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Digital Green: Empowering The Grassroots As Digital Creators

By: Ridwan Sifat

· Asia,Agriculture,Social Entrep

Majority of the Indian population still depends on agriculture as their main source of livelihood. In fact, agriculture is the largest contributor to the national GDP. Organizations are turning to innovative technology and tools to help and empower the farming community. Digital Green is an emerging NGO helping the agricultural sector in India.

Initially incubated as a research project at Microsoft Research, Digital Green’s model was developed by a group of engineers and economists in 2006. Their research revealed that the prevalent agricultural extension systems in most developing countries could be costly, slow, and limited in effectiveness. Classical training & visit programs generally involve an extension worker traveling from village-to-village, door-to-door, and speaking with a select number of individuals in a village, usually males who own larger farms.

Farmers may be slow to adopt external extension trainers' techniques due to several factors: external agents often do not possess location specific knowledge, their visits can be infrequent and erratic, and their information rarely reaches farmers with the lowest yields, who often are women. Alternatives to the 'training & visit' mode, such as farmer field schools are believed to have a better impact, but at a dramatically higher cost. Cost-effective solutions are rare.

“As we started producing videos for farmers in the rural communities, we found that the first two questions that people would ask were, ‘what is the name of the farmer in the video?’ and ‘which village is he or she from?’ so we figured that the demonstrative video approach was good but it also had to be localized and had to star local farmers to create that connect with the viewers,” Vinay Kumar, Digital Green co-founder and Regional Director shared.

A controlled trial further found that Digital Green’s approach was 10 times more cost-effective, per rupee spent than a conventional extension system. And that’s how Digital Green was spun off as an independent NGO. Basically, Digital Green is a global development organization that empowers smallholder farmers to lift themselves out of poverty by harnessing the collective power of technology and grassroots-level partnerships.

Activities of Digital Green

Digital Green offers a community-driven, technology-enabled, knowledge-sharing platform for rural communities to evidence-based, localized, best practices. The communities are both creators and consumers of knowledge products such as digital videos, using the thrill of appearing "on video" to increase reach within the communities’ social networks.

Digital Green trains development agency employees and people in the communities where they work on how to produce and distribute content, mainly in the form of videos. These videos which are of 8-12 minute durations, feature information about better farming techniques and nutrition practices and are shared in groups formed by motivated and talented community members. Produced by and for the community, the videos spur an ecosystem of educational, entrepreneurial, and entertaining content, acting as a kind of village social networking platform.

Digital Green has demonstrated that a participatory process of engagement combined with simple technology solutions can enable small-scale farming communities to produce and share information on best practices for improved productivity and sustainable livelihoods. Initial pilot studies not only indicated a higher uptake of practices through the video-based approach, but also revealed that the Digital Green model was more cost-effective than classical systems of agricultural extension.

More recently Digital Green team noted that each week, smallholder farmers in rural India spend anywhere from a half to a full day selling their produce at the nearest market, incurring especially high opportunity and transport costs when their produce volumes are low. To reduce these costs, the team created Loop, a human-mediated mobile phone application that improves farmers’ access to markets by helping them to aggregate their perishable produce.

As part of Loop, Digital Green has nurtured village-level entrepreneurs who recruit farmers, assess daily produce volumes, determine which nearby market offers the best price, arrange transport based on volume, and sell farmers’ produce directly to wholesale buyers. By aggregating, entrepreneurs can choose and pay for transport and negotiate sale prices more efficiently. They record volumes and sales on the Loop mobile app, which automatically sends receipts to farmers via text messages. After completing transactions on behalf of all farmers, the entrepreneurs return to the villages to deliver same-day payment and earn a commission of their own.

Since its debut in 2015, nearly 25,600 farmers from over 788 villages have used Loop to sell over 76,430 tons of vegetables for nearly 13.8 million USD. Loop has cut their transportation costs in half and saves them anywhere from 4-8 hours each market day.

Challenges and Hopes for the Future

Digital Green’s efforts are all directed towards ensuring farmers’ increased access to the latest information and technology to aid increased yield and income. Our latest five-year strategy is also geared toward ensuring that the farmers receive relevant and up to date market information and have greater access to the banking infrastructure.

Digital Green is now also applying its low-cost, community-based video approach for enhanced peer-to-peer learning to address Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child, and Adolescent health (RMNCH+A) nutritional goals. This four-year, USAID-funded project will explore complementary ICT platforms that can ensure the most effective way to reach the target populations with focused nutrition messaging. The goal of this digital integration project is to contribute to improving nutrition for RMNCH+A to directly reach at least 200,000 women across a minimum of 2,000 villages in at least four Indian states and indirectly engage over 1,000,000 individuals by rapidly scaling Digital Green’s approach to gender-sensitive SBCC within existing public, private, and civil society channels for agricultural, public health, and nutritional extension.

Under the current strategy we aim to achieve a sustainable 25% increase in the income of 1.2 million smallholder farmers by strengthening our current approach and developing complementary solutions.

Sponsorships and Partnerships

Digital Green receive grants from international donor agencies such as USAID, DFID, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Google, Cisco, Oracle, etc. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Digital Green recently established a two-year partnership with Andhra Pradesh’s Department of Agriculture and Cooperation (AP DoAC) to enhance the impact of its extension service by experimenting with innovative digital tools that deliver targeted and demand-driven content, improve access to markets, and enable farmers to manage their own farms more productively over time. The partnership aims to improve the agricultural production of 75,000 smallholder farmers in Andhra Pradesh, while also generating learning for the wider community of stakeholders focused on improving extension systems in India and globally.

Awards​

Some of Digital Green’s awards include the USAID Digital Development Award in 2017, the Google Impact Challenge in 2013, the Nominet Trust 100, and the eNGO Challenge South Asia both in 2015. Digital Green's founder and CEO Rikin Gandhi won the 2017 Microsoft Alumni Inspired Leader Award.

“Digital Green isn't cool because of the technology.

It's cool because of the impact.” –Bill Gates

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