Giving Farmers a Voice

Speaker:

  • Tapan Parikh

Abstract
Improving the productivity of small farmers is essential for economic development in most poor countries.  Providing access to timely and relevant information could improve the opportunities available to farmers.  However, there are significant challenges related to literacy, infrastructure, access to technology and social, cultural, institutional and linguistic gaps between producers and consumers of knowledge.  The increased adoption of mobile phones is rapidly reducing the physical barriers of access.  Providing voice-based services via low-cost handsets could empower farmers to become producers as well as consumers of knowledge.  In this talk, I discuss several applications my students and I are developing to explore this potential.  Avaaj Otalo (Gujarati for "voice stoop") is the voice-based equivalent of an online discussion board. Farmers and agricultural experts call a toll-free line to ask questions, provide answers, and listen to each others questions, answers and experiences.  We conducted a six-month trial deployment of Avaaj Otalo with fifty farmers in Gujarat, India. Farmers found it useful to learn both from experts and other farmers, sharing advice on many topics - including the best time to sow fodder, recipes for organic pesticides, and homemade devices to scare away wild pigs at night. Digital ICS allows coffee cooperatives to monitor quality and organic certification requirements, and to be more responsive to farmers' needs.  Field inspectors use mobile phones to document growing conditions and record farmers questions and comments through a combination of text, audio and images.  In a six-month trial deployment, the system significantly reduced operational costs, saving the cooperative approximately $10,000 a year.  The cooperative also obtained richer feedback from its members, which can be used for targeting extension, improving decision-making and reaching out to consumers.  In both of these systems, voice provides not only an accessible interface to information, but a medium for aggregating and representing knowledge itself.  We found this approach more suitable for engaging communities more comfortable with oral forms of communication, for whom text and structured data represent significant barriers to expression.  Most importantly, we have found that rural communities have a deep desire to be "heard", and simply need the tools required to define and achieve "development" on their own terms.

Tapan Parikh's research focuses on the use of computing to support sustainable economic development across the World. I want to learn how to build appropriate, affordable information systems; systems that are accessible to end users, support learning and reinforce community efforts towards empowerment, economic development and sustainable use of natural resources. Some specific topics that I am interested in include human-computer interaction (HCI), mobile computing and information systems supporting microfinance, smallholder agriculture and global health

Summary of the Seminar
Tapan Parikh, of UC Berkeley School of Information, spoke about a number of projects that are using mobile phone based technology to give small businesses the information they need to improve productivity. He argued that voice technology has distinct advantages over text, because it overcomes challenges of illiteracy while responding to a strong need people feel to be heard. 

Information is key for economic development and empowerment. But information is worthless unless it is also useable (leads to decisions the business owner can actually take), trusted (comes from a source he respects) and relevant (speaks about the issues he is facing). For information to be really empowering, it must also be two way: there must be ways for individuals to create content themselves.

Tapan described three current projects he is involved in:

Hisaab: Microfinance groups in India often suffer from poor paper based record keeping, making it difficult for the group to track loans and repayments. The Hissab software was designed with an interface suitable for those who may be illiterate and/or new to computing. The use of voice commands and responses in the local language, Tamil, prevented the software from feeling remote and inaccessible and contributed to the success of this initiative. 

Avaaj Otalo: Agricultural extension workers provide advice to farmers on pests, new techniques etc to help improve yields. But often they have limited reach, visiting areas only rarely, or perhaps lacking the expertise to respond to all the problems they encounter. Avaaj Otalo is a system for farmers to access relevant and timely agricultural information over the phone. By dialing a phone number and navigating through simple audio prompts, farmers can record questions, respond to others, or access content published by agricultural experts and institutions. The service has been hugely popular, with farmers willing to spend time listening to large amounts of material to find what they want. The opportunity to be broadcast was a major attraction, reflecting the desire to be heard and to create media rather than be a passive consumer of it.

Digital ICS: Smallholders' compliance with organic, fair-trade and quality requirements is usually measured via paper based internal inspections. The data uncovered by these is vital but often lost. Digital ICS is a mobile phone based application that allows inspectors to fill out the survey digitally, enhance it with visual evidence (e.g. from camera phones) and upload it onto a web application. This is being piloted with coffee farmers in Mexico. A key finding from the work is that farmers want to know who ends up drinking their coffee, what they pay for it and what they think about it. Greater links between producers and consumers may therefore be another area for this project to investigate.