How Indian Farmers Use Phones to Water Crops

I came across this interesting use of mobile technology to help farmers turn on irrigation systems using their mobile phones.  This is particularly useful given the frustratingly unpredictable timing of power availability in rural India.

The $56 Nano Ganesh service connects farmers’ mobile phones to electric pumps in their fields, allowing them to remotely “call” the irrigation system rather than manually turning on each pipe.

As India’s electric supply is notoriously unreliable, Ostwal’s grandfather was often forced to make multiple return trips through the snake-infested fields. After witnessing this hardship as a boy during the 1970s, Ostwal began a lifelong journey to help rural Indian farmers water their fields more easily.

About 35% of India’s farms are irrigated, the vast majority owned by the relatively better off farmers with larger farms.

So the natural concern that many people have is if and how would such technologies get adopted by smaller farmers.  Various recent initiatives in India and Africa have found that  technologies and methodologies that get adopted by the larger farmholders often get adopted by the small farmers, as long as they have access to financial and other enabling support systems.  So, as more smaller farms become irrigated (the proportion of farms that are irrigated has been increasing in India) this can become a more widespread and relevant technology for a larger number of farmers.

The article also mentions another interesting use of mobile technology by Tata’s mKrishi service. mKrishi enables farmers to send in pictures of their crops, which are analyzed by experts from agricultural universities and companies, offering timely advice on what pesticides to use in a timely manner. Apparently mKrishi has “so far helped cotton, grape, potato and soybean farmers in four villages to increase productivity and decrease pesticide use.”

This is a very important and welcome development.  I recently discovered some interesting facts about India’s use of chemical fertilizers.  Interestingly, India’s average chemical fertilizer use per hectare is greater than that of the US (per World Bank data).   In some areas of the country such as Punjab, there is so much overuse of pesticides that the overall productivity of farmland has suffered dramatically in recent years.  Unfortunately, farmers with decreasing yields tend to use even more fertilizers and end up in a downward cycle.

The overuse of chemicals is not good for continued productivity of the land, neither is it good for our water systems which become the recipients of these run off chemicals, nor is it good for consumers of foods with excessive chemical residue.

Hopefully, more service providers will emerge to deliver custom advise to farmers through the most pervasive technology in rural areas — mobile phones, and in regional languages through recent developments in vernacular voice technologies and call-centers.  Better informed decisions by farmers would lead to improved incomes for farmers and better quality food for all of us, with a lower ecological footprint.

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