Opportunities in using data to strengthen FPOs: DG’s Field Visit to Guntur

During the May cross-country visit, teams from India, the USA, Ethiopia, and Kenya came together to learn more about how we are moving towards making our vision of digitized farmer networks (DFN) a reality. With our field immersion experiences, this was also an opportunity to interact with farmers and key stakeholders and learn more about Digital Green’s work in India.

In Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh, our field visits were divided into two factions – this article focuses on the use of digital data collection tools and chili quality assaying. To read about our digital extension visit, please visit this blog.

After a warm welcome, the team was introduced to 4 Farmer Producer Organizations, namely – Akulaganapavaram HFPCL, Bellamkonda HFPCL, Palanadu HFPCL, and Sri Lakshmi Chowdeswari HFPCL. One of the most apparent observations to the team was the gender disparity in these FPOs – among the several FPOs present, there was just one woman board member.
Chilli crop cultivation has always been male-dominated. Over the years, chili cultivation has also become very input-intensive which also indicates that the risks involved in growing chili crops have increased significantly as well, especially with climate conditions, pest management, etc. In Andhra Pradesh, Digital Green has been sharing targeted advisories with farmers under the E-Mircha Project which works with 10,000 chili farmers in Andhra Pradesh to improve chili production quality and connect them with buyers.

Stakeholders present at the meeting also highlighted various schemes that have been rolled out in the past few years to support FPOs off the ground. This includes providing working capital for assets like offices, furniture, computers, and even CEO’s salary for the initial 3 years. In addition, the Department of Horticulture has supported subsidy schemes that have supported farmers in cultivating high-quality chili crops. There is also a Chilli Polyhouse that is an initiative of the Department of Horticulture and JICA, in which 15000 chili plants were being grown on 1000 acres of land. However, the subsidy that was to be disbursed within 15 days took 15 months which caused serious cash flow problems for the FPO. 

FPOs expressed the need for training on ventures such as primary processing of chillis, bakery, and other food processing units, to forge alternative sources of income. They particularly highlighted that despite the financial and non-financial support that they have received from the government, and private sector, surviving with day-to-day operational costs has been a major challenge.

Samunnati, an open agri network that supports smallholder farmers with agri-commerce and agri-finance solutions, also has a prominent presence in Guntur. They have rolled out many initiatives to support the FPOs in building their financial capacities. During the field meeting, they illustrated how they recruited graduates and diploma holders in agriculture to guide CEOs in preparing financial documentation and support them in the use of the business management software that Samunnati provided free of cost for the initial year of working. Samunnati also has features such as robocalling farmers to provide information on market prices and local weather conditions, and an inventory and sales dashboard.

Mr. Naveen Kumar, a representative from the Department of Horticulture also mentioned the long-standing partnership with Digital Green and how they have utilized community videos to drive change in the farming community. As many farmers in the area are dependent on cash crops, he recognized that DG’s community videos could help shift the focus to horticulture crops so that farmers’ incomes can be diversified, and hence made more resilient to the shocks and drops of the practice.

AgNext, a partner under the E-Mircha Project that supports quality assaying also demonstrated their process of generating a chili quality report which contains information on both physical and chemical parameters. After the collection of samples, chilies are individually placed in a Visio Box to take clear images which are then analyzed using a mobile application. Other tests are also done to assess moisture content, aflatoxin level, etc. If you’re wondering how long this process is, it takes 15 minutes.

DG’s solution, Kisan Diary Enterprise which is an application that supports FPOs with buyer discovery, and aggregation of commodities for sale through transparent data sharing, has also helped these FPOs immensely in demand aggregation and generating a consolidated report of inventory, and predicting the sale amount much in the advance. This solution helped transition from Excel sheets that would need manual inputs to a platform where even extension videos could be uploaded and live-streamed during village meetings which were particularly helpful in combating chili thrips last year.

Altogether, this was an insightful visit for Digital Green as we navigate the opportunities of the new strategy. What stands out is the prominent role that DG can play in strengthening the capacities of FPOs and their various stakeholders by making their business processes more structured using business plans, defined roles, and governing bodies that divide and distribute roles including data collection, data entry, sale of inputs, inventory management, etc.

Recognizing the requirement of capital, DG’s solution, KDE could also be developed further to have a more elaborate buyer interface that focuses on market linkages to be more beneficial to the FPOs. Their cash flow suffers mainly due to delayed payments and difficult-to-get subsidies. Moreover, there is also a scope of integrating data required by the various platforms that FPOs use through the data wallets and data visualizations to give an upper hand to FPOs in negotiations during the sale of produce. Since chili is an all-out male-dominated commodity, especially in production and marketing, there is also scope for involving women farmers in the processing. DG can facilitate video dissemination on primary and secondary processing of chilies to achieve this.

Digital Green’s Field Visit in Guntur: Digital Extension & Opportunities to Explore

May was an exciting month for us at Digital Green. After more than 2 years, our teams across India, Ethiopia, USA, and Kenya huddled together in Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh and Bengaluru to make our vision of digitized farmer networks a reality, and discuss key themes emerging from our new strategy going forward.

This visit was marked by huge enthusiasm, as this presented a unique opportunity for teams to interact with one another, and to also witness our work in action in Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh. In Andhra Pradesh, Digital Green implements two programs – 

Tech-Aided Resilient Agriculture (TARA), funded by the Walmart Foundation, improves the resilience and livelihoods of smallholder farmers with the efficient delivery of targeted, relevant, and timely agricultural advisories, and improves access to markets and market information. The program will reach 75,000 farmers, 30% of this number would consist of women farmers.

Enhancing Markets, Income & Resilience for Chili Farmers in Andhra Pradesh (E-Mircha), funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to test, evaluate and demonstrate a scalable and replicable digital model that integrates appropriate technology tools and platforms to deliver timely, high-quality advisory messages to chilli farmers in Andhra Pradesh and connect them to buyers. The aim is to improve the production quality of at least 10,000 chilli farmers.

On the 2nd of May, teams were divided into two groups to visit separate locations – one focusing on the digital extension and the other focusing on the use of digital data collection tools and chilli quality assaying. This blog focuses on the learnings and observations of the digital extension field visit; stay tuned for a blog about the digital data collection and quality assaying field visit. 

The digital extension team visited the Ganapavaram and Aakulaganapavaram farmer producer organizations (FPOs) in Naagireddypalem village, an hour away from Guntur city. Farmers and extension agents gathered to share their experiences on how advisories received through video extension and chatbots have changed their outlook on their natural farming practices and have helped them to lead healthier lives.

We were introduced to the 9 principles of APCNF (Andhra Pradesh Community Managed Natural  Farming), which promotes sustainable farming practices. Natural farming, we learned, has become a way of life for these farmers and not necessarily just based on their livelihoods but also stay healthy. Vemula Padmavati, a woman farmer proudly proclaimed “as a farmer, if we are not growing healthy and staying healthy, how will all of you eat healthy and stay healthy?”. Model farmers like herself have been the change agents among their communities.

What is to note is the digital literacy amongst the members of these FPOs, and the high participation from women farmers who spoke of how cost-effective this practice has been for them, and how they came to know about it in the first place. However, while the high participation of women farmers was clear, there is still the question of how much decision-making power they have. Video extension has played an instrumental role in the shift towards natural farming, especially to get the buy-in from male counterparts in farming families. Now, these farmers are open to learning about new practices – a continued practice-driven forward through the Chatbot advisories that they receive on Whatsapp.

We only need to share our location to get 3-minute videos that are specific to our crops at any given point of time,” one farmer shared. During the pandemic, farmers’ digital connectivity increased as they also made a Facebook page for themselves that now consists of around 20,000 farmers in the area. There is quite a need for market-based information, particularly about prices and buyers, one challenge that they are still facing is the lack of price regulation for produce that is grown using natural farming practices. As these farmers are all well connected with access to smartphones, the Facebook group that they have created for themselves has been used to connect directly with consumers to obtain better prices for their produce. This provides the opportunity to build on our current solutions to add market and price-based information in the hands of farmers to help them with data-backed decision-making.

Although the farmers that we visited in Andhra Pradesh were well connected and high in their digital literacy levels, we recognize that this is not the case for farmers that we work with across India or even farmers in Ethiopia and Kenya, where Digital Green also works. What we learned and gathered in our discussions was that a multi-channel approach should be taken into Digital Green’s future course of action and that there are also opportunities to influence partners to move towards gender inclusivity.

When women have agency over their own data: Kisan Diary Enterprise (KDE) in action

Women leaders are a major focus of the ATLAS project. The project pairs scalable and high quality agricultural and post-harvest advisory, and mobile coaching with our  FPO strengthening and data sharing solution – Kisan Diary Enterprise (KDE) to enable women leaders to negotiate in the market and fetch competitive prices for women-led producer groups. 

KDE is a digital tool that also supports FPOs with buyer discovery and aggregation of commodities for sale in addition to transparent data sharing.

Sabita Devi, a frontline worker (FLW) in Latehar, Jharkhand, is one such user of KDE. With this application, she keeps a track of the produce being collected or yet to be collected from the member farmers of the village level producer group. She shares that “through this mobile application, maintaining and reporting the produce data to our FPO has become very easy. I collect and feed the data in the mobile app during the meeting with farmers. Through this app, I have access to complete  produce data (including the break-up of produce for self-consumption, other commitments, and surplus for selling to producer groups or FPOs) for each of the farmers in one place.”

Pushpa Tigga (Ranchi, Jharkhand) is also using KDE and is quite happy with the ease of inventory management solution that this application offers. She shared “earlier we used to collect the produce data in paper-based formats, in the designated registers within producer groups, which were further shared with the FPO officials. Getting the format xeroxed and reaching all the way to the FPO office for the submission was really a tiring exercise, particularly when these records required very frequent updations, because of the collectivisation of multiple products in a season, with slightly different harvest timelines. Now, we enter the data in coordination with farmers during producer group and village organization level meetings and also visit the farmers in person, and the same data collected could be accessed by the FPO officials on a real-time basis. With this digital tool, our work has gotten easier and we are able to deliver our work more effectively.”

The use of KDE started very recently in Jharkhand and is well-received by the FPOs. FPO managers are very happy to get the digitized data in one place for all of the produce available through different producer groups in their areas. Mr Ankit (Block Program Manager, MKSP-JSLPS, Latehar, Jharkhand) who is the in-charge of Latehar Farmer Producer company shared “Latehar FPO is the nodal FPO in Jharkhand which supplies processed pigeon pea to Palash (a marketing initiative of JSLPS and Department. of Rural Development, Government of Jharkhand). We had a plan of procuring 80 metric tonnes of Mustard and Pigeon pea during this season. It would have really been a challenge to follow up with over 60 producer groups on the same. Thanks to KDE, I am able to track the produce collectivization in one place.

Md. Affan (Block Coordinator, Kolebira-Simdega, MKSP-JSLPS) is responsible for handholding and managing the Kolebira Farmer Producer Company. He mentioned that “Farmers in our area primarily grow paddy, millets and black gram and maize and the FPO is supporting these farmers in marketing the surplus of this produce. Getting the estimates of surplus produce from all the producer groups was a troublesome and time-consuming exercise. With KDE, this has been eased out. We have an FPO-level dashboard, from which we access all the data on a real-time basis. The dashboard provides us with an option to see the producer group-wise break-up of product data, and also has the option to see up to individual farmer level entry, enabling us to quickly follow up with the point person at producer groups.

Under the ATLAS project in Jharkhand, 6 Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs)  from 4 districts are the focus of our interventions. These FPOs are all women-led FPOs, have a great representation of tribal women members, and are also being promoted under Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Priyojana (MKSP), a subcomponent of the National Rural Livelihoods Mission in India aimed at empowering women farmers. In partnership with Jharkhand State Livelihoods Promotion Society (JSLPS), in Jharkhand, Digital Green is working to advance the livelihoods, resilience and self-determination in the Adivasi tribe communities, and foster the recovery from the economic effects of COVID-19 by strengthening women farmer producer organisations and their bargaining power.

This project is also being implemented in Odisha, and over the life of the project, ATLAS will reach 50,000 women with targeted advisories and improve women’s FPO participation in group sales.

Note: This project is generously funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of an initiative to support racial and ethnic justice globally. Digital Green implements this project with the support of various state and district-level agencies.

Empowered Women Empower Communities

Women are the backbone of agriculture in India, and that is no exaggeration. They play a pivotal role in agriculture: 85% of rural women in our country are engaged in agricultural activities, and 75% of the farmers in the agriculture field are women. In addition, women are also responsible for the majority of household chores, such as cooking and taking care of children. Despite their efforts, they are hardly recognised as farmers and in most the communities, d power largely lies with the men of the household. Women have restricted mobility, and require permission from their elders and husband. Their stake in intra-household decision making still remains a grey area and is a deep-rooted issue that needs to be worked upon.

Agency and leadership of women farmers a critical to b resilience in agriculture. With this objective, Digital Green’s Advancing Tribal Livelihoods and Self Reliance (ATLAS) project, funded by John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, is being implemented in Odisha and Jharkhand where tribal communities make up nearly 50% of the population. 

In Jharkhand state, Digital Green (DG) in partnership with Jharkhand State Livelihood Promotion Society (JSLPS) has been implementing the ATLAS project in the state under the Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana (MKSP) program, which is a subcomponent of the National Rural Livelihoods Mission to empower women farmers. 

Our concerted efforts have been towards advancing the livelihoods, resilience and self-determination of tribal women farmers by strengthening the capacity of women-focused Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) to navigate market opportunities. Towards this, v frontline workers (FLWs) have been trained in community video production and dissemination skills for further building the capacities of women farmers. They have also been trained on other digital tools for knowledge transfer and for managing the inventory of the village level producer groups.

Sabita Devi (FLW, Latehar, Jharkhand State, India) shares that “Video content is easy for farmers to understand, where they can relate to practice in a way that it is doable for them, and we are not training them with any alien content or concepts.  I disseminate videos using a PICO projector during various community meeting platforms (producer group meetings, SHG (s group) meetings etc.) around season-based crop advisories, non-pesticidal management practices, and also around topics related to producer groups and FPOs. Producer group members in my village are now better at understanding the intent of these community institutions, moreover, they have started owning it and are taking charge o the activities.’ 

The Community Video approach has been Digital Green’s flagship solution wherein we train frontline workers to produce and disseminate videos, themselves. It is owned by the community from start to finish. Under the ATLAS project, 3 teams of video resource persons (VRPs) have been trained, for creating hyper-local video content for various videos, which enables more efficient dissemination of information by the FLWs and greater adoption of practices by the farmers.

By empowering the women community leaders, and FLWs, for effective knowledge dissemination, their capacities have been built around operating a PICO projector for video dissemination and also facilitation skills. Over 170 trained FLWs from the 6 FPO, operational villages are now using PICO based dissemination sessions for knowledge transfer amongst their respective communities. 

These FLWs have also been trained on using other available digital tools for content dissemination, and currently over 500 such FLWs are using WhatsApp as an alternate digital channel to disseminate content. They are creating Whatsapp groups with women farmers associated with v producer groups and sharing relevant video content with them on a fortnightly basis.

Radha Devi
(FLW, Hazaribag, Jharkhand) shares video content with her fellow farmers through WhatsApp-based dissemination using her own mobile device, in a smaller group of farmers. She mentioned “Now, for the first time we are using mobile phones for our w activities. I have formed a WhatsApp group of farmers associated with a producer group in my village, and share videos with the same group at periodic intervals. For the farmers who do not have access to smartphones (even a shared one), and to reiterate the message to all the farmers, I also conduct video dissemination sessions using my mobile, with a smaller group of farmers, mostly during the SHG meetings. Farmers find this to be an engaging and interesting way of knowledge transfer, where they also get the videos in their mobile (through WhatsApp) for quick reference at any later time.

During the project cycle (July 2021 to Dec 2022), in Jharkhand and Odisha states where the project is being implemented, we aim to reach over 50,000 tribal women farmers with advisories around best practices on various crop cultivation, NPM, and producer group/FPO related topics, thereby building their capacity on crop production, post-production & value addition activities and negotiation skills for increase value proposition for farmers.

Teach by showing and learn by doing: Insights from a development agent in Ethiopia

Tejo Teneshu, 25 years of age, is a development agent  and a mother of two who lives in Edo Balo Kebele, Gedeb Hasasa Woreda, Ethiopia. As a development agent, Tejo is a government employee working closely with farmers and the community in support of the agricultural system.  In the Edo Balo Farmers Training Center, where Tejo works, three development agents  are assigned to support 410 farmers.

“We used to go door to door to teach farmers. but now the farmers not only hear from us but see the process and outcome in their own eyes.” With the new approach, the development agents’ role has evolved. “Our role has changed to more of a mediator,” says Tejo. According to her, Digital Green’s video extension approach recognizes the logistical and resource challenges faced by development agents in disseminating information about improved agricultural practices through individual interaction and enhances the knowledge of smallholder farmers, particularly women.

Tejo concludes with her idea of how she work with farmers:  “Go to the farmers, live among the farmers, learn from the farmers, plan with the farmers, start from what the farmers know, build on what the farmers have, teach by showing and learn by doing.’’ For dedicated development agents like Tejo, the video extension approach is one tool they can use to improve how they build on the farmers’ existing knowledge and work with them to improve their livelihoods.