Digital Green is actually People Green

In the middle of vast tracts of terraced rice fields, haphazardly partitioned into small half-acre-ish plots of land, villagers slowly begin to gather into the local primary school courtyard just around sunset. By the time it’s completely dark, a mixed-gender group of about fifty people ranging from infants to gray-haired grannies sit cross-legged on the ground, surrounding a 1.5’x2′ makeshift screen that is nailed against a schoolhouse pillar. A man stands next to the screen and begins to play a video using a portable pico projector — the only video-playback device in the area for miles around. The video demonstrates a particular method of preparing the soil before planting rice, and it features a farming couple from a nearby district building gridded plateaus of mud on their own land. Amidst the din of crickets, the audience strains to hear the underpowered audio; even the babies are quiet. Every minute or two, the session leader pauses the video, and asks the audience a question. Most questions meet with quick responses, but in a few cases, an extended discussion takes place. After about a half hour, the session leader takes attendance, responds to further questions, and asks if anyone plans to try the technique. About a third of the adult hands go up. The session adjourns, and the villagers disperse, likely not to meet again in a group like this until the following week. Perhaps a handful will actually implement the technique in their fields.

In an environment where there is no TV, no electricity, and no traffic (beyond the occasional NGO worker), such is pace of rural transformation. It might seem slow to city slickers, but apart from festivals, it’s the peak of community activity in this remote village of Kumadawahali.

The video sessions are the heart of Digital Green, a system for agriculture extension for smallholder farmers. DG uses a combination of locally produced digital video and mediated group instruction to teach farmers more productive, sustainable agricultural techniques.

The videos are a compelling instructional aid, even for a mostly illiterate audience, and they permit a greater range of influence for expert extension agents, who otherwise do their work only through verbal dialogue and posters. For many villagers, the sessions are as much entertainment as they are education — this is their only exposure to moving images every week. Pilot studies have shown that DG can increase adoption of newly introduced farming practices by 7 times the rate at which classical agriculture extension works, and at 10 times the cost-effectiveness.

If this were the typical sort of ICT4D journalism or grant proposal, the story would end here, and readers and program officers would likely be left with the strong impression that video is an effective means of agriculture extension. They might think, “If video projectors were provided to every village, and if a worldwide database of agricultural techniques could be built, we could improve farmer productivity and food security around the world!” Nincompoops who haven’t had the fortune of meeting the Jester would go further: “Gosh, let’s do this over mobile phones! Mobiles are all over the planet, and they’ll all have video and Internet capability soon!! We could crowdsource agricultural video content on the Internet!!! Farmers would become agriculture PhDs in no time!!!! Video-over-mobile-phone will solve hunger forever!!!!! Yes, yes, YESSSSS!!!!!!”

Ahem. With the sarcasm out of his system for the day, the Jester will now hold his critical tongue for a bit to provide the positive side of this story for those doing ICT4D work. Having just returned from two days of visits to DG field sites, he’s inspired to say a few things about ICT4D done well. (Full disclosure: The Jester has been involved with Digital Green from its inception as research advisor, organizational midwife, and board member. He receives no financial compensation from DG, but he does enjoy basking in the brilliant glow of this young, promising project.)

The field visits were to rural sites in northern Orissa’s Mayurbanj district, where DG works together with two NGO partners, PRADAN and VARRAT. The villages where these organizations work are populated by India’s tribal and low-caste communities. They are remote, but still reachable by car. Electricity from the power grid is rare. So are TVs and mobile phones. Incomes are in the dollar-a-day range, and much of the farming is subsistence agriculture. The dominant staple crop is rice, and thanks to the work of the NGOs, there is more and more growing of vegetables, both for income and nutrition. The visits took place during the wet pre-monsoon season, but the area is dry the rest of the year, and scarcity of water is an issue.

Let’s now deconstruct the single instructional session above. First, the 50-odd villagers all gathered within a 15-minute window of time, for a once-a-week session. Getting this to happen at all is no small feat, as anyone who has started a village self-help group (SHG) will tell you. Often, it takes months of constant engagement, to get an SHG together, to meet regularly, and to resolve any historical tensions that members might have with one another. Giri, a young PRADAN staff member was responsible for working with Kumadawahali, and he had spent much of the past two years there building rapport with the villagers. As part of PRADAN’s new-employee orientation, Giri spent weeks living with a family in the village; PRADAN encourages him to see his work as a partnership with the community. He and the villagers greeted each other warmly when they met.

Next, the session leader. This person needed to be identified, recruited, paid, and trained. Session leaders must be moderately educated, and willing to travel to local villages on a regular basis. They need to see their work as a job that requires a regular commitment. They need to be remunerated for their efforts. Additionally, the session leader needs to be trained in video instruction and simple record-keeping — skills akin to those of a school teacher in a place where teachers are few. They’re recruited from nearby villages and trained by PRADAN and DG staff. Nihar Ranjan Maharana, another young PRADAN staff member who is the point person for DG within PRADAN’s Mayurbanj office, works closely with session leaders in multiple village clusters.

During the session, there was lively discussion (which was partly translated for the Jester by his NGO hosts). This might not seem like anything special to someone raised in a modern, progressive educational system, but in a place with few formal organizations, and where classrooms believe in discipline over engagement, it’s another considerable achievement. The Jester has been to many village meetings elsewhere where little dialogue takes place at all, or where one or two village leaders monopolize the discussion. In Kumadawahali, many people, both men and women, actively participated in discussion.

As for the video, it was produced by PRADAN in a nearby village (tens of kilometers away) just weeks prior to the screening. Because agriculture is sensitive to season and soil conditions, content is only relevant for a short while and in a limited region, though it can be reused annually. This particular video was shot in Oriya, the language of Orissa, and versions of similar video were also available in Ho, another language common in the region. Using DG’s standard processes, the video was based on a storyboard constructed and verified by PRADAN staff. Chandra Shekhar, an enthusiastic member of DG’s staff, stayed with PRADAN’s Mayurbanj office and helped PRADAN produce a range of such videos.

The use of the pico projector was suggested by Matt York, an informal advisor to DG, who runs a non-profit in the United States that makes it its business to be aware of electronic gadgets that could be useful to NGOs like Digital Green. The projectors are highly portable, but require frequent maintenance, in no small part due to power surges that fry batteries. PRADAN and DG staff are constantly moving projectors back and forth to villages for this reason. Where projectors are scarce, they resort to TVs, DVD players, batteries, and inverters. DG is currently facing a shortage of pico projectors due to some manufacturer delays, and both DG staff and Matt are working on getting cheaper, brighter, pico projectors more quickly into India.

Finally, to track its impact, session leaders and PRADAN staff keep track of DG session attendance, technique adoption, and questions that arise during sessions. Over time, they hope to measure gains in agricultural yield and household income, as well. Collecting this information is again, no easy task, and it requires process and discipline.

All of this has been done under the capable leadership of Manas Satpathy, PRADAN’s regional head in Orissa, Surjit Behra, PRADAN’s team leader in Karanjia, Rikin Gandhi, CEO of Digital Green, and Avinash Upadhyay, DG’s regional leader in Orissa. Rikin himself helped initiate PRADAN into DG techniques over a year ago, and Surjit and Avinash have successfully overseen its spread in 17 villages across Mayurbanj; DG sessions are otherwise happening in hundreds of villages in four states across India.

This is a brief, incomplete description, but even so, it’s evident just how much human effort is required to make things work, and it’s effort that can’t be replaced by technology. Whatever impact DG has depends first on well-intentioned, competent people. In the case of the story above, the people are members of PRADAN and DG’s staff. The Jester has visited quite a few villages of comparable socio-economic status, and he has rarely seen the kind of promptness and organization that he saw with the DG session in Kumadawahali. That is due almost entirely to PRADAN’s expertise, methodology, and dedication — all traits for which they are well-known and respected. (Incidentally, although the Jester didn’t see as much of VARRAT, they seemed equally capable and integrated with their communities.)

Contrast this with what might be the ridiculously misguided, but unfortunately more common, forms of ICT4D: Donate a bunch of pico projectors for a lot of villages, or perhaps attempt to design a $50 pico projector, so that more villages could afford one. Or, set up a website so that agriculture experts all over the world could upload videos, presumably in languages and seasons completely irrelevant to anyone but themselves. Or, dream up clever variations of NetFlix for farmers, for financial “sustainability.” Etc. But, none of it would actually work, except to win social-enterprise business-plan competitions judged by Silicon Valley tycoons.

Again, it’s not that technology is pointless. DG itself uses technology extensively: low-cost video cameras, microphones, PCs and a mishmash of software for video production; TVs, DVD players, and pico projectors for instructional sessions; and a sophisticated online tool for tracking of its own activities even over poor Internet connectivity. But, none of these tools are worth anything in the absence of a PRADAN. Conversely, PRADAN accomplishes a lot without these tools. The tools are, again, magnifiers of human intent and capacity.

DG is well aware of this and strives to identify good partners with which to work, effectively seeing its role as assisting other organizations’ ability and amplifying their impact. That certainly has value in development.

DG is thus a textbook instance of the right kind of ICT4D. It studiously avoids any illusion that it or its technology can accomplish anything on its own. Instead, technology is consciously applied to magnify the impact of dedicated, high-caliber people and organizations… ultimately, the only things that really make a difference.


(The Jester thanks the staff of PRADAN, VARRAT, and Digital Green for hosting a great visit to rural Orissa, and for answering lots of pesky questions!)

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13 Responses to “Digital Green is actually People Green”

  1. Kevin G Says:

    Great Post– I completely agree that it is the hard work and dedication of PRADAN and DG Staff such as Shekhar and Avinash which, through technology, has been able to disseminate their good intent to many villages. To facilitate such interactions and conversations within such complex communities is an achievement by itself.

  2. Tweets that mention Digital Green is actually People Green « The ICT4D Jester -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gautam John, Digital Green. Digital Green said: ICT4D Jester visits Digital (People) Green "Video-over-mobile-phone will solve hunger forever!!!!!" […]

  3. Prashanth Says:

    I have heard time and again about the poor “quality” of electricity in rural India. Is much of the agricultural equipment run using purer forms of electricity like diesel generators? If they are powered off of the grid, are they more durable to power surges? How much does the lack of pure source of electricity affect the rural community?

    • Jester Says:

      There is a wide range in the availability and quality of electricity in India (rural and otherwise), so it’s not easy to generalize beyond the fact that it is generally not as stable or consistent as, say, San Francisco. Some villages have literally no electricity whatsoever, power grid or otherwise. Others have a couple of solar-charged lights. Still others have electrical lines running to a few households and buildings. Many get electricity only during certain hours of the day (e.g., off-peak hours, or during critical times for agriculture, such as in the early morning). Much of the electricity is also of poor quality, with voltage spikes having been recorded in the 1000-volt range. You can then extrapolate some of the implications for village life. People work around these situations by not relying on electricity at all, using alternate power sources, sticking to battery-powered devices, maintaining car batteries and inverters, making trips to towns for recharging batteries, buying voltage stabilizers, etc.

      (The Jester notes also that while these might seem like severe “problems” to wealthy urbanites, they aren’t necessarily perceived as great problems among villagers, any more than not having a private jet is seen as a problem among middle-class city dwellers.)

  4. Chandra Shekhar Says:

    It was great to host Kentaro, Rikin and Raghu at field locations of Karanjia and to be honest the SHG women with whom they met few days back often ask about them and their next arrival.Hope to see more people visiting at these field locations and looking to the impact DG system is having on people of these remote and far off villages.

  5. Satyajit N Says:

    Really thought-provoking post! I thought more about your assertions –
    “The tools are, again, magnifiers of human intent and capacity … Instead, technology is consciously applied to magnify the impact of dedicated, high-caliber people and organizations… ultimately, the only things that really make a difference.”

    And I agree with the examples you describe – DG (awesome project!), job hunting.

    But I think that statement has a dual too — sometimes, the focus of consciously applied technology can be to *diminish* the impact of crafty/ corrupt people who impoverish others and make the “victims” less than what they can be.

    For example, the electronic train ticketing/reservation system in India simply eliminated the corruption rampant through reservation clerks, train conductors, and others. I remember 20-25 years ago when any long distance train travel meant interminable hours waiting in line at the station to book tickets, bribes doled out by those passengers who chose to/could afford them, and no travel/poor travel for those could/would not. And today, my brother-in-law just booked my confirmed train reservation from Mumbai to Hyderabad in 2 minutes at the local store! And what is true for him is true for anyone in India today.

    Yes, behind that system were dedicated, high-caliber people and organizations who understood the appropriate use of technology. But the main benefit of the technology was to eliminate the impact of a huge number of corrupt/crafty ones.

    So, I would argue for a transcended definition for appropriate use of technology that includes:
    – to magnify good human intent
    – to diminish bad human intent

  6. RV Says:

    Nice, i do realize what our Jester is getting at, and continues the good fight of poking fun at the pure technology utopians..

    I do wonder however, whether Jester associates technology to the use of machines and carries on from there to his characterization of DG as People Green!

    I think, digital green, rests very firmly on the belief of teaching technique to people, in that sense, it is all about technology. I obviously think, it is doing a fantastic job, but, it does have its limits in terms of what type of social change it can achieve. For example, it is not clear whether the organization as currently conceived can get into political questions about the ownership of land, who owns fertile land vs land with considerable less productivity if at that. It is admirable that it does enter into historical political questions, but it only enters it very superficially, for e.g to figure out where to place the TV (or the pico projector). Sure, i do think there is some indirect effect this deliberations of placing a tv does cause, but it is too small a step. Lest, i would also be accused of some impatient city dweller, i am not expecting revolutions out of DG, but i am not sure whether the direction it is pursuing currently can be considered solely about people’s relations.

    To close, I am not saying that DG should(or can) become any of this, but, i am just not sure whether dg can be characterized as “people’s green..perhaps “technology green”! 🙂


  7. The Hand that Flips the Power Switch… « The ICT4D Jester Says:

    […] The ICT4D Jester Questioning ICT for Development « Digital Green is actually People Green […]

  8. Jester Says:

    The Jester thanks Satyajit Nath for his comment. It has been elevated to a full post here:

  9. Jester Says:

    Rajesh (RV) — First, the Jester clarifies that by saying that Digital Green is actually People Green, he only meant that whatever impact DG has is actually due first to people, and second to technology. (Presumably, the “Digital” in Digital Green was pointing at the means of impact, not the nature of impact.) Whether that impact is technological change or human change was not addressed in the post.

    Your comment nevertheless raises a interesting point, about which the Jester may write a detailed post later. However, a brief note here is in order: If your goal is to become healthy and fit, you have to engage in some athletic activity, whether it is football, weight-lifting, jogging, swimming, etc. Health is only a by-product, but the by-product cannot be had without the content activity. If your goal is to increase your critical thinking ability, you have to engage in analysis and debate on some topic, whether it is history, political science, math, or ICT4D. Critical ability is only a by-product, but the by-product cannot be had without the content activity. Similarly, in development, if your goal is to increase empowerment, community, and capability, you need some content through which to learn these qualities. That content can be agricultural practices and technologies. This is a philosophical approach favored by one of DG’s partners, PRADAN, and the Jester finds it exceedingly wise. Whether DG adopts it, as well, you will have to ask DG.

  10. Rikin Gandhi Says:

    Digital Green does aspire to support partners, like PRADAN, on the path to achieving the individual development that they seek in their team members and among the communities that they work with. But, as a supportive, trainer of trainers organization, there are limits in our ability to affect change directly into the lives of others. We should begin by reflecting on our approach: the partners and communities that we determine to work with and the way in which we relate to one another.

    We have had the good fortune to build upon the foundations and directions that our partners and communities have laid. Much of our time and effort remains focused on understanding what exactly that foundation and direction are and how we can better support them. Many of our partners, for example, have spent years establishing community-based organizations like self help groups. Self help groups may appear rather ordinary with the sight of women sitting in a circle making cash transactions. This, in fact, may be all that is happening, but all self help groups are not created equal. Among the few in which an individual or organization has helped to raise over years of facilitation and relationship-building, the green shoots of empowerment can be heard through the voices of women discussing their visions for their community, demanding what might be owed to them, and standing up to support to one another.

    At its core, Digital Green provides a technology and social organization framework to take such groups further by giving opportunities for members to not only come to appreciate that they can improve their economic well-being, but that they can learn new things for themselves and even teach new things to others. The same dynamic can be affected through other means, but we have seen that when integrated closely with existing people-based interventions that it can be cost-effective. This is reflected in the videos that are produced and the level of participation that we observe.

    The videos are often seeded with best practices, like azolla cultivation, that offer farmers the potential to realize tangible gains in short spans of time. This typically generates an initial acceptance of the system, but real trust and participation with the system develops over sustained interactions and longer time horizons. As individuals and the intervention itself progresses, we’ve seen that videos begin to be introduced on topics like managing the affairs of a self help group, advisories against open cattle grazing, procedures for accessing government schemes, and conceptions on women’s rights. Like the farming practices and techniques that are shared through video, this content is largely not determined by explicit direction from Digital Green. Rather, we work with people to develop an ability to see how they can use the system to develop themselves – further and more completely. Agricultural practices and techniques remain the focus – particularly, during active monsoon seasons – but attendance and interest levels during video screenings and the activities that farmers take up is supported by the complementary developments that are happening from one video screening to another, one week to the next.

    The origin of our name, Digital Green, comes from adding a new dimension to support the aim of our first partner, GREEN Foundation. Without the foundation and direction laid by GREEN Foundation, there would be no Digital Green. Our ability to align ourselves toward the ends of human development continues to rely on our partners and our team members to use the tools of technology and social organization to create enabling environments that help in the process of doing so.

  11. Meet Ed Cutrell, Microsoft Research India | ConnectedWorld Says:

    […] pointed me to this excellent blog post, entitled “Digital Green is actually People Green” by researcher Kentaro Toyama, who casts a “jaundiced eye” on the technology for development […]

  12. Matt York Says:

    The Jester is the personification of an ICT4D skeptic. Enthusiasts needs skeptics and vice vera.

    I am an admitted ICT4D enthusiast and I take issue with the Jester’s position that pico projectors and portable media players require human effort to make things work, and it’s effort that can’t be replaced by technology. There is an implication that human effort is a key ingredient, often missing from ICT4D projects.

    I also take issue with his point that technology is consciously applied to magnify the impact of dedicated, high-caliber people and organizations… ultimately, the only things that really make a difference.

    The Jester implies that many in the field of ICT4D are overlooking a few very important things. My issue with the Jester is that he is over looking something. In my humble opinion human effort, dedicated, high-caliber people and organizations can’t really make a difference without a deep, ineffable feeling of tenderly caring (DIFTC).

    For example some of the humans in Kumadawahali have DIFTC for Giri, the young PRADAN staff member. The result of the rapport that she built culminates in DIFTC, as a result they treat each other warmly.

    We read on their web site that PRADAN seeks to enable poor rural families to live a life of dignity. What would motive an organization to pursue this mission? The people at PRADAN have DIFTC for poor rural families.
    DIFTC is intertwined with their mission.

    We read on their web site that Digital Green has an obsession for improving the sustainability of farmer livelihoods. What drives this obsession? DIFTC for poor rural families.
    DIFTC is intertwined with their mission.

    Human effort alone is not enough to make ICT4D work.

    In order to be effective, ICT4D requires technology, people and DIFTC.

    It is a three legged stool.

    PS If you Google , “ineffable feeling of tenderly caring” you get LOVE

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