Rikin Gandhi’s NGO DigitalGreen has hit upon a novel way of knowledge-sharing among farmers. It teaches them to make short films on various agricultural practices

He is one of BBC's Digital Indians. We all have a claim to that name, but Rikin Gandhi is up there because his simple tech idea is steadily improving farming practices in places untouched by digital technology. And remarkably, the changes are being wrought by the farmers themselves.

Gandhi spends most of his time beating village paths, but through school and college his gaze was fixed on the sky. In his New Jersey home, he would collect news stories on astronauts and read biographies of space explorers. His electrical engineer father and cashier mom were fine with his applying for a pilot's job which he thought would catapult him into a space shuttle's cockpit. A minor eye problem cancelled that lift-off, and he joined Oracle.

In 2006, friends roped him in for a bio-diesel plant in a remote part of Maharashtra. He made his first trip to rural India, his “first foray into agriculture”. The venture failed, but the farmers left an indelible impression on him. “They saw farming as an enterprise that would lead to healthy, productive lives when many others had lost confidence in it and in themselves,” and he thought there had to be a way to spread this self-assurance.

The epiphany happened. Whenever his group took out cameras, a crowd would gather. Gandhi would playfully hand it to them, letting them shoot videos of the surroundings. When people in other villages viewed this “handiwork”, they would ask, “What's the name of the person in the video?”, “Which village is it from?” “To a community with limited movie-watching experience, video-viewing was big excitement.” He would make this excitement profitable and use it for exchanging farming practices. Knowledge-sharing would happen through digital films the farmers themselves made, bypassing the literacy divide.

DigitalGreen was born. His 60+ member NGO distributes battery-operated pico projectors to show the videos, getting around another need: electricity. Villagers shoot and show short videos of problems, solutions and success stories. “The response is high both among the community members trained in video production and those who view them,” says Gandhi in his east-American accent. He watched the exhilaration of women with little education and no computer knowledge producing videos all by themselves — from storyboarding to shooting to editing — in just a few hours, and felt their joy when it was viewed and discussed for its merits. “As they learn video production, they also develop greater self-confidence. They are seen as professionals in their communities,” he says.

Very wisely, he partners with NGOs such as PRADAN and BAIF and government departments that are already working with rural communities. DigitalGreen currently works in 2,000 villages across seven states, with about 150,000 farmers watching one new video every fortnight. Partnership with the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) will help extend it to 10,000 villages by 2015. “We also have begun working in parts of Ethiopia and Ghana, and plan to share best practices related to public health and nutrition.” DigitalGreen has received support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Government of India, among others.

The videos are of, by and for farmers. Villagers who train others are involved in the process of video production and dissemination. The videos are made and shown in places where the language spoken and the crops grown are the same. Viewers can identify with the languages/dialects, clothing/houses and people in a cultural context. The 10-minute spots answer questions on how to select a crop, prepare nursery beds, transplant crops and remove weeds. They show demos and interviews, and some of them have added background music (check them out). The local screening facilitator can pause/rewind the video on-demand to ensure concepts are understood and doubts clarified. Follow-up support is provided. Watching in groups promotes peer-to-peer sharing and discussion.

I asked for a success story. “In Karnataka, we came across a practice involving the cultivation of azolla which is an aquatic fern,” says Gandhi. Azolla is cattle fodder and increases milk yields. The video on this produced in Kannada was seen and well-understood in Madhya Pradesh. “Farmers in MP adopted the practice and produced a video of their own in Hindi for sharing. Now the practice is popular among farmers there too,” says Gandhi.

DigitalGreen maps outcomes meticulously. His analysis tells him that about 40 per cent of the people who watched a video have adopted at least one of the practices shown in it. In a country that is largely agricultural but where farmers struggle to grow crops, Gandhi's simple intervention is nothing short of transformative. It is digital innovation touching lives where finance, infrastructure and supportive institutions for food-growers are at best erratic.

Gandhi still reads sci-fi, but after seeing changes on the ground “first-hand”, his wish for a space journey is irrelevant, he says.