Growing up in New Jersey, Indian American social entrepreneur Rikin Gandhi dreamed of becoming an astronaut.
“I dreamed of working for NASA. I never thought I would be out in India working with farmers,” the 35-year-old founder and executive director of Digital Green told India-West.
But Gandhi experienced a life-changing moment in 2005 on a trip to India to visit friends who had started a bio-diesel project in rural Maharashtra. The following year, the MIT-trained aeronautical and astronautical space engineer founded Digital Green, which aims to help rural farmers grow better crops and get them to market to sell at a fair price.
“There is a role for technology in small scale agricultural markets: an opportunity to boost rural incomes and offer farmers a choice,” said Gandhi.
Since its launch, Digital Green has reached 1.8 million rural households, primarily in India and Ethiopia. More than 85 percent of the organization’s clients are women.
Women are – by default – becoming the leaders in their communities as more than 70 percent of rural households have wage earners working outside the home village, and perhaps even out of the country, noted Trishala Deb, regional director for Asia with the non-profit organization Thousand Currents, at the “Ideal Village” conference June 26 at Stanford University (see India-West story here: https://bit.ly/2L2Dead). Access to the cash economy is the top priority for rural women, noted speakers and panelists at the day-long event.
The organization offers five components to rural farmers: videos produced by members of the local community which promote best practices in agriculture — such as composting, cattle fodder for highest yields, row spacing as an alternative to flooding fields, among other insights — along with health, nutrition, and sanitation messaging. The videos are projected on the sides of building walls, after working hours so that more women can participate. The organization works with women’s self-help groups in each community to produce and promote the videos.
The village women who make the videos learn new skills, Gandhi told India-West, noting that many of them go on to professional work such as wedding videography. “They are always shy at first, a little bit afraid. But after a few weeks, they become much more confident, and loud advocates,” Gandhi said, adding that the program breaks across caste barriers.
Munni Kumari, 19, the village resource person of Sagar Village Organization in in Dharahara village, Bihar, shared her story on the Digital Green Web site. Kumari produced and taught a video about the practice of “Systematic Rice Intensification” for an improved yield of paddy.
“Initially, it was a little difficult since I was so young and it was difficult to convince the community members who were much older than me. I was not very confident about speaking in public,” said Kumari. She scored poorly in an initial test of skills.
But a Digital Green resource person worked with the young woman and taught her skills to better disseminate her information. “Munni adopted all the feedback enthusiastically. She now disseminates the videos with greater ease and confidence. The quality of her disseminations has improved significantly and her community men and women twice her age are actually listening to her and engaging with her to learn more through the videos she screens,” wrote Bihar program manager Raushan Kumar on the Digital Green Web site.
Digital Green has also created a service similar to the ride-sharing app Uber, to help rural farmers get their crops to market, and be paid a fair price. The service, called Loop, allows a farmer to call a local aggregator to pick up her crops on market day. Aggregators employed by Digital Green pick up the products from women’s farms, and determine their value in the marketplace.
After the products are sold, the women are paid through an app called PayTM. Gandhi noted that women save about half the cost of taking their products to market themselves, and also save several hours of time. Aggregators are also able to give farmers data about where to get the best price for their crops.
Gandhi said he wants to expand Loop to Myanmar, Nepal, Uganda, and Kenya as a commercial enterprise.
The organization has also created a database, known as Coco, which allows farmers to quickly access information on best agricultural practices, even in areas with low internet connectivity. Coco can be accessed on a phone, tablet, laptop and desktop.
Digital Green, headquartered in San Francisco, Calif., has 65 employees. The organization has partnered with the Ministry of Rural Development in India, the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Ethiopia, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock in Afghanistan. The organization operated on a $17 million budget in 2016 — from donors and grants — the last year for which financial data was available.
“We are working to make poverty history,” said Karin Lion, director of global agriculture strategy at Digital Green, at the Stanford conference. She noted that as women gain income, their value in the family structure increases alongside.