In India, there is one agricultural extension worker for every 1,150 farmers. Add in "landless labourers" and each extension worker has the impossible task of serving 2,500 people.
COL has been exploring whether technology can help scale up extension services. Many villages in India are equipped with information and communications technologies (ICT) kiosks as a result of governmental or commercial initiatives. Since each kiosk provides its village with Internet and telephone connections, the possibility exists for these kiosks to provide useful information and bridge that last mile to the individual farmer. However, the impact of the kiosks has been limited by the top-down manner in which they were originally introduced. By simply conveying knowledge on new agricultural technologies from researcher to farmer, this system ignored the experience and innovation that farmers had to offer.
The four partners
Lifelong Learning for Farmers introduced a different model. Farmers were encouraged to form an association and create their own vision of development for their village. This could be acquiring better livestock, growing new crops or improving the way they market their produce. Those ideas often generate simple questions - How do I identify a good cow? How do I keep wild boars off my land when they are a protected species? How can I get my produce to market in good condition?
The next step is to get those with information to work together to answer these questions. In Tamil Nadu, India, COL helped to create a consortium that included:
- Tamil Nadu Agricultural University,
- Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University,
- Tamil Nadu Open University,
- Anna University (for technology inputs), and
- University of Madras (for social science inputs).
ICT kiosks are used to link the farmers to this consortium. Farmers are prepared to pay for useful information, such as very local weather forecasts. The commercial kiosk operator and franchisee, usually a local youth, become a stakeholder in the project with an interest in providing information that helps to make the initiative sustainable.
In Tamil Nadu, the ICT kiosks are set up by n-Logue, a company that developed with the Indian Institute of Technology Chennai, a technology called Wireless in Local Loop. Each village kiosk has a Pentium computer with digital camera, uninterruptible power supply (UPS) and printers. n-Logue provides an Intranet portal, videoconferencing facilities and some generic content, but the local franchisee has to develop local content in response to demand.
The fourth partner in this project is the commercial banks. The banks in India are being encouraged by the government to increase rural lending. Currently there is very little lending from the banks to the rural economy because of high transaction costs and low loan repayment rates. The Lifelong Learning for Farmers model offers ways to overcome these hurdles. Information provided through ICT kiosks improves the knowledge and capability of farmers. This, in turn, improves productivity, return on investment and repayment of loans, which also enlarges the market for bank credit for small farmers and landless labourers.
The State Bank of India links credit to a contract farming system, putting the associations in contact with potential buyers it has identified. Once an association and a buyer reach a trade agreement that defines price and quality, the bank gives credit to the association and its members. The advantages of scale and a direct link to the buyers create an efficient marketing system and reduce price spread.
A better cow
An example of how the system works is a farmers' association that decided improving dairy production was their best route to better prosperity. Their key question to the information providers was, "How do I distinguish a good milk cow from a poor milk cow?" The education specialists developed a checklist with diagrams. Women from a nearby village who are familiar with web programming made it into an instructional sequence on the computer in the ICT kiosk.
The bank loaned money to the farmers to improve their dairy cows and linked the farmers with a dairy company from a nearby town, which agreed to buy a guaranteed quantity of milk and take it to market provided that the farmers met certain quality standards.
Already farmers are reporting benefits from this programme. While the average yield of milk per cow is six to seven litres a day, the cows bought through the Lifelong Learning for Farmers programme are yielding between eight and 10 litres a day. These incremental improvements can have a huge overall impact.
Assessing the impact
Just 18 months after it was launched as a pilot project in four villages, Lifelong Learning for Farmers is working well. The bank has made loans of about $US 200,000 to 120 villages, with approximately the same amount in the works for 100 more villagers. Another 300 people are preparing loan applications. This is in a region where one of the villages had previously been blacklisted by the banks because of a poor loan repayment record.
About 60% of the farmers involved are women. In the past, buying a cow was traditionally the men's responsibility; they would buy it and then hand it over to the women to care for it. Lifelong Learning for Farmers has taught both women and men how to select and purchase a healthy cow, how to insure a cow and how to claim insurance if the cow dies. When a woman recovered the insured amount after her cow died, her fellow villagers were amazed. Insurance was a new concept for them.
Some 500 villagers regularly attend the ICT-based learning sessions. Initially the communities were hesitant to use the Internet, but once they started to hear local voices and see familiar faces, they relaxed and lost their fear of the technology.
In addition to the cow-buying module, learning materials have also been developed about topics such as managing a dairy shed, nutrition management in dairy, quality milk production, agricultural techniques and biofertiliser production. Already, 12 CDs, four newsletters and six Internet/intranet presentations have been completed.
Lifelong Learning for Farmers is changing the lives of many people, according to Dr. Patrick Spaven, a U.K.-based professional external evaluator who recently completed a case study about the programme for COL. His report includes these reflections:
"For anyone who met the stakeholders and visited the villages...it would be difficult to come away without a very positive impression. The optimism and excitement among the stakeholders was palpable. This even included hard-nosed banking officials. The interests of all the stakeholders are being addressed and the mutual awareness of this among the consortium members underpins their confidence in the project."
Self-replication is the ultimate goal
One of the goals of Lifelong Learning for Farmers is that its success spawns replication in other villages and regions. Three neighbouring villages in Tamil Nadu have formed associations for implementing the model, with minimal help from Lifelong Learning for Farmers. A local cooperative-model non-governmental organisation (NGO) with 5,000 women has asked to join the process.
It is important to recognise that this is development without donors. COL has spent less than $US80,000, mostly on local consultancies. All other resources have come from routine local sources, notably the loans from the bank to the farmers.