Why did my cow stop giving milk? Why are my mustard plants not flowering? Questions like these are critical to farmers in rural India. When a disease infects a crop or a cow no longer gives milk, a farmer without the information or experience to prevent a loss suffers severe financial consequences. By connecting farmers with experts using voice technology, the OneWorld South Asia centre, a nonprofit affiliate of the OneWorld International Foundation, created a scalable way to disseminate quality information to farmers when they need it most.
Around 65 percent of India’s working population are farmers. They live in harsh environments with daily challenges—a crop failure or animal illness away from catastrophe. Many of their problems are well understood with known solutions. However, farmers in rural India rely on community meetings and extension workers for agricultural and animal husbandry information—a slow, labor-intensive way of disseminating information.
The LifeLines Agriculture project provides timely, free information to rural farmers, who use a telephone kiosk or mobile phone to leave a message about a problem. LifeLines Agriculture experts access the recorded query, search the database for geographically relevant answers, and record an answer in the system. If the answer is not in the database, they seek help from a panel of specialists.
The farmer calls back 24 to 72 hours later for the answer, delivered by voice.
Behind the program is a sophisticated, web-based system. Calls are directed to a Cisco unified messaging platform with an interactive voice response function that is integrated with a customer relationship management application and information database provided by British Telecom (BT).
“We wanted to help the rural farming community by linking voice to web technology, giving ordinary people the chance to get answers by phone to the questions that are key to improving their lives,” said Naimur Rahman, former managing director and now board member of OneWorld Foundation India.
Since the program began, farmers have experienced an average 20 to 30 percent increase in productivity and income. Bhawanideen, a farmer in Dayalganj with a 9-member family and 3 bighas of land (about 1.2 acres), contacted LifeLines for help with a fungal infection in his wheat crop.
“On using the medicine prescribed by LifeLines, I have profited in production and income from my field," he said. "This in turn has helped me to take better care of my family.”
Shiv Sharan Nayak, a farmer in Niwari, contacted Lifelines about how to set up a fishery on his land. “I got answers and information even about the fish species,” he said. “The language is very simple and easy to understand.”
Each phone call has an exponential impact. New issues are integrated into a growing knowledge base of detailed, location- and season-based advice that is easily accessible. The knowledge database covers 10 crop cycles and continues to grow with more than 450,000 solutions.
“A better harvest can mean increased income, which will mean a better quality of life for families, enabling children to be better educated and to have a brighter future,” said Naimur Rahman of OneWorld South Asia. “This is good for the individual and good for India.”
As of August 2012, Lifelines was active in 1000 villages with more than 150,000 farmers, and answered approximately 350 queries each day, most within 24 hours.
Read more about the LifeLines program.