India?s farmers switch faith to mobile phones

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Excerpt: FOR centuries, Indian farmers have relied on ancient rituals, the study of wind direction and local gossip to ascertain the annual onset of the unpredictable monsoon rains. Deciding when to sow their crops and when to take their produce to market is based on experience and instinct.

In Jaipur, in the desert state of Rajasthan, landowners continue to put their faith in a 16th-century ceremony that is performed every year on the eve of Guru Purnima, the full Moon day in the Hindu month of Ashad (July-August), when 25 priests gather at the historic Jantar Mantar observatory to hoist a flag and watch how it flaps.

The accuracy of these predictions is anyone?s guess in a speculative game that amounts to a statistical gamble with the Indian economy. The difference between a good monsoon and a bad one can be a couple of percentage points in gross domestic product.

However, technology is coming to the aid of farmers whose livelihood depends on the quality of the heavy rains that fall periodically between June and September.

Under a pilot scheme to be launched this week by Reuters, the news and data provider, farmers will be able to receive accurate weather forecasts and local price information direct to their mobile phones.

The local-language text message service will be offered to 200 farmers in five markets in the state of Maharashtra, of which Bombay is the capital, whose crops are soya bean and tur, a type of pulse.

If the trial is successful, the target market for a commercial roll-out of the service is about 50 million relatively wealthy landowners with three acres or more and an average annual income of $2,000 (?1,000).

?Farmers currently just turn up at the local market to sell their produce. Half the time, they are not aware of the prices at the neighbouring market, so there is a vacuum of information,? Professor Venkata Reddy, Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore, said. ?They are losing a lot of money as a result, so this strengthens their hand.?

As well as helping farmers get the best price, more accurate and timely information could also reduce wastage. India is the world?s second- largest producer of fruit and vegetables ? of which it produces about 146 million tonnes annually ? but more than a third of the fruit rots before it can be eaten. This wasted produce is worth an estimated $12 billion.

?There are so many inefficiencies in the market,? Amit Mehra, Reuters? project leader, said.

Source: Times of London (link opens in a new window)