How Mobile Phones Are Transforming Indian Agriculture

For decades Santosh Ostwal obsessed over an obscure problem: how to make it easier for Indian farmers to water their crops.

As a kid in 1981, Ostwal would watch his one-legged grandfather make the one-mile trek out to his fields to irrigate his land. It was arduous and repetitive; access to electricity and water was sporadic. Now an engineer, Ostwal has finally solved his grandfather's problem with a phone-controlled water pump-starter called the Nano Ganesh. It's an elegant example of how mobile phones are being used in the developing world in incredibly innovative ways.

Here's how the Nano Ganesh works. A farmer purchases the device for between $12 and $268, depending on the model. The device is then connected both to a mobile phone and the electric water pump. Once it's set up, the farmer just needs to call that phone and enter a code to get it going. No cell service? No problem. Ostwal also made a remote control. He claims the water, electricity and time savings can cover the cost of the device in 11 days. But creating the device was far from easy, Ostwal told The Economist recently:

My wife is an electronics engineer. She used to assemble all the things in our bedroom.  I used to play the things all over the day on the farm. She used to work during night. I used to come home at midnight or 2 or even 3 o'clock. She would ask me, 'Tomorrow morning which tool do you want to take away with you?' In my sleep, I would hand over some modifications to her and tell her to make that prototype in time for my early morning visit at 6. And my wife did it at 3 o' clock in the morning with two kids beside her - one is of 3 years and the other of one year.

In 2009, the invention won the top prize in a global mobile innovation contest run by Nokia.

But Ostwal isn't the only one using mobile phones in innovative ways. Earlier this year, an Indian economic policy think tank released what the Indian daily business newspaper The Economic Times called "the first ever paper" to explore the impact of mobile information services on farming.

The authors of the 53-page study (pdf) interviewed farmers and fishermen in mostly rural parts of India. (Of the 187 farmers interviewed, every last one had a mobile phone.) While the authors found that the full potential of mobile phones has yet to be realized, they included some examples of how the information services are already saving -- and making -- farmers relatively huge amounts of money.

Jagadeesh, a 40-year-old farmer with a middle school level education, shares a 9-acre farm with his two brothers in a village in the state of Rajasthan. One information service, the IKSL, helped save him from losing half his crop:

This farmer acted on timely weather information received through IKSL to protect a harvested crop (Gwar - used as livestock fodder) that was lying on the ground exposed to the rains. He estimates that, but for this ability to act, he would have lost 50 per cent of this crop, resulting in a loss of between Rs.5,000 and Rs.6,000 [$107 to $128].

He also increased his annual earnings by 25 percent -- $535 -- thanks to the farming and disease control techniques he learned from the service's regular messages.

And there are new promising programs, too. Tata, the definition of a multinational conglomerate, has begun testing a service that allows farmers to send photos of diseased crops to experts directly from their phones. Another company, ITC Limited, set up "Tradersnet," a virtual commodity exchange that connects producers and wholesale purchasers of coffee:

SMS messages are sent to users' mobile phones every morning with the offers and grades available for purchase on that day. At the end of the day, users receive a text message with details of what actually took place.

And, unlike other kinds of tech, the advantages of mobile phones in agriculture aren't limited to the wealthy. As the study's author's conclude: "[E]ven in the case of poor farmers facing significant constraints, we found that there were still opportunities to realise productivity gains from the adoption of new farming practices and actions to mitigate crop losses."