Farm Chat—Makeshift
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Rural farmers swap ag tips and personal stories in 11 WhatsApp groups across India

— Farm Chat

FarmChat1

Working the rural fields of India’s Maharashtra state can be lonely and backbreaking work for small-scale farmers. So Anil Bandawane, a farmer and engineer, created a Facebook group called ‘Baliraja’ — farmer king, roughly — with about a dozen fellow farmers in 2012. The members chatted about their work, posed questions, and traded tips, building ties they couldn’t form alone on the farm. They also began filling the isolating divide that can lead struggling or financially desperate farmers to suicide (a significant problem in rural India).

The group grew rapidly. Anil began to see the massive potential for a bigger forum where farmers could connect with each other and talk with experts who answered questions in real time. He expanded Baliraja to the instant messaging service WhatsApp, which now counts more than 1,000 farmers plus agricultural experts, consultants, and suppliers.

Participants swap messages every day through 11 WhatsApp groups, each of which is capped at 100 farmers to better manage conversations. As the network grows, new groups form. While the first 10 groups use Marathi, the language of Maharashtra state, an 11th group uses Hindi, the language commonly spoken in Rajasthan, Punjab, and other northern regions.

“Each of us knows something unique, which we can now share with each other,” says Rameshwar, a farmer and Baliraja member from the village of Deulgaon who grows cotton, soybeans, and two types of lentils: toor and moong. He claims his business costs have fallen considerably since joining the group “as I now know cheaper and more efficient techniques”. Rameshwar passes along similar tips to other farmers in his village who don’t use WhatsApp.

Indian farmers, once isolated in the fields, now trade questions and tips via smartphone — as well as photos of their daily experiences.

Indian farmers, once isolated in the fields, now trade questions and tips via smartphone — as well as photos of their daily experiences.

Farmers in Baliraja typically use basic smartphones that cost from INR 5,000 to 10,000 (USD 77 to 155). Low-cost mobile data plans cost around INR 200 (USD 3) for up to 3 gigabytes of data. Members tend to connect via WhatsApp during the day or late evening, when they’re not tied up with farmwork.

In each of the 11 groups, a designated set of agricultural experts can answer farmers’ questions directly and offer general advice. They also counsel distressed members, who often suffer from high debt, poor crop yields, and other pressures. Still, these farmers are the ones who can afford smartphones as well as read and write — meaning the majority of India’s farmers are out of the loop.

Experts participating in the WhatsApp threads include Yunus Khan, who consults farmers on soil quality, crop prices, and dairy farming, and Krishnat Patil, who owns a fertilizer firm. They post general advice to the groups, such as the top 10 ways to farm using less water. Individual discussions cover the gamut of farm issues: soil types, pesticides, weather information, plant nutrition, market prices, farming methods, or the best ways to grow less traditional vegetables like broccoli.

But Baliraja chats aren’t strictly professional. Farmers talk about their own experiences, daily routines, and sometimes their personal problems at home or in the fields. They wish each other well during national and religious festivals. Others trade jokes, inspiring quotes, and poems to keep spirits high among the group.

“The biggest reason for farmer suicides in India is not having an assured income,” says Amol Sainwar, who is one of the Baliraja experts and runs non-profit groups for farmers called HOPE and Shivaprabha.

Apart from Baliraja, Amol uses WhatsApp and Facebook to crowdsource funding for other anti-suicide initiatives, including a program to help farmers find alternative sources of income during the lean seasons. “We’re also employing farmers’ wives in many villages in Maharashtra by putting up sewing machines and incense stick-making machines in many villages,” he says.

Amol and the Baliraja team are working on creating a 12th WhatsApp group that will focus exclusively on cattle farming. They’re also developing a dedicated app and website for the group. To reach the farmers who can’t afford smartphones or read and write, Baliraja is planning a low-tech approach to its outreach efforts. The group hopes to install one computer per rural village, where volunteers will field questions from farmers, plug them into a soon-to-launch website, then read off the answers as they arrive.

The ultimate goal, Amol says, is to help farmers boost their efficiency and income in various ways and to ensure they can earn a living wage, hopefully driving a decline in the number of farmer suicides. For now this practical and community building approach has reached only a select few. If it can spread deeper to the disconnected majority, the network could transform India’s rural economy.

To connect — or to help farmers connect — contact Amol at amol.sainwar@gmail.com

Smart Soil
The Internet of Things has arrived on Indian farms. Vijayaragavan Viswanathan’s SmartAgri technology gathers real-time information on the condition of crops, helping farmers to limit water and fertilizer use and make local agriculture more sustainable.

SmartAgri is a wireless communication network that uses multiple sensor nodes and a solar-powered control panel. Each node monitors vital parameters, such as soil temperature, moisture, and pH levels. The data is processed and fed back to an irrigation control system, which then distributes water to crops, prioritizing the areas that need immediate attention. The system also accounts for how much water is available at the time, thus effectively managing water and minimizing environmental impact.

Vijayaragavan, the son of a farmer himself, says that the system, which is in its prototype stage, could cost around USD 300 to 500 for an acre of monitoring, depending on the quantity and type of sensor. He expects farmers could make a full return on their investment within six to 12 months. A full SmartAgri pilot is slated to launch in the first quarter of 2016, just as soon as Vijayaragavan rounds up the funding. — Roshan Kumar Mogali

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