want to know if TCS has more ‘tricks’ and innovations up its sleeve. They also want to know if more handsets can be made available. “All our neighbours want them,” they say, “and we don’t like to make them jealous of us.”
 
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