It is not everyday that you see a movie playing out in real life. Rikin Gandhi much like the protagonist of the movie Swadesh chose rural India over the space program in the US. RikinGandhi, is the CEO of Digital Green, which is helping farmers in the developing world through production and dissemination of educative videos. Digital Green produces and distributes community centric, locally relevant videos about best agricultural practices. He was recently included in the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Technology Review list of 35 global innovators called TR 35. Rikin spoke to Yourstory about his journey as a social entrepreneur.
Tell us about your journey from being an Aeronautical Engineer from MIT to working with farmers in rural India.
I wanted to join the US space program and so I did my bachelor’s in computer science from Carnegie Mellon and masters in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from MIT. I wanted to enlist in the US air force to eventually join the space program. I read about so many people who travelled to space, saw earth from up above and wondered why there was poverty and war on this beautiful planet. Many of them after coming back to earth went on to become public school teachers or farmers in the Midwest, this was their way of connecting with people. Stories like these inspired me to reconsider my desire to join the space program and around the same time I found out about a college friend who was working on a biodiesel venture in Maharashtra and decided to join the project. I experienced rural India for the first time and learnt more about the challenges faced by farmers in India. This inspired me to do something in this sector
How did the idea of Digital Green come about?
Microsoft Research had set up a lab in Bangalore to look at technologies for emerging countries in sectors such as microfinance, education, agriculture and study about how technology can be used to improve the lives of people. Digital Green was initially incubated in the Microsoft Research India lab. The idea was to use relevant videos to educate the farmers on scientific methods of farming which inturn will help them increase their yield resulting in prosperity.
What does Digital Green do?
Producing and distributing locally relevant videos involving the local community. The videos are by farmers, of farmers, and for farmers. We work with NGOs which play an important role in identifying “resource persons” from the community who can produce the videos and to have the subject-matter expertise for ensuring the quality of the videos, but the videos are produced by the community. They identify topics of interest and make short videos of local farmers. Distribution also happens through community, some of the community members go back to their respective villages they use pico projectors which are the size of mobile phone to small groups. These groups come together on a regular basis. It could be about sowing or nursery raising or weeding based on the season and it is targeted and scheduled to be beneficial to the group.
Has this proved effective?
At Microsoft Research, we conducted a one and year half long evaluation using a control group which was imparted education using traditional methods against digital green. In the group where the traditional system was used we saw that 10-15 % are applying them on the field where as through the digital green method it is between 70-80 %. You can access this and our progress, geographies we are working, number of farmers who are part of this through data available on the website.
How do you want to scale this?
We started working with one NGO outside of Bangalore and now we work across 4 states. We have received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and we want to reach out to 1,200 villages over a 3 year period. We have built a network of NGOs and community workers and want to amplify the work some NGOs are doing to spread awareness about best agricultural practices. We want to develop a technology platform where we can share data and videos.
At the village level is it run by volunteers?
We have a core team that interacts with different NGOs and resource persons from the community and train them on video production and content. The making of the videos and the distribution is done by farmers who are part of the local community. They are compensated for their work through small user-fees by the farmers watching the videos.
What are your future plans for Digital Green?
We want to expand in India and reach out to many farmers. We have built a technology platform with IVR so that farmers will be able to interact with others and ask questions to the experts and want to scale up this platform. You can access the current IVR platform by calling 1800 103 9111. We also have plans to take this technology to Africa.
What technology do you use for your videos and online platform?
We use standard SD-memory card-based video cameras for capturing the
videos (Canon FS200: http://www.amazon.com/Canon-Memory-Camcorder-Advanced-Silver/dp/B001OI2VXG) and we've been migrating to a lower-cost Kodak video camera (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B002HOPUPC). For screening the videos, we use battery-operated pico projectors. The pico projectors that we use are currently not available on the market, but they cost ~US$ 150. The pico projectors have a 2 hour battery, 1 GB of hard disk memory, and have a micro SD card slot for storing videos. They also have an in-built speaker, but we connect them to battery-operated external speakers for better audio quality/volume.
When it comes to software we use COCO.COCO is a highly sophisticated data input system that forms the base of Digital Green's software stack. The creation of this system was inspired by persistent and at times debilitating issues at the field level, specifically technical issues in gathering and storing information. To alleviate these problems, Digital Green's software team conceived of a highly flexible and robust alternative that sought to make information gathering and input at Digital Green less error prone, fast, and resilient to persistent data connectivity issues in remote locations.
Most applicable to NGOs with a sizeable field operation, COCO's singular unique selling proposition is the ability to take the application offline in low and limited bandwidth locations, with uninterrupted usage in the browser. COCO is designed to support up to 100,000 users located anywhere in the world and only requires internet connectivity whenever a user is ready to synchronize their data with our global repository. Built as a robust standalone application in the Internet browser, COCO requires no additional software installation or maintenance. The system is designed in an open-source, customizable framework that can be deployed without the need of IT/engineering staff.
Analytics System : Analytics System forms the second layer on Digital Green software stack. Built on the COCO foundation, the Analytics System provides day-to-day business intelligence on field operations, performance targets, and basic ROI (return on investment) metrics relevant to the organization. The system is freely available and accessible online -- by clicking on the Analytics dropdown in the menu bar -- without the need of onerous technical infrastructure and expensive commerical licenses. We welcome NGOs willing to reuse and repurpose this system as per their requirements.
YourStory thanks Rikin for sharing his thoughts with us .To learn more about Digital Green and view the videos and data click here.