Archive for the ‘agriculture’ Category

Actual Headline: “Cows Send Texts to Announce They’re in Heat”

October 2, 2012

In the previous post, the Jester mentioned, purely hypothetically, “a wireless udder monitor that sends cattle owners an SMS when their cows are due for a milking.” Just weeks later, life imitates blog. The New York Times reports, in all seriousness, that Swiss researchers are working on a device that sends SMS text messages to farmers when their cows are in heat. Despite its serious reportage, the article mocks the Jester by leaving him with little room for comedic improvement. Nevertheless, some excerpts below from the article with Jesterly annotation.

  • “The results are combined, using algorithms, and if the cow is in heat an SMS is sent to the farmer.” (Whoa, algorithms! This quote from a computer scientist is sure to seduce non-technical technology lovers.)
  • “Our recognition rate is about 90 percent.” (Pretty good, unless you’re a cow in the 10%. For example…)
  • Occasionally, the device would send a false signal that a cow was in heat, he said. Other times, it failed to detect when one of the cows was in an amorous mood. (The Jester wonders how this works with artificial insemination.)
  • The device, known as a heat detector, raises concerns among animal rights advocates, not so much because of its intrusiveness in the private parts of the cow — its use involves inserting a thermometer with a tiny transmitter and antenna in the cow’s genitals — but because of what it says about the stressful lives of Swiss cows. (The article also mentions some interesting tidbits about the animal-rights awareness of the Swiss, by the way.)
  • It also prompts skepticism among dairy farmers, who are startled by its cost, which is expected to be at least $1,400 per unit. (No doubt, someone will start working on a low-cost version for the developing world any moment now.)
  • “It happens fairly frequently that you miss the right moment.” (Common problem in international development.)
  • “With greater productivity there is a drop in reproductive activity.” (Heretofore unknown problem in international development!)
  • “The first attempts were not trouble free,” he said. “The problem was with the sensors. They were not sturdy enough.” (Ruggedness! Cow context differs from human context.)
  • “Cost is important” … “It’s a cost-benefit question.” (Calling all ICT4D-ers! Opportunity for BOP innovation to impact the Global North!)

Rest in Peace, Verghese Kurien

September 12, 2012

The news this week in India is full of tributes to Verghese Kurien, the father of the “white revolution” there. Thanks to his life’s work of helping form milk cooperatives throughout the country, dairy farmers thrived, and India went from milk deficiency to production titan over the last several decades.

Kurien’s death on September 9 even caused the Amul girl to shed tears — she’s the cartoon mascot of the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation who anyone who’s bought butter in India knows well.

The Jester believes the story of Amul is exactly the kind that the development community needs to tell more of: helping those at the roots of the global economic tree self-organize so as to improve their bargaining power with respect to those who control the trunk. It’s notable that in awarding him the World Food Prize, the committee cited “his recognition that feeding the world’s citizens includes coordinating breakthroughs in production with effective management and distribution strategies” (NYT Sept. 10, 2012). The Jester can almost hear the sound of one hand slapping… the collective palms of the WFP officials striking their foreheads when they realized it’s not just chemicals, new seeds, and artificially inseminated cows! You need effective management and distribution strategies! Whoa, what an idea! Did you hear that, Rich Philanthropists and Multilateral Policy Makers?

Apparently, Kurien didn’t stop at milk: In the 1980s, he began working to expand vegetable oil cooperatives. If there were a Kurien for every smallholder farm product, “international development” might very well go the way of “groovy” and “far out” in the American lexicon.

“Thanks, Jester, for stating the obvious,” the old-hat reader might say. “But why is this topic of interest to the Jester?”

What caught the Jester’s eye was a little sentence buried in an obituary by the New York Times (thanks to Melissa Ho for sending). It said, “Mr. Kurien returned from doing graduate work in mechanical engineering… and began working at a government research creamery.” That’s right — Kurien studied mechanical engineering!

Looking back from 2012, it’s incredible that Kurien didn’t feel the crushing internal pressure “to put his technical skills to use for society” as the Jester all-too-often hears from idealistic technology graduates (who are obviously not reading the Jester’s archives!).

It’s amazing that he didn’t decide to design a fancy-but-affordable contraption to milk cows more efficiently (cow-milking machines designed in the developed world are not sensitive to the subcontinent’s local context — there are lots of buffalos in Mother India, don’t you know? And, buffalos from different states respond to different languages, to say nothing of the varying dialects from district to district.).

And it’s absolutely, positively stunning that he didn’t invent a wireless udder monitor that sends cattle owners an SMS when their cows are due for a milking, thus saving dairy farmers the arduous task of squinting to see if an udder is full. (Then again, Kurien had the great advantage of having been exposed to the challenges of dairy farmers well before time division multiple access communication protocols.)

Yes, that’s right — it is actually possible to apply the problem-solving skills that one hones through a good engineering education towards helping people organize, own, and manage their own production capacity, as opposed to helping design fancy gadgets that streamline production capacity that otherwise barely exists.

This week, the Jester’s hat flies at half mast. Verghese Kurien — the Jester wishes that you are resting in a deep, profoundly well-deserved peace.

Digital Green is actually People Green

July 4, 2010

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!)