ICTs are technologies that interlink information technology devices with communication technologies. They are being used in many ways that were unimagined before and can be used to collect, store and share information between people using multiple devices. ICTs have great potential in rural areas, where they can address the immediate problems facing people. Their use offers new solutions to longstanding problems and can make a difference to people’s lives.
ICTs have contributed to improve communications in villages and have helped a number of entrepreneurs and small businessmen to increase incomes. Micro and Small Enterprises (MSEs) have benefitted from ICTs. Many organizations have expanded their network by using innovative methods of offering services to remote areas. Banks, for instance, provide services through banking correspondents with handheld devices in remote areas where branches do not exist.
Cairncross (1997) writes in his book, The Death of Distance, that technology is changing society like never before, shrinking distances that are now measured in communications speed and effecting change in employment, entertainment, gambling, shopping, demographics, government and market competition. One area that distances are still formidable is rural.
As Hofman (2016) puts it, “Inclusion, efficiency, innovation—these are the main ways in which digital technologies support development.” The Taobao villages described in the Opening Case and delivery of medical care along with other examples show how the Internet promotes inclusion, efficiency and innovation—and all of this in less than a decade.
Two-way communication helps in aiding people to understand needs and opportunities jointly. More than that, ICT is a means of empowerment and financial inclusion and could well provide a platform for trading of agricultural goods. Technologies help rural folk to get information, negotiate and buy and sell, which in turn helps them to participate as producers and not merely as consumers.
Clearly, ICTs have to move beyond delivering information to collecting better quality data for understanding consumers.
ICTs can be used in rural markets in a variety of ways. Each of these ways contributes in some way to the three objectives – innovation to serve inclusion and efficiency.
Way # 1. Communication and Media:
Farmers in India are squeezed on both fronts—production and marketing. On the production front the farmer faces risks relating to weather, fake inputs and lack of timely knowledge about farm management practices. In marketing, the farmer faces lack of transparency on market information. Communication and media plays an important role in providing information on both these fronts.
A number of studies have shown that information helps rural marketing efforts in a big way. Mittal (2012) writes that a farmer who receives quality up to date information and who has the ability to use that information is able to lessen the effect of risks in farming to a great extent.
Farmers require a variety of agricultural information, from usage of fertilizer, crop diseases, preventive and curative measures, modern irrigation methods, information on water conservation, HYV seeds and their usage, pre- and post-harvest education, market information, knowledge about fake agricultural products, crop rotation education, advice on fruits and vegetables, and so on.
According to a survey of the NSSO (2005), only 40 percent of farming households have access to information about modern farming technologies. This is an area in which communication and media can help. Since traditional or mainstream media has limited reach in villages and carries little information of direct use to village communities, it is up to ICTs to provide actionable information to the farmers. Modern ICT can help bridge the information gap and can enhance the knowledge of farmers, providing current and updated information on various aspects of farming and marketing.
Smartphones have revolutionized communications in rural areas wherever telecom services are available. They have offered means to communicate and to interact with rural consumers. Agricultural extension services, which are quite dilapidated in the country, have benefited from the use of mobile phones and web portals to deliver information and technology.
Several studies have been conducted to find out the impact of mobile telephony on rural prosperity. Beuermann, McKelvey and Vakis (2012) studied the effects of mobile phone coverage on economic development measures in rural Peru. They found the introduction of mobile phones impacted a range of well-being measures. Health showed a real increase of 23.7 percent, transport 19.2 percent real increase and mobile phone expenditures increase of 231 percent.
These effects together imply the existence of a significant unmet demand for mobile services and positive effects associated with the provision of such services. Sizeable reductions in poverty were also found following mobile coverage introduction: about 8 percent for overall poverty and 5 percent for extreme poverty.
The study showed that mobile coverage improved household well-being across villages—household real consumption increased by almost 11 percent. Overall increases in all sub-components of expenditures have taken place, including investments in health services and transport. A surprising finding was that mobile coverage not only benefited people who owned a cellphone but also benefited non-owners. Such evidence suggests positive spill-over effects flowing from owners to those who did not own a smartphone.
De Silva et al. (2011) study of the influence of mobile phone adoption at the BoP population in six Asian countries found that mobile phones helped in generating better social and business networks, leading to faster spread of knowledge and technology. Muto and Yamano’s (2009) study on Ugandan maize and banana farmers also showed that the adoption of mobile telephony and its use in agricultural activities has led to a reduction in poverty.
Several portals and services have been initiated by the government and private companies.
Some of the initiatives taken in the field of better communication with farmers through helplines and SMS are described below:
i. Agro-Met Advisories:
A system has been developed by India Meteorological Department and Ministry of Agriculture to provide weather-based agro-met advisories to the farming community through free SMS. To avail this service, farmers register their names on the toll-free number 1800-180-1717 along with their mobile numbers and the crops they grow. Once registered, farmers get an SMS for their specific crops every week on day-to-day agricultural operations as well as on weather.
ii. Bayer Helpline:
In 2014, Bayer launched a national helpline for farmers. Farmers can place a toll free call on Bayer’s national helpline number 1800-200-6321. Calls are answered by local agricultural experts from four call centres located in Maharashtra, Punjab, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, according to its website.
eSagu is an IT-based personalized agro-advisory system which delivers personalized, farm-specific agro-expert advice to farmers. The advice is provided once a week from sowing to harvesting to farm productivity and quality. It uses database, Internet and digital photography to aid agricultural extension services. The agricultural scientist delivers expert advice by getting the crop status in the form of digital photographs and other information. The system is devised by HIT, Hyderabad and Media Lab Asia.
iv. Farmers’ Portal:
Farmers’ portal has been started by the government to create a one stop shop for meeting all informational needs relating to agriculture, animal husbandry and fisheries. The portal features a map and the farmer can click on his state to get information on specific subjects around his village/block/district or state. This information is delivered in the form of text, SMS, email and audio/video in the local language.
v. Kisan Call Centre:
The government has established the Kisan Call Centre (KCC) through a toll free number 1800-180-1551, where they register themselves on the Kisan Knowledge Management System (KKMS). Kisan Call Centre agents known as Farm Tele Advisors are graduates or above in Agriculture or allied sciences and are trained in communication skills in local languages.
vi. Kisan Sanchar:
IFFCO has launched IFFCO Kisan Sanchar Limited together with Bharti Airtel and Star Global Resources Ltd. The venture aims to provide income generating business opportunities and offer telecom services to farmers through cooperative societies. Kisan Sanchar delivers free of cost knowledge content developed by Krishi Vigyan Kendras and agricultural universities through Value Added Service (VAS), according to the IFFCO website. Kisan Sanchar is an interactive platform for scientists, agricultural experts and agricultural institutions for sharing their technology and knowledge with registered farmers.
vii. Reuters Market Light (RML):
RML provides Agri Decision Support Solutions for farmers by creating services and tools for them. RML direct delivers agricultural information through SMS as well as my RML App. It has also developed products such as FarmNutri, DigiMandi and the RML FARMER MAX which can transform the farmer’s business through technology. RML’s service works across all telecom service providers and mobile phone handsets. These messages, which are sent on a pre-paid subscription basis, are about crop prices in nearby markets, agricultural news relating to the crop or input prices, advices to improve yields and weather forecasts.
viii. Agricultural Marketing Research and Information Network (AGMARKNET):
Launched by the Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, the scheme aims to link important agricultural markets in India and the State Agriculture Marketing Boards/ Directorates for exchange of market information. The objective of the scheme is to facilitate collection and dissemination of information for better price realization. The portal covers market, price, infrastructure and promotion-related information.
Helplines and SMS help farmers to get timely information, which so far was not available to them. However, ICT in rural areas can only achieve interaction and communication. Schmidt (2011) writes that very often technology faces the barriers of translation and illiteracy.
Some of the reasons why it is not spreading among the farmers as it should are:
I. Lost in Translation:
Much of the information is lost in translation to local languages. Faulty translation often results in limited utility of the phone—one phone with a Bengali interface used a translation for ‘select an option’ that means ‘vote in an election’ in Bengali.
Eric Schmidt, before stepping down as CEO, revealed that Google’s strategic initiatives involve mobile, including making smartphones accessible to the poor. He cites an ethnographic study by a student of how village farmers in Bangladesh have integrated mobile phones into their lives and work. He found that it is not smartphones they need, but devices that make sense to people who are partially literate in Bengali and less literate in English. For instance, instead of using the phones to store numbers, they used notebooks to write down phone numbers because they couldn’t understand the phone’s address book.
III. Lack of Physical Infrastructure:
Though mobile phone infrastructure does have positive spillover effects on markets, it cannot replace investments in other infrastructure. Mobile phones cannot be a short-cut for poverty reduction tool for poor rural households. Sustainable development depends on physical infrastructure, such as power, roads and electricity along with ICT intervention.
IV. Lack of Market Access:
Farmers in India lack market access and have to go through agents and mandis. In this scenario, communication can only help in a limited way. Most farmers, for instance, are unable to take advantage of the price information on portals as they lack storage and grading facilities and sell to pre-harvest agents under whom they are in debt.
V. Digital Divide:
Communication technologies sometimes fail because of the digital divide, that is, the huge gap between those who have access to computers and the Internet and those who do not. This has prevented the percolation of benefits to the poor. The main beneficiaries of the ICT revolution have been population segments in areas with a developed infrastructure, much to the exclusion of the poor.
It is clear that though ICT can help providing information to farmers, investments in infrastructure and supply chains are essential. Rural markets will only work efficiently if the farmer has access to information and a way to use the information.
Way # 2. Financial Inclusion:
Financial inclusion means delivery of financial services at affordable costs to disadvantaged and low income segments of the society, or those who cannot access these services because of distance and availability. Gupta (2011) writes that RBI has taken steps to ease use of technology for banking operations in rural areas. Technology can play an important role in spreading banking services, particularly in the rural and unbanked areas.
Technologies are available today that can drive financial inclusion. IT brings front-end operations to doorsteps of people and reduces transaction costs. Financial inclusion is aided by making small ticket retail transactions cheaper, easier and faster.
Some of the steps taken by banks for financial inclusion are:
i. Automated Teller Machines (ATMs):
ATMs offer banking services even where branches do not exist. But they have been restricted to the urban areas because operating ATMs in remote areas, sometimes without electricity or transaction volumes, is not feasible.
ii. Branchless Banking:
The RBI has permitted banks to use intermediaries as BFs or BCs in rural areas for providing financial and banking services where branches do not exist. The BCs allow rural people to operate their bank accounts using hand-held devices. Some companies offering such services are Oxygen and Paytm, A Little World and Fino. Many other companies such as Vodafone, Idea Cellular, Airtel, ITC, HUL, Reliance Jio and others operate electronic wallets or have expressed interest to become BCs.
They have large distribution channels and pan-India presence, which will help them penetrate rural areas. The postal department too plans to install micro-ATMs and use its network of about 1.55 lakh post offices to provide financial services to villages. BFs identify borrowers, process loan applications and create awareness about bank products. They also promote SHGs and encourage savings among these groups.
iii. Core Banking Solutions (CBS):
CBS enables customers to operate their accounts and avail of banking services from any branch of a bank. CBS offers customer convenience through Anywhere, Anytime Banking and also generates and manages information effectively.
iv. General Credit Card (GCC):
RBI has asked banks to provide a credit card like facility in rural areas based on the assessment of income and cash.
Micro-ATM is a device that is used by BCs to deliver basic banking services. The platform enables branchless banking in villages. BCs use micro-ATMs to conduct instant transactions. These are used in remote villages with a population of just 2,000 for banking transactions.
vi. No Frills Accounts:
The RBI and the government have been pushing banks for opening ‘no-frills’ accounts, without minimum balance requirements and charges.
vii. Simpler Norms:
Since rural households may not have identity documents, the KYC procedure for opening accounts have been simplified.
Despite these interventions, the viability of the BC model remains a challenge. For instance, a majority of no-frill accounts opened by BCs and under the Prime Minister’s Jan Dhan Yojana remained non-operational till the government’s demonetization move in 2016. There was a hope that social benefits would be transferred to these accounts under the UIDAI but this has not happened so far.
Way # 3. Agricultural Trading:
One area in which farmers can benefit from ICT is agricultural trading. If market information was easily available, farmers could, theoretically at least, sell when they are likely to get high prices. Mobile phones can provide such information cheaply and easily, which could also assist farmers in identifying potential buyers over large geographic areas.
Studies have found that price dispersion is reduced through better communication. Improved communication between farmers and traders could result in better quality output. Apart from telephone- and SMS-based information systems, trading portals could also put buyers and sellers in direct touch.
Where information is limited or costly, as in developing countries, agents are able to exploit both producers and consumers alike. Information technologies can improve market performance by providing crucial information when and where it is needed. Several studies have found that information about agriculture and market conditions, disseminated through mobile phones, greatly helps in reducing price dispersion and is helpful both to farmers and consumers.
Jensen (2007) studied the impact of mobile phones on the market for fresh fish in Kerala. Using micro-level survey data, he showed that the adoption of mobile phones by fishermen and wholesalers was associated with a dramatic reduction in price dispersion, the complete elimination of waste and near-perfect adherence to the Law of One Price. Both consumer and producer welfare increased.
Aker’s (2010) study of grain markets in Niger showed similar results. The introduction of mobile phones was found to be associated with a 10 to 16 percent reduction in price dispersion across markets. He also provides evidence of a network effect, that is, mobile phones have a stronger effect on price dispersion once a critical mass of market pairs has mobile phone coverage.
Both studies find that price dispersion has been significantly reduced to near perfect adherence to the law of one price after mobile phone coverage.
ICTs can thus help poorly functioning markets work better and thereby increase incomes and/or lower consumer prices. In fact, it has become increasingly common to find farmers, fishermen and other producers throughout the developing world using mobile phones, text messages, pagers and the Internet for getting market information and for selling their goods.
Market information is provided through agricultural portals as well. Several agricultural portals have been started by private companies and the government bodies. Apart from these, the government provides information through various portals as well. The government has also launched an electronic platform for trading of agricultural goods, the National Agriculture Market.
The government launched the NAM in 2016 as a pan-India unified electronic trading portal. It networks the existing APMC mandis to create a national market for agricultural commodities. The NAM portal provides a single window service for APMC related information, such as commodity arrivals and prices and trade offers with a provision to respond to them. However, agricultural produce flow continues through mandis.
It has long been felt that the APMC system, which under which states are divided into several market areas, leads to fragmentation of markets. The APMC also imposes its own fees. This hinders free flow of agricultural goods from one market area to another even within one state. Multiple handling and multiple mandi charges add to escalating prices for consumers. An electronic portal theoretically would address these problems by creating a unified market at state and national level.
However, whether these initiatives are actually helping the farmer remains doubtful.
An electronic trading portal can work only when some of the bottlenecks are removed, such as:
i. Grading System:
Online trading of agricultural products can only work when there is a grading and certifying system in place so that the buyer knows exactly what quality of goods is being purchased. In the absence of a grading system, buyers will be unwilling to place orders before checking the produce physically.
ii. APMC Monopoly:
The trading portal does not lead to reduction in various levies imposed by states and mandi taxes and therefore has been of limited utility so far. The states have to amend their APMC Acts by bringing in a provision for electronic trading. Besides, states must provide a single license to those who trade through NAM in a local mandi. Though the e-NAM has been a first step, electronic trading of agricultural goods can only succeed when the APMC is integrated and when the APMC mandi monopoly is broken.
iii. Easy Deliveries:
Like e-commerce, trading portals work when buyers know of firm delivery schedules. Lack of transport and bad roads in villages means that firm delivery dates cannot be guaranteed. Assuming that a farmer is able to find a buyer online, can he promise that goods will reach at the committed dates?
iv. Storage Facilities:
If the farmer cannot store his produce at a safe place, he will be under pressure to sell it to the nearest agent because agricultural goods are perishable and attract rodents. Moreover, as the farmer is usually under debt by the harvest time, he is unable to leverage information in real life.
v. Payment Gateways:
Online trading also assumes existence of bank accounts and payment gateways. In the absence of a banking network in remote villages, online trading platforms can achieve little.
Way # 4. Logistics and Distribution:
Over the years, there have been huge investments in supply chains. Sophisticated technology exists to track goods right from raw material procurement to customer use and feedback, writes Kumar (2012). One company that has successfully done this in India is Amul.
The technologies that have been deployed by companies in this field are given below:
i. Technology in Logistics:
Automatic Identification (Auto ID) technology tracks products automatically and directly enters data in the computer system without an operating a keyboard. Auto ID is used for tracking containers, packages, products, cartons and even a truck carrying goods. Auto ID helps to achieve accuracy, cost saving, speed and convenience. Such technologies include bar coding, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), magnetic strip, voice recognition, Quick Response, Efficient Consumer Response, and Collaborative Planning, Forecasting and Replenishment (CPFR).
ii. Tracking Technologies:
Tracking technologies can identify and track products on the move. E-tracking systems are used in courier, air and sea cargo. These technologies include Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT), which communicates through satellite communication. A dish antenna is fixed on the vehicle, which allows communication between driver, consignor and consignee in real time.
iii. Delivery Technology:
Drone delivery can help deliver products to the remotest villages. Trials are already being conducted to explore how drones can safely and effectively deliver medicines and vaccines to remote locations. In the US, Amazon Prime Air is a future service that will deliver packages up to five pounds in 30 minutes or less using small drones. Operators will have to obtain government and defence approvals in India before drones can be used for product deliveries in India.
Geographical or Global Positioning System (GPS) is used to trace vehicles with the help of Geo Stationary Satellites. The data from these helps locate the latitude and longitude of a vehicle to an accuracy of one meter. Geographical Information System (GIS) uses data relating to locations from databases and integrates different databases into a detailed, clear visualization with respect to a location.
Web Based Tracking is used to track consignments. Automated Guided Vehicle System is an automated materials handling system that makes a use of a magnetic or optical guidance system. Information Directed System (IDS) consists of a central computer that controls material handling equipment. ERP is integrated software that encompasses all business operations. It is used in Supply Chain Management systems and has a focus on optimizing order fulfilment and movement of goods through logistics systems. The major ERPs in use are SAP, Baan and Oracle.
However, companies face tremendous challenges in deploying technology for low resource settings such as villages. Investments in the mentioned systems are hardly justified in the face of low volumes.
Companies face the following problems when they build supply chains to villages:
i. Investments Not Justified – High investments in supply chains cannot be justified because volumes in villages are low.
ii. Lack of Physical Infrastructure – Even if technology is deployed, supplying goods over bad roads and inadequate transport remains a major challenge.
iii. Small Dealers – Since dealers are small operators, they are unwilling to invest in technology. They use manual systems for inventory control and supply.
Way # 5. Mobile-Based Payments:
Mobile-based payment is defined as the initiation and confirmation of the payment through mobile phones. Micro-payments through mobiles can make use of cash redundant. Business establishments, including small vendors and grocery traders, can accept payments by using their mobile number and Mobile Money Identifier (MMID) at the shop.
Mobile payments are a boon to villagers who otherwise store their savings in cash. They enable customers to make even small payments, which are linked to electronic wallets or savings accounts. People in rural areas can expand their markets and customer base and even buy goods online. Penetration of mobile payments may well result in reducing dependence by farmers on agents.
Mobile payments have been slow to take off in the country, but with the government move on demonetization, it is expected that a large number of non-users will acquire the habit of mobile wallets. A number of companies including established banks are offering mobile wallets in the country now.
Way # 6. 3D Printing:
3D printing or additive manufacturing is a process by which any three-dimensional object of any shape can be made or ‘printed’ just like a document on paper printers. This is achieved by an additive process whereby layers of materials are added through a 3D printer. The technology has found varied uses and benefits ranging from prototyping to making products at remote locations. 3D printers can make consumer goods and spare parts, enabling people to ‘print’ common household items rather than purchasing them from the market.
The technology can transform rural marketing, for example, by printing products on 3D printers set up by companies at common hubs that can serve villages. Birtchnell and Hoyle (2014) explain that the unique features of 3D printing make it “a useful tool for resource- constrained communities to draw on and this is demonstrable in the diverse array of projects.”
Agriculture machinery spare parts, health care products, items of daily use can be distributed directly to villages, reducing logistics costs. Companies such as Stratasys and Optomec already have partnerships in India and other companies are also making investments in India. Major players active in India 3D printing market are Altem Technologies, Imaginarium, Brahma 3, KCbots and JGroup Robotics.
Rajvanshi (2014) writes that 3D printing technologies and desktop manufacturing have an ability to transform the rural landscape by providing products even at remote locations. It is quite possible that this will give rise to small scale manufacturing units in rural areas producing goods under license from large companies. It is expected that 3D machines will become cheap in the future and find wide applications in rural areas. Companies can get over their distribution problems through this technology.
Way # 7. E-Commerce:
E-commerce, or making commercial transactions electronically on the Internet, helps rural marketing in two ways – getting goods to remote markets and selling village produced goods to large urban markets. Large e-commerce firms such as Amazon, eBay and SnapDeal already carry a large number of goods sourced from small towns and villages. They are also building distribution hubs in towns.
SnapDeal has tied up with the National Institute of Electronics & Information Technology, Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, to train small and medium businesses on digital marketing. The company works with manufacturers to help them produce goods acceptable to the Indian market on the basis of intelligence gathered through data analytics, reports Business Standard (2016). It helps plan production cycles on the basis of predictive demand forecasts and customize products for specific consumer segments.
ShopClues hosts traditional crafts of Indian minorities with IndiMarket. It carries Rajasthani furnishings, Lucknowi chikan work, dokra craft and many others in its attempt to promote the ‘Make in India’ vision. IndiMarket has a large variety of items including fashion, footwear, home and kitchen, sports and other categories from different states of the country.
ShopClues works with government bodies and associations of SMEs and indigenous artisans and promote rural entrepreneurship. It trains artisans and has ties with NIFT, National Institute of Design and Indian Institute of Packaging. Artisans sell under the USTAAD banner and offer a large collection of authentic ethnic products.
To succeed, e-commerce firms will have to invest in supply chains to villages. They also have to keep costs down, because serving rural markets is usually very expensive. However, a two-way supply of information and goods can only be good for developing rural markets.
Way # 8. E-Governance:
E-governance or electronic governance is the application of ICT for delivering government services to citizens. It is of great importance in rural areas since these areas have remained cut-off from the development process for decades. It consists of exchange of information, integration of various government records and services and communication between government and citizens. Through e-governance, government services are made available to citizens in a convenient, efficient and transparent manner. As rural people get better access to government schemes and services, they can be empowered as consumers as well.
According to its website, the government has formulated guiding principles for reforming services through technology are:
i. Form Simplification and Field Reduction – Forms to be made simple and user friendly.
ii. Online Applications and Tracking – Online applications and tracking of their status to be provided.
iii. Online Repositories – Use of online repositories, for example, for certificates, educational degrees, identity documents and so on. So that citizens are not required to submit these documents in physical form.
iv. Integration of Services and Platforms – Integration of services and platforms, e.g., Aadhaar platform of UIDAI, payment gateway, Mobile Seva platform, sharing of data through open Application Programming Interfaces (API) and middleware such as National State Service Delivery Gateway to facilitate integrated and interoperable service delivery to citizens and businesses.
The government has set up the National Institute of Smart Governance to assist in e-governance. It also offers a diploma on the subject with Sikkim Manipal University.
Some of the initiatives to improve rural governance are given below:
The Ministry of Panchayati Raj has undertaken e-Panchayat Project to introduce and strengthen e-governance in the country. E-Panchayat is an initiative for the rural sector providing software solutions for automation of Gram Panchayat functions. It offers services such as birth and death registrations, issuance of certificates, statistics, house tax, issue of licenses, fee collection and so on.
The e-Panchayat Enterprise Suite has been planned with 10 core common applications and GIS layer module, which includes Local Government Directory, Area Profiler to gather socio-economic details, Plan Plus for decentralized and participatory planning, PriaSoft, a Panchayat Accounting software, ActionSoft for monitoring government works implementation, a National Asset Directory, Service Plus to facilitate service delivery, social audit and a National Panchayat Portal. Through e-Panchayat, rural India will be given access to the basic services and government interaction. E-governance, online resources and digital literacy can be achieved along with easy delivery of services through this initiative.
The e-Seva portals of state governments provide information on government schemes, citizen services such as Aadhaar and RTI, disaster management, bill payments, form downloads and much else. It was initiated with an aim of providing one-stop service by state governments.
E-Seva is a transparent service which brings government closer to the people. E-Forms, E-Filing and E-Payments are being provided by some states on their e-Seva sites. However, the project still has to be fine-tuned as all states have not implemented e-Seva and services are erratic in some areas.
Bhoomi is the project of online delivery and management of land records in Karnataka. It provides transparency in land records management with citizen services and takes discretion away from civil servants at operating levels. The Revenue Department in Karnataka, with the technical assistance from. National Informatics Centre (NIC), Bangalore, has built the BHOOMI system to provide services throughout the state. Already 20 million records of land ownership of 6.7 million farmers in the state have been computerized, according to its website.
As more government services are made available to rural consumers, it will lead to betterment of their lives. This will bring them into the development process and increase their quality of life.
Way # 9. Empowerment of Local Communities:
Community empowerment refers to the process of enabling communities to increase control over their lives. Village communities refer to people in village clusters who share common interests, concerns or identities. ICTs have the promise of connecting remote villages and delivering services that have long been unavailable to them.
These technologies can also bring about development of villages while empowering rural people. Communication technologies can deliver up-to-date information on practically all matters of importance to them. Banking and entertainment can also be delivered through these new technologies, which empowers the people.
Empowerment consists of- (a) learning, recognizing the skills, knowledge and expertise that people contribute, (b) equality, or challenging discrimination and oppressive practices within communities, (c) participation, facilitating democratic involvement by people in the issues which affect their lives based, (d) cooperation, or working together to identify and implement action, encouraging networking and connections between communities and organizations and (e) social justice, enabling people to claim their human rights, meet their needs and have greater control over the decision-making processes which affect their lives.
ICT introduces transparency, accountability and administrative efficiency of rural institutions and improves the efficiency and responsiveness of rural service delivery. It can also facilitate interaction between rural citizens and the government.
Since ICTs facilitate the flow of information and knowledge, it is a critical tool to tackle development issues leading to social transformation. It has the potential to improve living standards of people in remote areas through better access to markets, health and education. Government services can be delivered to villages to strengthen rural livelihood opportunities.
ICT helps in providing support to local governance as well. Rural communities can seek their rights, entitlements and various schemes and extension services. Demand-driven information and communication services can be provided and thus reduce the opportunity costs of rural folk. ICT can plug the gaps between the people and the government.
Some of the initiatives for empowerment are described below:
a. Information Village
a. Information Village:
The Information Villages project was started in 1998 in Pondicherry by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation. The project links 10 villages near Pondicherry into an information network connected to the Internet with the goal to develop community ownership and collective action around new technologies, keeping with a ‘pro-poor, pro-nature, pro-women’ approach to development.
The project uses a hub-and-spoke model, with a central information centre (hub) connected to knowledge centres in the surrounding villages (spokes). Volunteers, at least half of them women, are selected by the community to run the knowledge centres in the villages. The project won the Stockholm Challenge award for extending the benefits of information technology to rural villages.
E-choupal is an initiative of ITC Limited, which has built village Internet kiosks in villages. Farmers can access information related to weather, market price, risk management, information on scientific farm practices, farm prices and so on. They can also sell their produce and buy their requirements through e-choupal.
Several NGOs operate in villages with varying reach. TARAhaat is an initiative of an NGO Development Alternatives (DA) and its rural marketing arm Technology and Action for Rural Advancement (TARA). TARAhaat, which works on a franchise model, provides access to villages such as commodity prices, health facilities, land records, local development programmes, business opportunities, jobs, matrimonials and so on.
Users can shop for farm inputs such as seeds, machinery, spare parts and household items, now becoming popular in rural markets, such as bicycles, scooters and refrigerators. However, TARAhaat has met with limited success. Another NGO, Drishtee sustainable communities operates in UP, Bihar and Assam. Its website says that they are active in 6000 villages and provide vocational skills, rural BPO, government services, health, insurance, e-commerce, micro-finance and so on. It helps rural communities by encouraging entrepreneurs to manufacture apparels and other goods.
Such e-initiatives help in governance and rural development. ICT has a great role to play in rural health care and education, which in turn help development of rural markets.
Way # 10. Consumer Engagement:
Customer engagement is the process of building, nurturing and managing relationships with customers. Traditional questionnaire base research does not quite work with villagers. Companies have to use alternate methods such as ethnographic research or engage consumers through SHGs. A way to supplement physical engagement with consumers is through apps and social media sites. Conducting product trials, seeking suggestions from customers, obtaining feedback—these tasks can be done by deploying ICT.
However, technology cannot replace physical intervention. Villagers must find a reason to engage with companies or to download the app. It is up to companies to build apps that actually solve some rural problems so that people are motivated to engage with companies, giving their suggestions or feedback. Many companies and the government have developed apps that provide information in agriculture and marketing.
i. AgriMarket – AgriMarket mobile app can be used to get the market price of crops in the markets within 50 km of the device’s location.
ii. Bhuvan Hailstorm – A mobile app to capture crop loss due to hailstorm. This mobile app helps to photograph a field with latitude and longitude, with sowing date and date of likely harvest.
iii. Crop Insurance – Crop Insurance mobile app can be used to calculate insurance premium for notified crops based on area, coverage amount and loan amount. It can also be used to get details of normal sum insured, extended sum insured, premium details and subsidy information of any notified crop in any notified area.
iv. Farm-O-Pedia – Developed by CDAC, Mumbai, the application is a multilingual Android application targeted for rural Gujarat. The app is useful to get information on crops, weather and so on.
v. Kisan Suvidha – An omnibus mobile app developed to help farmers by providing relevant information to them quickly.
vi. Krishi Ville – An Android based mobile application which provides information to farmers related to their agricultural activities.
vii. Mandi Trades – Lists government crop price updates, provides information for farmers in remote villages developed by Jayalaxmi Agro Tech.
viii. mKisan – This app enables farmers to obtain advisories and information by experts and government officials at different levels.
ix. mPower Social – Offers simple veterinary advice for cattle owners.
x. Pashu Poshan – NDDB has developed an android-based software that can be used on phones as well as tablets, for managing animals.
xi. Pusa Krishi – An app by ICAR-IARI, it promotes Agribusiness Ventures through technology development and commercialization.
xii. Rainbow Agri – Connects local buyers and sellers.
xiii. Shetkari Masik – The Android app for Shetkari magazine.
xiv. Smart Agri – An app that communicates with underground sensors to deliver easy-to- understand data, such as soil moisture and mineral levels, to farmers’ mobile devices.
It is seen from the list that most apps being developed for rural areas concern agricultural information and advice. These apps have to find ways of becoming sustainable. Though they provide valuable information, companies have to think further and devise innovative ways to engage their potential customers in rural areas. Like apps in urban areas, they have to help remote villages to find transport, entertainment, or consumables. Only then will such interventions succeed in the long run.
Way # 11. Data Analytics:
Technology helps by deploying big data analysis. Big data and analytics refer to tools and methodologies to analyze data that is being generated by digital processes and social media exchanges at all times. As more rural areas get telecom and data services, people will use these services for searches and communication. This will generate data that, through analytics, will give insights into rural consumer behaviour like never before.
Analysis of big data means analyzing very large datasets from different sources and the tools and procedures used to manipulate and analyze them. So far few companies have used data analytics in rural marketing, but penetration of ICTs will generate data which companies can use to decipher consumer needs and behaviour. Computer algorithms are able to detect patterns, trends and correlations in diverse data and have predictive capability. Improved real-time connectivity helps in data-driven efficiency in transport, logistics, marketing and agriculture. This can contribute to the economic and social development of rural areas. For this, companies will have to invest in data collecting, storage, processing and analysis from diverse rural areas.
As more people in rural areas use the Internet or phones, a huge amount of data will be generated every day. Using GIS, customer engagement can be better designed. Initiatives taken by telecom companies are helping in expanding Internet spread. Google is expanding Internet in villages through its Loon project and through its Saathi project in India.
Way # 12. Crowd-Funding:
Crowd-funding, or P2P lending in the rural context means the process of raising money through contributions of a large number of people for starting a small business. In rural areas these businesses could be for instance, buying a buffalo or starting a small grocery store. Anyone can participate by making a small donation. Some sites facilitate loans and small contributions can be made to complete the loan required, which is returned with a nominal interest, which can then be re-invested again in another rural entrepreneur.
As the Kiva website explains, “In rural India, there are countless individuals [who] have no financial options. Every day they struggle to make ends meet, with only a small amount of money standing between them and a sustainable future.” A loan helps them become producers and become self-dependent. Companies selling expensive goods such as deep freezers, generators and refrigerators can participate in rural areas through crowd-funding. However, under RBI guidelines, loans made to such organizations repay lenders at least 3 years after a loan is made.
Though there are a number of crowd-funding platforms giving loans to urban dwellers, Kiva and Rang De platforms are focused on rural lending.
Kiva partners with organizations that reach remote, underserved communities. Its goal is to give loans that are tailored to help borrowers change their lives. In this way, it is different from micro-lending. Kiva gives loans that can support excluded and vulnerable groups such as widowed women and physically challenged individuals, improve drinking water and sanitation and promote solar and renewable sources of energy. Kiva is an international non-profit organization based in San Francisco, connecting people through lending. All the loans made through Kiva go to funding loans, as it covers costs through donations and grants.
ii. Rang De:
Rangde.org is an Internet-based peer-to-peer micro-lending platform that facilitates micro, low-cost loans to rural entrepreneurs across India. Over 93 percent of borrowers have been women. This not-for-profit crowd-funding portal has attracted more than 10,000 investors and disbursed more than 52,000 loans for people who are usually overlooked by banks and financial institutions.
It works through field partners in several states of India. Loans are given at interest rates between 4.5 percent, to 10 percent per year for collateral free loans. Rang De gets a nominal cut of 2 percent on all the loans repaid by borrowers. Led by Smita Ram and N.K. Ram, an Ashoka fellow, Rang De is supported by Tata Trust.