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Geeks who make a difference

MIT's 2010 list of '35 outstanding men and women under 35' features Indians who have used technology to help those on the periphery of society. Shalini Singh writes.

india Updated: Sep 04, 2010 21:26 IST
Shalini Singh
Shalini Singh
Hindustan Times

With a poster of a tilling farmer behind him, Rikin Gandhi, 29, just back from speaking at a TEDx event in Nagpur, looks very much at ease in the CEO's chair in his Delhi office. Gandhi, the founder of Digital Green (DG) — an organisation that trains farmers in farming practices — was chosen last week as one of the top young innovators under 35 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

For someone aiming to tour the skies, life literally brought Gandhi down to earth. After a trip to India with his friend who set up a bio-diesel unit in Maharashtra, US-born-and-raised Gandhi wanted to stay back in his home country that gives the world the "second highest farm output in the world".

He gave up his ambition of becoming an astronaut and joined Microsoft's Research Centre in Bangalore. "I wanted to use my technology background to see how it could provide sustainable development. Technology doesn't have to be fancy — a piece of paper or what the dabbawallas have done in Mumbai is an example of that," he says.

So Gandhi chose to focus on farmers with small-holdings and partner with local communities to spread knowledge to farmers. He did this with the help of volunteers in making videos of their innovative ways of farming. Any leaves out of Krishi Darshan's book?

"That is a more top down approach, we wanted farmers to help farmers. So after making the video, we take their feedback in how to improve it." DG, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, currently operates in Jharkhand, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka.

The modus operandi is simple: every 8-10 minute long video spanning subjects like paddy cultivation, livestock, seed germination etc has three elements — a farmer, a camera person who is a local, and a facilitator — all trained by DG in identifying topics, simple storyboarding and filming using handy-cams. The clips are then stitched together, shown to different subject specialists and finally disseminated at a viewing cost of Rs 2-4 each.

"We keep the videos localised in terms of language, socio-economic background of the audience and topics specific to their region," Gandhi says.

From January 2009 when he launched DG with one video, they now have 500 videos documenting 300 practices reaching out to more than 15,000 farmers in India.

Gandhi, whose family hails from Vadodra in Gujarat has been in India since 2006 and is pragmatic about the changes he's witnessing.

"We have a growing middle-class that's increasingly detached from the sources of production they are consuming, while in the US, people are now thinking about the sources of their food and how it impacts their life," says the young entrepreneur who has a degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from MIT and a bachelor's in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University.

"The Indian middle-class is focussing on consuming but they have tremendous power to engage and affect policy. There's a slow food movement taking place in the US and people are getting increasingly health conscious."

What about India learning from that? "It's only when people go through something themselves will they reflect on what to do about it," he smiles.

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