Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Last week I was in Madhya Pradesh visiting PRADAN and Digital Green, two organizations we have partnered with to provide voice information services like we have in Gujarat for PRADAN's operations in Dindori district (you can read about last year's visit here). I went there to co-facilitate an orientation on the voice system we had set up, which they named Unnati Kisan Seva (Unnati means "progress", also the name of the farmer's cooperative they had recently formed; kisan seva means "farmers' service").

With me in MP were Rikin, a good friend and founder of Digital Green, and DG's CTO Saureen. Both had flown down from Delhi to attend the orientation and also get updates from the field on their own collaboration with PRADAN. As a quick summary, PRADAN is an NGO working in several states in India to develop comprehensive livelihood enhancement programs in rural areas. They work on agricultural productivity, natural resource management, self-help group promotion, and other related programs to improve livelihoods. Digital Green is an innovative organization that has developed a technique for disseminating technical agricultural information in rural India using locally produced videos. They have a process developed in which they train local people in villages to produce films, organize screenings, and provide follow-up support to farmers in their area in adopting the practices in the videos. The kicker is that the videos feature local farmers themselves demonstrating the practices, which they found to be more effective than traditional agricultural extension where outsiders give top-down advice.

The day we got to Dindori we went out to to observe video production and a dissemination (i.e. a screening of a locally-produced video). I was thoroughly impressed with what I saw. The farmer being filmed for the video was a quintessential lead farmer: innovative, confident, eager to share. I was happy to learn that out of 10 videos they produce in Dindori, 6 come from first-time farmers, so it is a pretty diverse group. The dissemination, held in a church, was really well attended, and the trained local person tasked with hosting the video screening and providing support (called Agriculture Specialists, or Agri-SPs) was patient and thorough. The screening started with a recap of what was shown in the last screening and updates on whether anyone adopted those practices. Then the film was played once with the Agri-SP interjecting and emphasizing key points every now and then, then the film playing one more time uninterrupted. After that there was review of what was seen and learned in the video, and some encouragement to adopt. I later talked to Rikin about how I thought the key to these videos was striking a balance between showing something substantial (big enough so that a clear benefit can be realized) and digestible (small enough so that the practice can be readily implemented). It seems that DG has developed an effective feel for taking highly complex practices like SRI and breaking them down into self-contained sub-practices, each with their own immediate and independent benefit.

With voice-based information services like Avaaj Otalo, Rikin and I both see a potential complimentary technology to video-based information dissemination. With voice-based information access, the Agri-SPs can share common problems and experiences, quickly escalate questions from farmers to agricultural scientists working with PRADAN, and have more steady communication with the central PRADAN offices. With these goals in mind we soft-launched UKS in July.

To kick things off formally, we held an orientation for all the Agri-SPs last week. My framing for the orientation was to have it accomplish 3 goals for the Agri-SPs: awareness (about UKS and the nuts and bolts of how to actually use the automated phone service), utility (establish the need for UKS with Agri-SPs and articulate concrete benefits to using the system), and ownership (engage with the system as their own, create a sense of team amongst all the stakeholders, and put faces behind the process to bind the system together).

The orientation brought together about 40 Agri-SPs. We all sat in a hall in the PRADAN office and began the day with a lovely poem read by Archana, the head coordinator of PRADAN in Dindori. I don't remember the name of the poem, but the gist of it was a message of empowerment: "When you tell yourself you cannot do something, you hurt yourself and others. You can do anything you set your mind to". It was like a Hindi folk version of Nas 'I Can', and I thought it set the tone wonderfully.

From there Satyam (the DG coordinator in Dindori, an absolutely awesome guy) and I led the group through a full day's exposure and orientation to UKS. I'll just summarize what we did with a couple noteworthy observations. First, in the phase where we wanted to establish UKS as addressing a real need and providing actual benefit to the Agri-SPs, we tried to elicit ideas about what those were from the group itself. Better if the group comes to the conclusion that they need UKS for X, Y, and Z reasons themselves, rather than us telling them what they should think. Good idea in principle, but this ended up more or less failing. The group had difficulty articulating their own needs, and when they did, they were not what we had in mind. Another noteworthy observation from the orientation was when we had the group get hands-on with UKS by dialing the number, navigating around on their own phones, recording messages, listening to messages, etc. As my work on this project has gone on over the last couple years, I regularly get suggestions from people on ways to improve the system with new features. "Just add the ability to search through messages, that will be fantastic!", or "People should get SMS sent to them as alerts about new content", or "People should be able to upload videos". For all of those people, I wish they would have attended this orientation and watched this group of relatively savvy rural Indians call an automated system and navigate a few measly prompts to just record a message. They were confused, lacking confidence, at times completely lost. It was a vivid reminder to me why our system is so simple. If the goal is to broaden access, the barrier to entry for first-time/new users must be extremely low. They should get value from the system even if they are confused, hoping that over time they will learn how to use it. But losing them from the beginning through overly complicated interface would be a fatal mistake.

My favorite part of the session was at the end, when we summarized UKS work flow and its ecosystem of stakeholders. I had prepared this diagram to illustrate the work flow, but it really didn't come alive until Archana had three people stand up and play the roles of the various stakeholders, acting out how the system would work in a playful way. It was funny and light-hearted, and I think it helped humanize the whole system. In my mind that is key.

Despite the challenges, the orientation as a whole was a success. The group enthusiastically approved UKS with a roaring round of applause and they even had me cut a cake to celebrate the 'birthday' of UKS. Though I felt satisfied with the outcome of the orientation, I am cautious about the uptake of UKS going forward. It will take sustained effort from all stakeholders to make it all gel, which can only come with the right incentives and motivations. In fact over the summer the feeling has been growing in me that the next big question guiding future research on Avaaj Otalo should be the non-technical, human-focused aspects of making the system work. What motivates people to really engage with the system, both for information consumption and production?

This visit was a great chance to spend time with Rikin, whom I really admire. Here's a guy who graduated from MIT and started out wanting to be an astronaut, came to India to work on a bio-diesel venture, spent six months in a village in Karnataka working on agricultural extension, started DG based on what he learned, and has not looked back since. I consider Digital Green to be one of the few real success stories amidst all the recent hoopla around information technology applied to rural development in places like India. Rikin is now starting to get some recognition in broader circles, which is absolutely well-deserved. As my own work has started to gain momentum, people often suggest that I tie up with large agricultural companies, phone carriers, the government, etc. to really scale up and take the project to the next level. I'm usually quite cautious about such things, because to me it's not where your work goes, but how you get there that matters. It's why ten times out of ten I would choose to work with someone like Rikin, who may be doing something smaller-scale but does it with values and commitment that I align with. In Dindori, we've tried to do things the right way; I'm interested to see what fruits that will bear.


  1. Great post, Neil! Informational and instructive. I want to congratulate you and the other NGOs who are doing such a great job :) I've been waiting for posts like this - more, please!

  2. Great Neil. One thing that's true for us with solar lights and may be true for you too: New customers are often quite confused about the uses of our solar lights and do not understand something like no running costs. Yet, existing customers articulate quite clearly the benefits of the lights and, one of the top ones is the no running costs. Experience is everything. We've thought of ways to build on this principle.

  3. This is good, no doubts but the scale is absymaly low and if you guys dont scale it up in terms of milllions, all these nice ideas would remail "ideas forever" so i would like to see some robust scale up and sustainablity plan in next post