This study examines the impact of an agricultural extension service for cotton farmers in western India, delivered via mobile phones.
Modern times have witnessed an explosive growth in agricultural research, from weather forecasts and patterns to information on fertilisers and pesticides. This wealth of information continues to remain inaccessible to farmers living in far flung areas. The ubiquitousness of mobile phones provides a platform and an opportunity to leverage its reach to dispense valuable agricultural information to even remote locations. According to a recent Indian national survey, just 5.7 per cent of farmers report relying on information received from government extension programs. Knowledge and information of such nature, when made accessible, have the potential to enrich the livelihoods and quality of lives of rural agrarian communities. LEAD, together with Development Support Centre (DSC) and Sajjata Sangh, conducted a study to leverage mobile telephones to develop a scalable and sustainable solution to the problem of critical, livelihood-relevant agricultural information gaps in rural areas. The study, the Avaaj Otalo (AO) project involved providing farmers agricultural information through a new information and communication technology, and rigorously evaluating the impact of this program through a large-scale field study.
For this study, 1,200 cotton farming households were sampled across 40 villages, of which 400 received mobile-phone-based information service via Avaaj Otalo (AO group). Another 400 received a traditional, in-person extension along with the AO service (AOE group). The remaining 400 served as the control group and were precluded from access to AO. AO uses an interactive voice response system (IVRS) to provide agricultural advice. The system can be accessed using a touch-tone system available on all mobile phones. The content is provided in local languages, friendly for illiterate farmers.
AO quickly became the primary source of agricultural information for farmers given access, with 70% of the farmers switching to relying on AO to make major agricultural decisions. The study suggests that the ICT-based service also succeeds in winning deep trust of farmers, and exerts a meaningful influence on their practices. With this reference, an ICT-based information delivery model offers a sensible, low-cost alternative to more expensive traditional delivery programs, especially when the information requirements for recommended practices are time-sensitive, are individual-specific or, as in the case of pesticide use, carry important public health and environmental safety
The study demonstrates that mobile phone-based extension can cater to the dynamic informational needs of farmers in the presence of changing information requirements. It also emerges that farmers are willing to pay for the service, with positive subsidies contributing to higher take-up. However, customer acquisition costs prove to be a major stumbling block and further research is needed to develop feasible models that can be scaled.