A digital education empowers farmers in India

High-tech solutions for ‘offline’ smallholders

“We want to help smallholders boost productivity and income, whatever their circumstances,” says Albert Boogaard, Rabo Foundation’s Head of Innovation. Here’s how even the most marginalized, unconnected farmers are benefitting from digital innovation.

Some Rabo Foundation innovation programs target smallholder farmers who are already doing relatively well – they have access to mobile phones, speak English, and have some agricultural knowledge. But other farmers are more marginalized. They only speak the local language, haven’t been to school, and don’t have access to (mobile) phones or the internet. All this severely limits their means to gain up-to-date knowledge on topics ranging from farming best practices and market prices to financial literacy. Perhaps surprisingly, tech solutions can play a key role for them too.

A country of 1.3 billion

In 2018 Rabo Foundation launched a tech-led educational program targeting marginalized farmers in India in partnership with Syngenta Foundation. Its scope is ambitious: the partners are testing the concept across India (population 1.3 billion) to see how it performs in the country’s many different cultures and economic conditions.

The first question was how to reach these smallholders who usually farm just one or two hectares each. Not only are they offline, they tend to live in far-flung, isolated villages, making it prohibitively expensive to visit them. However, the program partners noted that produce buyers, farm input salesmen, and bank reps – usually young local people with a qualification in agriculture – were already traveling to many of the villages in their area.

The team decided to recruit these young professionals to deliver the educational program in addition to the services they were already providing. This helps keep program costs down while providing useful extra income for the young professionals, known as agricultural entrepreneurs (AEs). “What makes this program so interesting to us is creating a network of AEs in rural areas,” says Arindom Datta, Head of Sustainability Banking at Rabobank Asia. “It blends entrepreneurship with cooperative values, so it can respond to market trends.”

“The program blends entrepreneurship with cooperative values”

- Arindom Datta, Rabobank Asia

The value of a good education

It quickly became apparent that AE rapport with the smallholder communities is crucial to farmers being receptive to the tools. That’s why the team carefully selects AEs on their people skills and professionalism. Successful candidates are trained to use the tools designed to teach farmers growing methods, basic financial literacy, and how to get a fair price for their produce.

The tools are video-based, and the partners make sure the videos take each region’s cultural mores into account. Voice-overs are recorded in local languages, of which there are dozens spoken in the Indian subcontinent.

Agricultural Entrepreneurs carry 15 tablets with them to facilitate group lessons.

Rabo Foundation finances the toolkits and the educational materials for the farmers, while Syngenta Foundation trains the AEs. “Syngenta Foundation is a good fit for us,” says Albert Boogaard. “Like Rabo Foundation, it uses its mother company’s deep knowledge of the agricultural supply chain to help farmers. It is focused on results and has a long-term commitment to this program, so that we can measure how much impact it can really have.”

Stimulating on-farm investment

As well as passing on knowledge, the AEs gather data which is used to segment farmers and predict who might be insurable and creditworthy. The data is also used to see how to improve access to banking services for these smallholders so that they can invest in their farms. A pilot scheme, with Rabo Foundation facilitating crop insurance and small loans, is in the works. It is expected to be a stepping stone to local banks providing this service.

“The partnership with Rabo Foundation has helped us move to the next level,” says Baskar Reddy, Executive Director of Syngenta Foundation in India. “Apart from financial support to rural youth for procuring the digital toolkits, it is helping us in the design of credit scoring tools. The knowledge it brings in terms of segmentation of farmers and assessing credit worthiness is invaluable.”

Farmers do not need to read or write to participate in the program.

It is too early for meaningful results, but the program’s novel, tech-led approach has been well received by both the young professionals and the farmers. In its first year, 100 AEs were trained and they reached nearly 50,000 farmers. The partners are now planning to bring the program to Indonesia and Kenya, with more countries to follow.

This article is part of a series about Rabo Foundation Innovation projects that are bringing the latest digital and data-driven technologies to rural smallholder farmers around the world.