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Intuit Taps Text Messages, Economics To Boost Farmer Incomes In India

The story behind Intuit Fasal, a free SMS-based service that provides rural farmers with real-time price information, which has blossomed into a program with more than 500,000 users and huge effects on the lives of Indian farmers.

"How can technology help the places I grew up in?"

That’s Deepa Bachu, describing her personal mission. Bachu was born in Bangalore, India, but spent a decade at Intuit’s Mountain View headquarters developing flagship products like Quicken. She returned home several years ago, for family reasons, and after becoming the director of emerging market innovation at Intuit, set out to build products for many of the neighbors she grew up with. "It’s so motivating," she says. "It’s just so awesome."

If Quicken is the product she felt most passionately about stateside, then Fasal—which she developed in India—has certainly become the pride of her hometown. Fasal is a free SMS-based product that connects rural farmers with buyers and provides them with real-time price information. Roughly 70% of India’s economy is tied to agriculture, but it’s a market fraught with obstacles. "The problem is that farmers didn’t know how to get the best price for their produce, nor what markets to go to and when," Bachu explains. "Nine times out of 10, farmers didn’t know if they were actually getting a fair price. 'Wow,' we thought. 'This is a huge unmet need. Let’s see if we can iterate and find a solution.'" The result is a service that has blossomed to more than 500,000 users who earn an average of 20% more income because of the technology.

But in 2008, Fasal was nothing more than a research project. Bachu and a small Intuit team were traveling in rural Karnataka when they first learned of the many pain points of doing business there. Identifying customer pain points is common practice at Intuit, but Bachu didn’t anticipate the points being so painful. "We found some really scary stuff during our research," she recalls. "Farmers committing suicide, farmers living hand-to-mouth because they didn’t have enough money, lots of waste. And remember, there is no access to refrigeration, so if you have perishable produce, if you’re a farmer that grows any fruits or vegetables, what would happen is they would have to find a buyer before it perished. Four times out of 10, they were having to deeply discount their produce just to take some money home."

Bachu immersed herself in the lifestyle for two weeks, staying long days at rural farms and homes, and making trips to the mandi—or marketplace—with locals. It’s was an anthropological approach to consumer research that Bachu says is core to Intuit’s design principles. "Do you know the customer better than they know themselves?" she asked her team.

Intuit began brainstorming a slew of solutions, from eBay-like buyer-seller connections to voice-based systems for providing market information. But the solution that made the most sense in terms of simplicity and scale required nothing more than an SMS-based mobile phone. Think of Fasal as a basic supply-and-demand calculator. Farmers can register for the service by calling a toll-free number. A Fasal agent will then capture a profile of that farmer with simple questions: Where are you based? What crop are you farming? How much of that crop have you planted? How many acres? On what dates was the crop filled? Do you own a vehicle? It takes only 20 to 30 minutes before farmers can start receiving personalized messages from the service. "If you are a carrot farmer in a particular area, we’re able to figure out when you’re ready to harvest, and start sending you price information [by SMS], calculate how much supply we think you’ll have, and then connect you with a buyer or mandi agent that we think will pay you fair price," Bachu says.

Essentially, Fasal facilitates the relationship between sellers and buyers, whether through finding marketplaces or determining market rates. The algorithm at work under Fasal’s hood was far from easy to create, and is still being refined. "The truth is we cannot precisely forecast what a farmer’s supplies will be. There’s so many things that can go wrong," Bachu acknowledges. "If there’s a disease onslaught or the weather patterns messed with the supply, say. We have to take into consideration all of these possible things that could go wrong—we don’t know which seller sold to which buyer, for example. The big difference in developing markets and emerging economies is that, in the U.S., a cauliflower is $2 pretty much throughout the year. In India, the price fluctuates like crazy because of the supply and demand equation. We tried to take advantage of all of the information we have, to project out a possible supply, then we can connect it up with demand."

However imperfect the system is, though, it’s rapidly becoming popular among residents in the two states where it’s been deployed, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. Fasal is expanding by more than 10,000 users per week, and though a large outreach program has been implemented by Intuit, the company has found that roughly 75% of registrations are coming from word of mouth. "Every farmer, at minimum, is bringing us at least two additional farmers," Bachu beams. "So you can start to see the network in place."

The program has become a remarkable, if not unexpected, success for Bachu’s team. When they first introduced the prototype product to a dozen or so farmers, they were well aware that many were illiterate, an issue for an SMS-based solution. Yet SMS was all but required in order to provide automated real-time information at scale that could be sent in the preferred local language, personalized for various commodities, and delivered at a time that is most actionable for the farmer. After weeks of testing, the team noticed farmers who could only read numbers were memorizing how market and commodity names looked when written, or asking their children or neighbors for help; the benefits of the system—an additional $250 to $500 annually, potentially—were well worth the effort.

Fasal is a free service, and any plans to monetize the program only involve people trying to reach the farmers—advertisers, agriculture companies—rather than charging the farmers themselves. But for now, Bachu is just focused on expanding the service. Initially, research pegged the market size at roughly 15 million farmers, the number who grew perishable produce and also had mobile phones. But the team found that 50% of Fasal’s users were cotton farmers. "Cotton is not perishable, but it has the same characteristics: fluctuating market, multiple buyers, multiple auction places. We are finding big uptake there," Bachu says. "So we certainly see our market size growing from what was 15 million users to a good 100 million users, if not more."

Price-monitoring software may not get most people riled up, but Bachu is passionate about how it could affect India. It’s late at night there, but Bachu—talking about the impact she thinks the service could have on her home country—sounds anything but tired.

"That’s the part I love the most," she said, before excitedly ticking off a new list of statistics and anecdotes.