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Sunday, August 12, 2012

An SMS in Time Saves Farmers the Monsoon Blues

Mobile-based advisory services Iffco Kisan Sanchar, Nokia Life Tools and Reuters Market Light help farmers take the right decisions and avoid crop losses

  Atul Bharve, a farmer from Maharashtra's Marathwada district, says a mobile phone message saved him from crop losses this year. When monsoon was delayed, he sent an SMS to Nokia Life Tools — a text message-based information service — seeking advice on what to cultivate and was promptly advised to focus on fodder. "When the rains didn't arrive in early June, I panicked. But that crucial SMS from Nokia was a lifeline of sorts for my family," says Bharve. 

Kapil Mehta, a traditional paddy farmer from Sabakantha district in northern Gujarat, took up sorghum cultivation, which requires less water, this season in line with a voice message advisory from Iffco Kisan Sanchar, a joint venture between mobile carrier Bharti Airtel and fertiliser firm Iffco. 
If India avoids a farming disaster of huge crop losses due to deficient monsoon rains this year, part of its credit goes to specialised mobile-based adviso
ry services such as Iffco Kisan Sanchar, Nokia Life Tools and Reuters Market Light, which are helping millions of farmers across the country take the right decisions. 
"Our database confirms that nearly 12 lakh farmers are listening to our voice messages everyday...many are monsoonrelated," says S Srinivasan, CEO of Iffco Kisan Sanchar. 
Finnish mobile handset maker Nokia says nearly 30 million customers subscribe to its Nokia Life Tools service and many of them are farmers. Reuters Market Light, an initiative of news and information firm Thomson Reuters to provide personalised agricultural information through text messages in local languages to farmers for . 999 a year, boasts of one million unique subscribers. 
These service providers are now working overtime to respond to a deluge in demand due to delayed monsoon. And their volumes are unlikely to flag any time soon as the Met office has predicted a 15-20% shortfall in rains in early August. "Many farmers in Maharashtra have 
opted for these services and have benefited," says Umakant Nangat, Maharashtra's commissioner of agriculture. Experts believe mobile-based farmer advisory providers will play an increasingly larger role in coming years. 
Swapan Kumar Dutta, deputy director general (crop science) of Indian Council 
of Agricultural Research, says these service providers can create alerts about crops that require less water if they get a wind of the monsoon pattern in advance. "It's easier for them to play a larger role as they are in direct touch with rural subscribers. Service providers also need to collaborate more with agri-scientists," he says. 
Companies say they are already at it. 
Iffco Kisan Sanchar, which has 13 Kisan Call Centres in different parts of the country, has thrashed out contingency plans in consultation with the state Agriculture Department & Research Organi
sation to assist farmers impacted by the delayed monsoon. "We've urged our subscribers to adopt moisture conservation practices and explore ways to improve water utilisation," CEO Srinivasan says. BV Natesh, director (emerging markets services) at Nokia Life Tools, says, "Since the Indian farmer now faces significant monsoon-related challenges, we've been providing our subscribers with the best practices and tips on water and soil moisture conservation, alternative crop selection in low rainfall scenarios and five-day weather forecasts." 
Nokia Life provides personalised text messages on 270 commodities in 12 languages across 22 states in 12 languages and can be accessed by farmers on a daily basis. Reuters Market Light Managing Director Amit Mehra says, "Our experts have developed contingency plans at state and district levels by sourcing inputs from leading agri-research institutions." Experts say that these service providers can coach farmers on drought-resistant seed variants besides issuing customised advisories on shifting crop patterns in rainfall deficit zones. But they also need 
superior infrastructure to source and disseminate accurate farming tips down to the taluka level. Mohini Mohan Misra, national secretary of leading farmers organisation Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, says, "The services offered by Nokia Life Tools and IKSL can be helpful amid the ongoing rainfall deficit. But they must beef up infrastructure to source more accurate information on 127 agro-climatic zones." 
A recent World Bank report notes that mobile-based access to price information has improved an average farmer's income by up to 24%. It adds that the most common usage of text messaging in the context of agriculture includes access to price information, crop disease and meteorological information. 

PERSONAL TOUCH: Providing agri information through SMSes in local languages


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