Using video to educate farmers is hardly novel. For over two decades, ‘Krishi Darshan' on Doordarshan has broadcast special programmes, discussions on best agricultural practices and farmer success stories to farmers across India. Taking this forward, this young entrepreneur decided to use the medium, coupled with some low-cost technological interventions and mediated instruction.

So, while most people his age spent their waking hours stimulating the whole ‘ranch experience' on Facebook's Farmville, Rikin Gandhi, an aerospace engineer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, decided to pilot a technology initiative for small and marginal farmers living in villages in Kolar, Karnataka. A joint venture between his company, Digital Green; a local NGO, the Green Foundation; and Microsoft Research, his ‘innovation' came to the limelight when he was listed as an ‘Outstanding Innovator under the age of 35' by the MIT's publication Technology Review.

Having grown up in the U.S., at 28, Gandhi says this was his first “tryst with rural India”. After travelling and interacting with farmers for months, he found that romantic notions of ICT being used to transform the lot of Indian farmers were far from reality. Instead, his ground work taught him that small and marginal farmers were cut-off from the information stream, and were clueless about technology. What they needed was far more simple, Gandhi realised.

“They needed to know what can help improve their produce, and this could be anything from how to use a certain fertilizer to some traditional know-how. Also, farmers needed to see that what was being ‘preached' on video was actually implemented and worked elsewhere,” Gandhi explains.

This led him to video, a lot like Krishi Darshan, but in a far more localised manner. The idea was simple, and the key was to keep it as “locally relevant” as possible. Gandhi started off experimenting with video. Short 10-minute clippings starring farmers from their district, town or village, captured the attention of the farmers wherever they arranged a screening. Unlike experts who ‘talked-down' to them on various agricultural practices, often in a language that was rather alien to them, they were able to identify with their new ‘educators'. They paid attention to what they were wearing, where the filming was done and even knew they could reach out to them, Gandhi describes.

For instance, he says, we found that when farmers identified with people who were demonstrating something on screen, they would ask what the name of the farmer was or seek other details on what they were doing. They would pick up audio and visual cues, and dialects too are critical here. “Once they form the connection, we knew we had them ‘hooked'.”

Taking it a step further, Gandhi and his friends organised farmer volunteers into small groups and trained one person in each group to shoot, do basic video editing and operate a small, portable battery-run pico projector (that costs around $ 150). So, farmers shot videos of their peers and arranged screenings for groups of 25 to 30 people, sometimes organised through existing Self-Help Groups in villages. Attendees were charged a nominal Rs. 2-4 per member, per screening. And what was significant is that the screenings were followed by lively discussions. “We trained coordinators to take every meet beyond the screening. They would mediate discussions, clear doubts and even address issues — we looked for coordinators who are proactive and well-accepted within their communities,” Gandhi explains.

Online, Offline

Besides pico projectors and training resource persons in village to film, edit and screen, the tech team at Digital Green is building a platform that allows hosting and sharing video data in places with limited bandwidth. An open source online data input system, COCO (Connect Online, Connect Offline), forms the base of the company's software stack. This attempts to make the video sharing and information dissemination process easy so as to be accessible in remote areas.

Basically, it allows to take the application offline in limited bandwidth conditions with uninterrupted usage in the browser. This can support up to 100,000 users located anywhere in the world and only requires Internet connectivity whenever a user is ready to synchronise the data, Gandhi explains. A robust standalone browser application, it is simple to use as it requires no installation or maintenance resources. This open source framework is similar to other existing application frameworks such as Django or Ruby on Rails, and is developed using Google Web Toolkit 2.0. It uses Google Gears, a browser plug-in that helps store data relationally and uses a local cache to access all requisite static content.

Gandhi believes that this open source technology could solve the ubiquitous problem of low bandwidth persistent across India, and help take technology to the masses. “These tech tools can be of great use. Being Open Source, we are open to sharing this with NGOs and rural networks to take it to as many people as possible.”

The way ahead

After meeting with substantial success in Kolar, Gandhi decided to extend his pilot projects to other areas. Today, it is being tried out in several villages in Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and parts of Chattisgarh. In its fourth year, his venture involves over 16,000 farmers. More than 500 videos have been produced and 5,414 screening have been held.

Having been named as a ‘young innovator' by an international publication has helped draw the attention of the media and several companies. However, Gandhi believes that a venture like his needs multiple partners to work with to be able to sustain itself. He is open to working with the government and public sector units to reach more people, but is weary of the “traditional top-down approach”. “To make any connection, we need to work at the grassroot level,” he insists.