Farmers are improving crop yields, using new technologies besides learning video-making skills - thanks to Digital Green which is catalyzing a quiet revolution in the little hamlets of India. Its founder, Rikin Gandhi, has been named as a top young innovator by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Delhi-based Digital Green focuses on educating farmers about farming techniques through locally produced videos in which local cultivators are featured. The project works in over 200 villages across Jharkhand, Orissa, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh with seven NGOs, helping famers improve their living standards and productivity.
"We do not produce the videos ourselves but rather facilitate the process of training people from the community in the production of locally relevant videos," Gandhi, 29, told IANS.
"We intend to extend the Digital Green system to 1,200 villages in the next two years across South Asia and Africa. We will also be exploring closer collaborations with ministries of agriculture as well as with private sector agri-businesses," said Gandhi.
He was recently named one of the world's top young innovators under the age of 35 by Technology Review, a publication of the prestigious MIT, for his non-profit setup.
"Gandhi demonstrated that for every dollar spent, the (Digital Green) system persuaded seven times as many farmers to adopt new ideas as an existing programme of training and visits," the Technology Review said.
Gandhi, originally a native of Vadodara in Gujarat, founded Digital Green in Bangalore in 2006. Under the initiative, more than 500 videos have been produced - documenting more than 300 farming practices - and screened over 5,000 times. It has been viewed by over 16,000 farmers.
Gandhi, who aspired to be an astronaut as a child, realized that spacemen, after orbiting the earth, wanted to connect with the planet more closely and make it a better place. This was the keynote in most of the biographies he read.
He armed himself with degrees in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University and aerospace engineering from MIT, besides a pilot's licence. But before he could become an astronomer, destiny intervened.
He landed in India to check out a biodiesel venture of a colleague from the US. He joined Microsoft Research in Bangalore in 2006 to figure out how technology could be applied to marginal and small farming. Thus began his tyrst with the country.
Under the initiative, an 8 to 10 minute video screening is organized for small groups of farmers on a daily basis. The videos focus on various types of optimum agricultural techniques, social issues, government programmes, livestock and seed germination, among other issues.
The process has three components, the farmers, a cameraman and a facilitator, all from the village community. The facilitator is trained by Digital Green in identifying topics for dissemination.
Villagers produce videos using handheld camcorders. The videos are then shown by village folk serving as mediators in their villages, using handheld projectors. These mediators nurture an environment for discussion, asking questions, obtaining feedback from farmers, before incorporating them in the next set of videos to better address the community's interests.
"Recently, we began piloting an interactive voice response (IVR) system to allow facilitators and farmers a question-and-answer mechanism and to share feedback," Gandhi said.
The videos empower at least three groups of farmers - community members involved in producing videos, members involved in screening videos using projectors and members who watch videos.
For the first two, community members may begin with limited or non-existent skills and abilities. With experience, they develop their voices and confidence to create and share content with fellow members.
The third group, farmers, are exposed to new practices after having lost the confidence in the sustainability of their farms. They try out the new methods and gain confidence that they can learn and uplift themselves.