Digital Green founder Rikin Gandhi, 31, an MIT graduate and former pilot.
Jatrimani Mahanta, 38, has a social networking profile that features regular updates about her work life, her latest achievements and new projects that she has undertaken.
Every time she turns to her page, her profile picture gives Jatrimani, a farmer and high-school graduate from a remote village in Orissa a thrill.
Jatrimani’s profile is on Farmerbook, a nine-month-old social networking platform for farmers set up by New Delhi-based non-governmental organisation Digital Green.
In her village of 120 houses with no school the mother of two tends a 4-acre farm with her husband. Until a few months ago, problems she faced with her crop or questions she wanted to ask could only be referred to fellow villagers. Now, on Farmerbook, she is connected to 2 lakh farmers across six states — Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Kanataka, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.
A video showing her adopting new practices in her fields, now uploaded on the site, has already been viewed nearly 6,000 times, on Farmerbook, YouTube and digitalgreen.org, the website of the non-governmental organisation behind the social networking platform.
Her video shows her adopting new techniques in her fields — techniques taught to her by local NGO Varrat (Voluntary Association for Rural Reconstruction and Appropriate Technology). It was through Varrat that Jatrimani was introduced to Farmerbook.
The Farmerbook profile page of Abanti Sethy, from Keonjhar, Orissa.
A novel idea
Digital Green and Farmerbook were founded by former pilot Rikin Gandhi, 31. Born and raised in the US, he studied aerospace engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, qualified as a pilot, then gave it all up after visiting rural India on a proposed business venture.
That proposed business was biofuel, and when the venture failed, Gandhi decided to stay back as part of Microsoft Research India’s Technology for Emerging Markets team, a project aimed at understanding whether there was a role for technology among small-scale farming communities.
“Our failed biodiesel venture gave me my first glimpse of the potential for sharing knowledge among farmers,” says Gandhi. The NGO began by touring villages to create video footage of new practices being taught to farmers. The videos sparked interest not just among farmers but also among local NGOs and government bodies and soon Digital Green was building a network of shared digital resources.
“Whenever we screened the videos for other farmers, in NGO or panchayat offices, we were asked who is this farmer and where is she from,” says Gandhi. “Since we were already keeping a manual record of the basic details, we thought it would be nice to create an online platform to share the information.”
A farmer’s link shared by Rikin Gandhi on Farmerbook.
The NGO currently has a team of 62, including software engineers and communications experts. Their projects are funded by agencies from around the world, including the US-based Ford Foundation and certain Indian government bodies.
Currently, the farmers do not have individual internet connections, but activists help them log on to Farmerbook at meetings.
Most of the updates on Farmerbook take the form of short video clips that last between five and ten minutes.
For those without access to Farmerbook, Digital Green conducts screenings in public spaces, touring villages across the six states where they operate and Uttar Pradesh, with their cache of videos.
So far, the 2,600 videos on the platform, created across seven states, in 20 languages and local dialects, have been screened in 24,000 villages and viewed a total of 7,000 times online.
Digital Green’s true mission, says Gandhi, is to link farmers with other farmers, urban enthusiasts and even the consumer, to create a larger community that shares knowledge and applauds innovation, thus boosting productivity and spurring interest in agriculture. Accordingly, Digital Green, since its inception in 2006, has also been touring seven states, creating core teams of two or three farmers in each village and training them to shoot and edit the short videos.
“Farmers and even urban Indians can watch these videos online and adopt new farming practices, whether in kitchen gardens or in the fields,” says Gandhi.
In the cities, Digital Green is organising workshops where farmers can discuss their practices and teach city-dwellers urban farming. The first such meet was held at Studio X in Mumbai last month. “We are aiming to connect urban consumers with the people and experiences of rural India,” says Gandhi.
“The farming community, their long-term interest and their confidence, are affected by the broader perceptions and culture of our society. Amid a nascent but growing movement toward sustainable and local foods in cities, it makes sense to screen films that are relevant to and will connect the two groups — essentially sending out the message that anyone can be their own farmer.”