A farmer commits suicide every 30 minutes in India. In 2009, 17,638 farmers took their own life. Low yields, extremely reduced profits, and mounting debt make leading an agricultural life incredibly difficult.
When a disaster--like an infestation or drought--strikes, it can be the last straw. But a new technology platform that connects farmers to agricultural experts hopes to give farmers enough information to keep surviving.
Arun Pande of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) Innovation Labs and his team are designing a system called mKrishi to make farming easier and less draining. By offering timely customized information--on everything from diseases that might endanger their crops to advice on when to spray pesticides and where to sell their crops--farmers’ lives can get a little easier.
The mKrishi works by giving farmers access to experts, and experts access to information about the farms. The experts are pulled from various agriculture related universities and companies that have partnered with mKrishi. The farmers are given mobile phones with built-in cameras and specialized software to send photos of their crops and queries to experts. Sensor networks and a weather station in the village provide relevant data that’s sent to a database. Experts can access farmer’s queries through a web application, factoring in the weather and sensor data and send replies through the expert console software, which the farmer receives as either a text or voice message.
The system also employs innovative predictive crop disease forecasting. Data from the sensors powers disease prediction models; if the risk index exceeds a certain threshold, it triggers the farmer’s phone automatically, warning them to take preventative measures. It’s an approach that won the team the MIT Technology Review Grand Challenge award this year.
Because of the huge number of variables involved, disease forecasting is not an exact science. But the team hopes that the mKrishi platform will lead to more accurate predictions, helping farmers save around 40% to 60% of their crops. “We expect preventive measures will reduce the cost of expensive pesticide once the disease is set in,” Pande tells Fast Company.
Currently, mKrishi has been installed in four villages in the western state of Maharashtra to help cotton, grape, potato, and soybean farmers. The initial results seem promising. “Farmers were able to practice precision farming,” says Pande. “Income increased due to increase in yield and reduction of pesticide usage.”
Satish Deshmukh, a farmer in Ganori village, in Maharashtra says that mKrishi’s pesticide advice helped him save approximately $150 on pesticide and labor charges. Manoj Chadurkar, a farmer in the Waifad village, says “Prices of soybean, cotton, cotton seed oil, cotton seed cake at nearby [markets] which were displayed on the cell phone helped me get good returns for my produce.”
The system’s success has spurred interest from the Grape Growers Association to extend the service to around 40,000 grape farmers in Maharashtra. Fertilizer manufacturers have expressed interest in connecting directly with farmers to reduce overall distribution costs and create brand awareness. Talks are on to conduct pilots for partners like NGOs, sugar companies, grape exporters, and cotton research agencies.
mKrishi is currently working on creating a robust wireless sensor node so that every farmer can afford to install one per acre of land, and Pande and his team hope their efforts will help make farming more efficient and appealing. “Today’s rural youth is aware of the prosperity in cities through print and television media," and they're moving away from the family farms, which are being sold off, Pande says. "This is creating a vicious cycle of reduction of farm land, fewer farmers to till the land, lower income from farms, migration of rural families to cities." mKrishi's goals are nothing short of creating a revolution in the rural market that ultimately encourages the next generation of farmers that their livelihood is not an impossible fight against nature.
[Photos courtesy of mKrishi]