"MY first hero was an astronaut. But my new hero is the small farmer, earning about Rs200 (S$4.35) a day or about Rs6000 per month in India. People like that are trying to migrate out of agriculture because of the difficulties in making a living, and yet there are limited jobs and food in the big cities. I thought there had to be a way to keep them on the farm but improve it to a point that they feel it's a productive and good place to be," says Mr Rikin Gandhi, a US space programme aspirant turned farmers' activist.
Rikin Gandhi's initiation
"Experiencing rural India for the first time in 2006, I found many farmers facing increasing debt and declining returns that led some to make desperate choices like selling their land at a lower than market price - or even committing suicide.
"I joined a college friend who was working on a biodiesel venture in Maharashtra and learnt about the challenges faced by farmers in India, where the livelihoods of a majority of its 1.2 billion population still depends on agriculture.
"This was a radical change for me. Life took a different course, and I sought to better reconnect with the world and its people. I landed in rural India encountering literally, the sons of the soil - the farmers," reveals Mr Gandhi, chief executive officer and co-founder of Digital Green.
For the US-born Mr Gandhi, an aeronautical and astronautical engineer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a private pilot's license holder, the change of tracks came about after reading about space travellers.
"Seeing the Earth from up above, they wondered why there was war, poverty and a food crisis on this beautiful planet. Some astronauts would return and see how they could connect with the land and its people. They inspired me to reconsider my desire to join the space programme."
Mr Gandhi had a tenure with Microsoft Research in Bangalore, during which he was looking at what role digital technologies could play in improving farmers' lives.
"We observed that the traditional top-down approach to agricultural extension in low- and middle-income countries involves extension agents physically visiting farmers' fields with dated and generic information. We wanted to change that. This led to the non-profit spin off Digital Green in 2008," he says.
Upgrading farming via videos
"Vetted by specialists, we decided to produce short, localised videos by the farmers for the farmers, to demonstrate helpful tips and techniques on the farm. We found farmers are more likely to trust information, and adopt the technique when another farmer describes and shows something that helped him.
"Our team is relatively small but we partner with organisations that are already working with farmers and train them to produce videos, screen them, and collect community feedback to improve the efficacy for their work. Agriculture is a knowledge-intensive vocation given the vagaries of weather and markets.
"We serve as a trainer of trainers to build the capacity of existing field professionals to produce and share short 8-10 minute videos that are by the community and for the community and enable them to gather data that targets their programmes to better address the community's needs and interests," says Mr Gandhi, who is in his mid-30s.
In the past eight years, since Digital Green's inception, at least 574,222 viewers from the farming community have adopted one or more of the best farming practices promoted through these videos to small groups, leading to improvements in their lives.
Mr Gandhi matched the production of video with data collection for continuous research to find what methods are working and thus help steer new videos and further help identify farmers' information needs.
Digital Green received a US$10 million grant in 2012 for the project with a target of reaching out to one million farmers (of which 500,000 would be unique adopters in India) in 10,000 villages, to be achieved by December 2018.
As of now they have reached 8,191 villages and 893,309 farmers, 494,747 of whom have adopted at least one practice to which they were exposed.
Propelling Digital Green
"At Digital Green, we start with a sense of gratitude that we have the opportunity to stand with the poor farmers. We see the world not just as it is, but as it could be. We elevate others' voices to imagine a better future for them, as they are the sources of inspiration that lead to innovation. We often find ourselves in unchartered territory, but we push ourselves to take risks and act at scale because time is short, particularly for those in need.
"We use technology to amplify and partner with organisations and individuals that have the hearts and minds to realise its potential. We are committed to the long game of our moonshot by starting with the poor, and relentlessly seeking to improve ourselves. We know this challenge is not easy, and that investing in the growth of one another is as important as those whom we serve.
"We will never be satisfied until poverty is history and every individual is able to live a life of dignity," affirms Mr Gandhi.
A recent entrant into parenthood himself, one anecdote is presumably more meaningful to Mr Gandhi now - and a lesson he has perhaps learnt too.
"I was in the backseat of our old station wagon and shouted at my dad in the front seat that he never said that he loved me. That wasn't true of course, but I was a young teenager and a rebel without a cause. He pulled the car to the side of the road and said that he was sorry if I ever felt that way, said that he loved me, and started to cry. We have never parted or ended a conversation since that day without him making sure that he's said that he loves me," said Mr Gandhi.
Two of the women farmers who have viewed and been helped by Digital Green's videos, spoke about their experiences.
"After watching a Digital Green video on Ghanjeevamrit (a manure mix), I became confident about applying it on my land. Ghanjeevamrit keeps the soil light and helps retain moisture, which in turn keeps the plants greener and healthier. The vegetables taste better.
"Initially, I wondered if my field would adjust to this new method. Some videos have also helped me share best agricultural practices and other such information with my neighbours. The videos feature men and women like us," says Somia Devi, 46, of Nikaspur village, Samastipur District, Bihar, who owns a one kattha (22 kattha=1 acre) vegetable plot.
Similarly, Pinky Devi, 30, a mother of three from Nalanda district of Bihar, has been part of a self-help group since 2009 organised by JEEViKA, a partner organisation of Digital Green.
She said: "After attending these video disseminations, around 50 farmers in my village have adopted the practice of System of Rice Intensification and 35 have kitchen gardens in their homes increasing their farm output and gaining food security and ensuring nutritious food for their families."
"Yet challenges remain," said Mr Gandhi. "The prime one, ensuring the quality of the approach, especially as it is scaled to reach more than one million farmers - men and principally women. Our approach ultimately depends on people - from those involved in producing videos to those facilitating their screening to farmers themselves - so we have focused on developing systems, such as a management information system that works online and offline to monitor activities in the field and a mobile, video-based courseware platform to train and assess the skills of extension agents."
Partnering for progress
Digital Green partners social and government organisations which are working with rural communities.
"Our approach is geared to magnify their reach and increase the uptake of the practices they are promoting. We've found this can improve the cost-effectiveness of existing agricultural development programmes by a factor of 10 times, per rupee spent," justifies Mr Gandhi.
Since 2008, Digital Green has partnered more than 50 organisations, including government agencies, NGOs, and private agribusiness.
Its partners typically fund the operational costs of its approach, including buying cameras and mobile projectors as well as involving their field personnel in the day-to-day activities of producing and screening videos.
Digital Green's in-house teams develop technology tools and training materials to support its partners.
Having been designated a National Support Organisation by the National Rural Livelihood Mission of the Government of India, Digital Green has managed to forge a partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture of Ethiopia, which enabled it to expand its approach.
They have produced more than 5,000 videos in 28 languages across more than 17,000 villages.
Currently working in nine states in India as well as in Nepal and countries such as Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Tanzania, Digital Green has plans to work in more Asian, African and Latin American countries.
Thus, for Mr Gandhi the hugely rewarding experience lies in realising that "the so-called developed and developing world divide can't be closed by technology alone".
He said: "It is the sparks of curiosity to learn and to create role models that participatory video and grassroots-level partnerships can enable. Farmers are empowered to take their 'one small step' toward improving their lives and of those around them."
"We want to expand in India and a few other countries in Asia and Africa. We're also very excited about evolving a new five year strategy (2017-2022), where we want to focus on really making a lasting impact in the lives of the small-holder farmers and make ourselves more accountable to them.
"The strategy formulation, which is still underway, is focused on strengthening the existing extension systems, going beyond the extension systems by exploring other innovations such as value chain and market linkages and strengthening our Monitoring, Learning & Evaluation systems to capture the impact on the ground," he said.
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