Digital Green

Digital Green

Transforming rural farms one video at a time in South Asia and Africa
© Digital Green

Communications Consultant, Advisory Services, IFC


Rikin Gandhi, Founder of Digital Green

Rikin Gandhi,
Founder of Digital Green

Growing up in New Jersey, Rikin Gandhi dreamt of becoming an astronaut. He spent hours rifling through the newspaper for NASA stories, pasting them into an album devoted to his hero astronauts.

A gifted student, Rikin trained his sights on joining the NASA space program. He earned a pilot’s license, and studied aeronautical and astronautical engineering at MIT.

In 2006, Rikin turned his skyward gaze to the lives of small farmers. He wanted to transform the lives of these farmers, many in or nearing poverty, through information. Rikin travelled to India, seeking to apply his analytics systems training to rural agriculture. Working with Microsoft Research, he spent six months exploring how video technology can spread good agricultural practices.

Rikin emerged fluent in the local language and armed with an audaciously simple yet intriguing proposal: to equip and train local partners with easy-to-use video equipment that would record rural farmers sharing their best practices. So, instead of flying a spaceship, Rikin Gandhi is now steering Digital Green, a unique, non-profit organization that marries technology and social interaction.

“Often we talk about sustainability in the context of the environment or the financial world,” said Kentaro Toyama, chair of Digital Green’s board. “But I think that there is an under emphasis on the sustainability of human capacity. Farmers that engage with Digital Green gain a level of self-efficacy and self-confidence about how they can change their lives.”

For decades, the Indian government has attempted to introduce new varieties of seed and fertilizer through a large, 100,000-staffed extension program. While this effort has helped in the more irrigated northern states of Punjab and Haryana, it has largely failed to help farmers in poorer states with weaker capacities.

Enter Rikin Gandhi, who found inspiration in a successful outreach effort called Digital Study Hall that involved distributing instructional videos made by urban teachers to classrooms in rural Uttar Pradesh. Applying similar principles, Rikin travelled to Karnataka and experimented with training locals to produce short informational videos featuring local farmers.

Unlike the government programs that had alienated many farmers, Rikin discovered that when these videos were played in a small, 10-15 person group setting with a facilitator, the farmers really took note.

With support from Microsoft Research, Rikin set up a controlled trial. Among 1,470 households in 16 villages, Digital Green’s approach increased adoption of some agricultural practices sevenfold over control villages. Working with the Gates Foundation and other donors, Digital Green has now produced over 2,800 videos in 20 languages, working with over 150,000 farmers in India, Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania and hopes to scale to one million by 2015.

Critical to the success of this effort has been Digital Green’s partnerships with NGOs, companies and government programs. These partners now film, edit, produce and post the videos, using simple battery-operated cameras, thereby facilitating farmer-to-farmer interaction.

“Technology is only 20 % of this,” said Vinay Kumar, COO of Digital Green. “Eighty percent is human mediation, human organization and social mobilization.”

Digital Green makes the farmer videos available on YouTube, with training manuals and standard operating procedures. This has allowed rapid program expansion, but with a continued grassroots touch. Digital Green is now expanding into health and hygiene programs.

For veteran development expert Vinay Kumar who joined Digital Green in 2006, this new development is further confirmation of how innovative technology combined with social mobilization can transform lives.

With contributions from Brad Roberts, Senior Agribusiness Specialist, Advisory Services, IFC.

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