Shanti Devi was born in the 1960s, somewhere around the start of India’s Green Revolution. The introduction of pesticides and fertilizers was heralded as a game changer in Devi’s village of Pirakhpur in the state of Bihar. However, the meager yield from the old traditional ways of farming and the huge expenditures on chemical pesticides were taking their toll on Shanti Devi, as were the effects of using these pesticides on her family’s health.
Devi’s problems are not unique. She is one of the billion poor, small-scale farmers in low-income countries who make up a huge chunk of the world’s food insecure and earn, on average, less than $1.25 a day. Strengthening the capacity of these farmers to make informed decisions, manage risks, and adopt improved technologies with higher productivity has been the goal of the development community for decades. Yet innovation has been slow: international donors have often worked hand in glove with industrial agriculture to push fertilizers and pesticides.
At the same time, the poor often struggle to access the latest information on farming best practices. One of the ironies of traditional village life is that traditions are often clung to—even if some of them, like the use of chemicals on crops, are only a generation old. Information on evidence-based, natural, and cost-effective ways of farming, however, remains inaccessible for most poor farmers due to limited outreach by government extension officers and dated content of broadcast programs.
One practice that is slowly changing lives is the use of non-pesticidal management, or NPM, which replaces the use of expensive and harmful chemicals with natural alternatives, for instance, the use of vermicompost and neemastra, an insect repellent using neem seeds. Farmers who adopt this practice have seen a gradual increase in crop yields, and in their family budgets. But persuading farmers like Shanti Devi to break away from community wisdom and ditch the fertilizers and chemicals has not been easy.
That’s where Digital Green has sought to make an impact. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) was born as a research project in Microsoft Research India’s Technology for Emerging Markets Laboratory in 2006. It spun off as an independent organization in 2008. Digital Green works on a simple principle: the most effective advocates for changing practices in villages like Pirakhpur are not government officials or agricultural experts, but the farmers themselves. Digital Green works with local partners to mobilize and train rural community members on producing short videos of early adopters of agricultural best practices. Digital Green also facilitates village screenings, where peers and neighbors can see for themselves how the switch was made, and learn about the benefits.
Video-enabled peer-to-peer learning made the difference for Devi. Six months ago, she attended a meeting of the village self-help group she is part of, a community-based organization set up in 2007 as part of a government initiative to help rural communities. There, she and two dozen other women were shown a series of eight-minute-long videos on a small, battery-operated projector. Not all were convinced, even after a 45-minute discussion post-screening. Organic farming practices are low-cost compared to using chemical fertilizers, but the production of vermicompost, poultry manure, and neemastra still takes time, with the work divided among the community.
Shanti Devi was one of the early adopters in her village. Devi’s first crop was rice cultivated through a practice called System of Rice Intensification. This is an organic technique that uses less water than traditional methods and has been responsible for dramatic increases in productivity. In fact, the world record for the most productive rice paddy is currently held by another farmer in Bihar. Devi followed up her success with rice by growing lady’s finger (okra) and cauliflower, a higher margin crop that was better suited to her small plot of land. She can earn up to $37 for 150 kilograms of cauliflower in the local market.
Having made a difference to Devi’s fortunes and thousands like her, Digital Green has created a platform called Farmerbook (farmerbook.digitalgreen.org) that uses timeline-based plotting on Google Maps of all the farmers it engages with. The site has approximately 10,000 rural community members.
The NGO also aims to use its participatory video production and mediated learning model to disseminate other types of information in conjunction with the Indian government on areas such as health and nutrition. Participatory videos have been made on birth preparedness, breastfeeding, family planning, and infant care. Digital Green has also launched similar initiatives in Ethiopia and Ghana. Over the next two years, Digital Green aims to reach 10,000 villages in India and sub-Saharan Africa, helping the people in these communities to live with dignity.
For more information on Digital Green, visit www.digitalgreen.org.