Marigold Farmers Adopt Technology and Maximise Profits

Travelling through western Maharashtra recently, I could not help but notice the contrast between the villages here and those in the eastern belt of Bihar and Jharkhand. A greater variety of crops, abundant fields, and progressive farming practices – the differences were many. I was told that my first impressions may not hold true for the entire state, but certainly do for the belt containing the villages of Adhegaon, Alegaon, and Chandaj (Adhegaon cluster). This region has a long history of vegetable cultivation. Moreover, various private companies selling seeds, fertilizer, fungicides, and the likes often conduct demos in this area – making farmers here pioneers in adopting new inputs. But is that all, I asked myself? Through field interactions, I learned that there was more to the success than obvious – collective action was an important facilitator. The farmers in these villages form a close-knit community with regular (and transparent) information sharing amongst each other. For farming, they have formed a WhatsApp group on which they exchange information on what crops to grow, what seeds to buy, what fertilizers to use, and how to harvest. In the dense maze of private companies and the government selling/promoting a variety of inputs, often this peer learning WhatsApp platform helps in reducing the information clutter. When it comes to selling, these farmers normally patronize with specific traders, sometimes aggregating produce with a small group of other farmers. Farming in this cluster is a profitable business but has the potential to increase farmer’s income even more – especially the smallholders.With funding from the British Asian Trust, Digital Green is leading the implementation of the LOOP project in Maharashtra, in partnership with Mann Deshi Foundation. Through this, participating farmers can:

    • aggregate produce more effectively by including a larger number of farmers, and therefore greater quantities of the crop for sale


  • access newer markets that could potentially help them earn more with the same produce

During my time in the village, I saw farmers growing bananas, pomegranates, okra, watermelon and most magnificent of all – marigold. With the festive season right around the corner, marigolds were in full bloom, ready to flood the markets. At that time the price of the crop increases from INR 10 per kg to about INR 100 per kg, making it quite lucrative for farmers. The price, of course, depends on the market, and the key to realizing a good profit is information on the rates in different markets – and this is exactly what the LOOP app facilitates. I learned that before being part of the LOOP project, farmers normally went to the Pune flower market where they got a rate of about INR 45 – 50 per kg during peak season. This is almost half of their INR 80 per kilo earning from a four-day sale of flowers in Mumbai through LOOP. With an additional net profit of INR 350,000 from the sale, farmers were more than thrilled to be a part of the program. In fact, one among those farmers chose not sell his flowers with the others, and realized a price of INR 45 per kg only, losing out on the additional profit. From this experience, now these farmers are tapping markets for other crops they grow. Recently, they made a sale of inferior quality raw bananas in one of Mumbai’s chips making value chain, instead of the Panghat market where they usually went.

Despite this success, the experience in the Adhegaon cluster raises some critical questions. Are these simply some preliminary windfall gains – just a matter of chance? Or can farmers maintain a consistent increase in their income? If yes, who will ultimately bear the burden of the rise in prices? What if the aggregator or transport provider, in the long run, becomes another middleman in the market? Will grading improve the farmers’ chances to increase their incomes even further? What additional value-added services can help these smallholder farmers? Can we digitalize payments so as to reduce financial risks in large transactions? These are some important questions that Digital Green is working on. While the long-term success of the project is still to be proven in Maharashtra, the Adhegaon cluster is certainly showing a positive impact in the short term.

Eager for Video-Based Extension

Last week my colleagues and I were at the Andhra Pradesh AgTech Summit 2017 organized by Government of Andhra Pradesh, Confederation of Indian Industries(CII), Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Dalberg. The AgTech Summit held on 15th, 16th, & 17th November, 2017 in Vishakhapatnam brought together various agriculture technology companies from across the world to share and deliberate on the theme of “Progressive Farmer, Smart Farming”, highlighting various technologies that are currently being used or have potential to be used in agriculture – ranging from the use of drone, hydroponics, data-driven analytics to various apps and extension technologies. The audience comprised of farmers, students, scientists, policy-makers, and thought-leaders.

Digital Green was invited as a partner to the Department of Agriculture, Government of Andhra Pradesh to display our unique video-enabled extension approach at the AgriTech exhibition. Although small compared to other agri-technology companies exhibiting, the size of our stall at the exhibition was no barrier for the throngs of farmers and students who were keen to learn more about our community-based extension approach.

The humble pico projector that enables extension agents we train to share best practices in agriculture with smallholder farmers in the field played a key role in drawing an impressive footfall to our stall at this global event.

Through 2 pico projectors, we played four community videos in Telugu language, on natural farming best practices. The videos acted as a magnet, especially for farmers. One farmer would stop to view the video and another farmer would follow suit. Gradually there was a small gathering of about 10-12 farmers watching the video and they would stay to ask about the actors in the video – farmers like themselves – and about the practice showcased.

Satyanarayana, a farmer as well as a milk aggregator, from Kottakota village in Vishakhapatnam district in Andhra Pradesh, where our intervention is yet to reach, was eager to use such videos to learn best practices and apply them himself as well as motivate the nearly hundred farmers that he interacts with on a day-to-day basis. APtechSummit Another farmer M.V. Subba Rao from East Godavari district has been looking for literature and relevant information on zero-budget natural farming and pointed out that Digital Green extension system will be helpful to farmers in his community. Gundra Ambayya, a smallholder farmer from V.Kothapalli village in East Godavari district requested that we transfer the videos on natural farming methods onto his mobile phone – which we did with pleasure. While watching a video on natural farming method for cultivating tomatoes, one farmer asked us “Why did they put a stick as a support for the tomato plant?” He wanted to watch more such videos on vegetable cultivation. Many Agriculture Sciences students were also fascinated by the videos and agreed that it’s a good way to reach many farmers.

This experience reiterated our faith in the farmer-to-farmer learning process and community-driven extension system. Our model of community-based videos supporting extension outreach is completely by the community, for the community. Since 2008, we have facilitated the production of more than 5,000 locally relevant videos in more than 50 languages. We have done this in collaboration with our grassroots partners and rural farmers themselves, allowing farmers to share knowledge with one another.

In those three days, my colleagues and I have explained the concepts of our video-enabled extension approach, many times over to the teeming farmers and delegates.

Farmers, students, and Summit delegates were keen to know when Digital Green services would reach their villages, whether we have an app to access these videos and if there are crop specific natural farming videos and whether they could watch these videos on their mobile phones. They wanted to know if we could share the phone number of the farmers featured in the videos and if we could train them on video production and dissemination. On reflecting I’m struck by the tremendous urgency in our farmers to learn about new methods and technologies to improve their practice. The farming community, in general, is vexed with current production systems in which input cost is higher than the value they realize from the output, leaving them disoriented with their occupation as a farmer – despite the hard work and dedication. Farmers are desperately looking for more sustainable production systems. This is where extension services become most crucial. The curiosity among farmers as seen in our interaction at the exhibition stall point to the fact that farmers are also demanding better extension services. On that note, We believe, strengthening extension systems is an essential first step in addressing the crisis in agriculture.

We are proud to share here that Digital Green has been working in Andhra Pradesh since before bifurcation of the state and since November 2015 we’ve been working in all 13 districts with the Department of Ag Govt. of AP.

Our partnership got a shot in the arm with the signing of a tripartite Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Rikin Gandhi, Executive Director, Digital Green and B.Rajashekar, IAS, Special Chief Secretary, Govt of AP and Hari Jawaharlal (IAS), CEO, Rythu Sadhikara Samstha & Commissioner – Dept of Agriculture, Govt of AP for the new BMGF supported Digital Innovations Project in the state. The project was launched formally on the 15th of November, 2017 in the presence of the Honourable Vice President Muppavarapu Venkaiah Naidu, Honourable Chief Minister, Nara Chandrababu Naidu & Minister for Agriculture (Govt. of AP), Somireddy Chandramohan Reddy.



(Additional inputs from Pritam Nanda, T.Surender & V.Kamalakar)

Human Centered Design – from the eyes of a self-taught designer

The first time that I heard the term ‘human-centered design’, was when I was doing my PhD and felt that it was another one of those buzzwords – what is being done is simplistic, but is made to sound complex. I did not know then that I would end up using it extensively at my work with Digital Green, and quite successfully too. What has encouraged me to write this series of blog on HCD is that I have used it for over 2 years in my work, which has given me enough time to reflect and make my own meaning of the process. Through these blogs, I capture some of that journey.

Scaling-up and HCD at Digital Green

At Digital Green, a lot of work is centred on developing pieces of training for field-level workers in producing localized videos on agriculture, health and nutrition, and showing those to rural communities. The videos are shown in small groups using a battery-operated pico projector and facilitated by field-level workers. As we scaled, our concern, similar to several organizations’, was maintaining the quality of our training. As we hire more and more trainers, how do we make sure that all of them are training field-level workers effectively? As trainers give more and more training, how do we know what field-level workers are actually learning to an optimal level?

We were looking to develop an innovative training system, where there was some amount of standardization, assurance of quality and learning for the ‘users’ – the field level workers. Several ideas were discussed, pilot projects proposed, strategy documents were written, ‘trial’ training videos made…but somehow things were not moving, and they did not seem quite right. We soon found that there was little space for iterations because there was a confidence that what we are proposing after brainstorming in our office conference room, is going to work with the field-level workers. Thankfully, we decided to change our approach.

Notes from brainstorming sessions


What worked for us to get it off the ground

I am a participatory researcher, and when my colleague introduced me to IDEO’s human-centered design approach, it immediately clicked. We extensively used their field guide to help us design our training system. But before I get to how we used it and what came out of it, I want to talk about how we even got started with using it.

One of the biggest questions about some methods, tools and techniques is that if they have been proven to work, then why are more and more people not adopting it? The answer is often the obvious one – it simply does not suit their context and environment. Similarly, every non-profit and its systems might not lend themselves to successfully using HCD, howsoever much they believe in its impact. In our case, it worked for us. The reason for it was a mix of two main ingredients: Attitude and Resources.


  • Being open to change. Innovation is the cornerstone of HCD. Even if you are “participatory” in your regular work, but not open to creating something completely different, HCD might not work at all. It is an uncomfortable position. We all tend to get used to our regular ways of working (even if they are inefficient or not as effective). In organizations, even a small and simple-looking change might require changing hard-set systems and processes. If an organization is intrigued to try it and make it successful, it has to be open to changes at several levels. Innovation cannot happen in isolation. Being open to change was what helped us wade through the murky waters of innovation.
  • Being quick to change and iterate. You cannot want to be innovative and yet be bureaucratic in your way of working. The two just do not support each other. Non-profits can sometimes be more bureaucratic than government agencies, members can pick apart issues more than seasoned academicians, and decisions might never be taken, agreements never reached. At DG, we kept a pretty small team, which was able to work independently, throw away bad ideas, create iterations of prototypes and move on. We committed ourselves to be open to what we learn, and change as we need. This wasn’t without serious arguments on viewpoints of different team members though! It’s funny how quickly we start loving our ideas, and feel such a pain when we figure that it not working. But things which are not working… throw away we must!


  • Tenacity to keep trying even after failing several times. Though this might sound like an attitude, it is not just about having a belief in innovation and keeping an open mindset. It is also to do with funding. How many non-profits have funding that allows them to try and fail? Then try again and fail? It is such an oft-discussed topic that I can probably add nothing new. But, after all, with project targets always chasing you, how many times can you fail? We, luckily, had an empathetic donor, who was happy for us to innovate, who wasn’t asking us why we were failing, but rather what we failed at and how we addressed it. I doubt that without such support, we could have tried being innovative.
  • Right human resources. Now, I am not a trained human-centered designer. But I am trained in qualitative and participatory research. Our team also consisted of people who had done IDEO’s online course and we had required subject experts. I am not entirely sure how successful it would have been with an internal team which just tried to follow the guide. There is a lot of stuff written by scholars and practitioners on how participatory methods and training can be treated by researchers/trainers as a technical process and not an empowering approach. The same can hold true for HCD as well. The’s guide does focus a lot on ‘Mindsets’, before it gets down to ‘Methods’, presumably to help people not fall into that same trap. It also suggests building an interdisciplinary team. But, like funding, several non-profits suffer from a lack of good trained human resource. For us, getting the right people together helped like nothing else – a team which knows which are the right methods in which situation, to get to a workable solution.

With these four main things in place, we started on our HCD research. What are the things that worked for you and your team? What do you think about settings and contexts that support HCD?

A Country on the Cusp of a Digital Revolution in Agricultural Development

Last month, I was in Dhaka, Bangladesh with my colleagues hosting an event on “Exploring Agriculture Innovations in Bangladesh to Improve Food Security” on behalf of Feed the Future’s Developing Local Extension Capacity (DLEC) program, which Digital Green leads in collaboration with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), CARE International (CARE) and the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS). Bangladesh is one of the countries in which DLEC is operating to measurably improve extension programs, policies and service delivery by creating locally tailored, partnership-based solutions and by mobilizing active communities of practice to scale this work. The event in Dhaka was one such community event, and invited representatives from development, research, donors, government and the private sector with an interest in leveraging (mostly digital) technology to strengthen the agricultural extension system in Bangladesh. The number and caliber of attendees exceeded our expectations, and the level of dialogue about and enthusiasm for digital innovations was inspiring. This event made it clear to me that there’s a real opportunity to transform extension in Bangladesh.

I asked myself what is it about Bangladesh’s enabling environment that makes it so ready for this digital revolution? According to the 2016 analysis that DLEC conducted of the extension and advisory services environment in the country, “information and communication technologies (ICTs) and digitization are already viewed [by key actors in the country] as important tools to extending extension’s reach.” Furthermore, the government has introduced initiatives such as Digital Bangladesh, to digitize systems and structures down to the smallest rural administrative and local governments over the next three years, demonstrating a conscious effort to overcome the digital divide as a means of lifting people out of poverty. Additionally, there are over 118 million mobile phone subscribers; in a country with a population of 163 million, this is an exciting opportunity to connect people to each other and to the services and information they need. There is a growing momentum to design tools that leverage digital access to reach and empower more people to improve their lives, as evidenced by the numerous recognized digital projects in agriculture in Bangladesh, such as the A-Card digital finance solution for farmers from AESA, the remote-sensing technology for water management from CIMMYT and the Farmer Query System that uses smartphone pictures to diagnose plant disease from mPower.

I am really excited that DLEC is contributing to this revolution, in conjunction with the USAID Agricultural Extension Support Activity (AESA) Project, by launching Digital Green’s farm-to-market aggregation and transport service in Bangladesh. Under the program, farming communities select a farmer leader/aggregator, who coordinates with peer farmers to arrange transportation based on the quantity of crops harvested and provides critical market information, such as commodity prices. The aggregator uses a mobile application for record keeping and provides SMS receipts to his fellow farmers for transparency. Thus far, we have reached over 2,300 people in 76 villages, creating 30 youth agri-entrepreneurs since the program began in April, and farmers have shown a willingness to pay a portion of both the aggregator and transport costs. (Watch this video to find out more:

I left Dhaka feeling inspired by all the ground-breaking digital solutions I learned about that are working to strengthen the agricultural sector in the country. Although most of these solutions are being tested only on a small scale and are not well-coordinated, there is evidence of a growing technology sector and encouragement from the government to leverage more ICT tools. The question for me then is, what is our role as organizations that work in agricultural development in coordinating these solutions and encouraging their uptake so we can measurably improve the country’s extension system for smallholder farmers? This is a pivotal time to mobilize this active community and promote the cross-learning of these effective approaches across sectors from public to private, from government to farmer organizations. DLEC can help catalyze the scaling of these proven approaches and leverage the existing enabling environment within Bangladesh, but it will take cooperation among all the actors if we are going to see the emergence of a modern, ICT-enabled extension and advisory service system that creates significant impact in the lives of smallholder farmers. Given the environment in Bangladesh, I think this is achievable and something DLEC will be working towards. What role will your organization play?