June 2008

Digital Green: Agricultural Extension

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Digital Green is a project to raise the incomes of smallholder farmers in South Asia and Africa by the production and dissemination of locally relevant agricultural information through participatory video and mediated instruction. Digital Green has been shown to be at least ten times more effective per dollar spent than classic approaches to agricultural extension.

A typical day of an extension worker begins by commuting one-hour over five km of poor roads and rough terrain to help a farmer on his field. At least 20 percent of the time, the farmer who requested the visit is not on his field. The worker then may choose to wait for the farmer or set out to find an alternate farmer. If the worker finds an interested farmer, one half-hour is often spent on introductions, two-hours on supervising the farmer take a particular action, and one half-hour on goodbyes. Half of the extension worker's day is sunk in an uncertain visit to hand-hold a single farmer. Extension workers concentrate their activities on few farmers. As also found in the World Bank's Training and Visit extension system, in each village, the workers restrict their work to the one or two farmers who are willing to work with them. Though extension systems may aim to use these farmers as models for others in the community, field staff is rarely able to show the progression of these farmers to wider audiences because of social and resource constraints.


India, like most other developing nations, is still primarily an agricultural country. Over 60% of the population relies on agriculture as a means of livelihood. Though a generational vocation, farmers have difficulty sustaining a living for their families due to social, economic, and environmental change. The National Sample Survey Organization's (NSSO) 2005 Situation Assessment Survey of Indian Farmers studied the sources of new technologies and farming practices that farmers accessed in the preceding year. The survey showed increasing debt and declining returns have led some farmers to make desperate choices, which include selling their land below market rates and sometimes even taking their own lives.

Small and marginal farmers often lack knowledge that could at no time improve their livelihoods. But, to educate such a vast, scattered population, two key areas need to be developed: content production and distribution. Classical extension programs have typically followed either a push-based approach in which in which information is broadcast to farmers or a pull-based approach in which farmers pose questions to experts. These systems have shown some success in the field; however, the programs are either too general because they aim to be highly scalable (push-based) or too costly because they require experts to provide advice on an individual basis (pull-based).

The Digital Green (DG) System

The Digital Green system (www.digitalgreen.org) disseminates locally relevant agricultural information to small and marginal farmers in India using participatory video and mediated instruction.  Since September 2006, DG has been iteratively designed, deployed, and evaluated in Karnataka as a project of Microsoft Research India in collaboration with the GREEN Foundation NGO and Karnataka's Joint-Directorate for Livestock Extension. The unique components of DG are (1) a participatory process for content production, (2) a locally generated digital video database, (3) human-mediated instruction for dissemination and training, and (4) regimented sequencing to initiate a new community.  

Unlike some systems that expect information or communication technology alone to deliver useful knowledge to marginal farmers, DG works with existing, people-based extension systems and aims to amplify their effectiveness. While video provides a point of focus, it is people and social dynamics that ultimately make DG work. Local social networks are tapped to connect farmers with experts; the thrill of appearing 'on TV' motivates farmers; and homophily is exploited to minimise the distance between teacher and learner.

Video Content

The DG content repository is video-centric. This is important for a developing and predominantly rural country like India, which, by optimistic estimates, has an adult literacy rate of less than 60%. In farming communities, the literacy rate is substantially lower. A video-based approach has several important advantages to traditional forms of agricultural content, which is typically not in the local language, intended for a literate audience, uses expert terminology, lacks grassroots level practicalities, and remains inaccessible in a sea of scattered media. Video creation tends to be faster and less expensive than other types of media, as advanced preparation in 'lesson'- planning can minimise post-production editing.

The video recordings can be grossly classified in the categories of awareness, training, advisory, and entertainment. Experts and farmers provide the direction to record content, based on factors that include the appropriateness of farming season, the accessibility of resources, and the interests of local beneficiaries..

Content Production

Video recordings facilitate the aggregation of scattered information into a systematic and comprehensive format with a localised context. For example, demonstrations of a particular agriculture technique typically follow the structure of: (1) a brief verbal overview of the entire process, (2) an itemisation of the required resources and associated costs, (3) step-by-step instructions in the field, (4) a showcase of the uses and benefits and (5) interactions with farmers to address common questions and concerns.

The recordings in the DG database are made by teachers of agriculture at the grassroots level. Expert reviewers ensure the accuracy, clarity, and completeness of the content, and guide the construction of a time and location-sensitive video-based curriculum.

Content Dissemination

In each farming community, local mediators are hired on a part-time basis. These mediators are members and residents of the same communities with which they share DG videos, to reduce the logistical challenges of regularly visiting a village and to provide local access to agricultural knowledge from a familiar source. Each week, the mediators conduct a minimum of three screenings per week during suitable evening hours. They transport DG equipment to different segments of their communities, maintain attendance records, and track the interest and adoption of promoted techniques. These mediators are additionally supported by a full-time extension staff (in our case, either government or NGO), which provides mechanisms for feedback and audit for a cluster of villages. The mediators are given a performance-based honorarium of up to INR 1,500 (US$ 38) per month, which is calculated from a mutually agreed set of metrics that take into account the local population of farmers and the agro-ecological conditions of the current season.

An obvious question is whether farmers will adopt new practices by just watching TV. The short answer is no. The long answer starts by noting that effective extension provides not only training, but also mechanisms for personalised advising and feedback. Undeniably enough, the TV, allows a village mediator to provide farmers with comprehensive and accurate knowledge about a particular practice.  Short videos, that are generally eight minutes in length, provide clear descriptions of practices and help maintain the interest of a fluid audience, which may come and go during outdoor screenings in the night.

Regimented Sequencing

Introducing a village to new agricultural practices cannot occur with a single screening. So, communities are approached in a particular manner and order: First, a village gathering is organised in a central location to showcase highlights of the services that will be provided; interested farmers are identified; new content is recorded, with extension staff introducing a particular practice to the identified farmers in the field; informal screenings of content of peer farmers are held; then, small groups of interested farmers are formed with a regular schedule of content screenings (as described in the previous subsection); finally, community participation is encouraged through peer pressure to learn, adopt, and innovate better agricultural processes. Small groups that regularly participate in the recording and screening of DG content are also founded within existing structures of local farmer cooperatives and Self Help Groups (SHGs) or are sometimes initiated by DG itself.

Diffusion Reinforcement

The described techniques motivate farmers by featuring local field staff and peer groups. Following from the sociological models of Everett Rodgers, the diffusion of better agricultural practices is reinforced by tapping into the social fabric of the community. Content is localised in terms of contributors, agroecological, and societal dynamics. In fact, some farmers volunteer to be included in the content, so that they can be seen by their peer as adopters of new practices. Peer content often initiates curiosity and establishes itself as a medium for transference through community participation. The quality of content recorded as members of a community attempt a particular practice may diminish as experts become unavailable in the field; however, expert content juxtaposed with farmer content provides both training and motivation for others to try the same.

Village mediators use the videos as a tool to disseminate content to a larger audience while maintaining personalised support. That is, village mediators will typically reiterate concepts between each clipping, pose questions to gauge interest, and announce follow up visits and subsequent screenings. Village mediators encourage farmers to attempt processes on their own, and announce their availability to individually visit farmer plots as required. Village mediators sometimes also provide farmers with the required ingredients or tools during the screenings of certain agricultural practices or technologies.

Case-Study of Popularising Azolla Cultivation 

During one particular screening, 16 farmers were introduced to a low-cost method of cultivating azolla, an aquatic fern that can be used to add nutrients to animal feed and to fix nitrogen for paddy. Twelve of the farmers expressed interest in the practice and were provided plastic sheets and cultures to attempt the method on their own. The remaining four claimed the technique was either not applicable or not understandable to them.

Finally, farmers required more than a single session of video to absorb the material. Frequently, they requested the same content to be shown multiple times during a screening to build sufficient confidence to embark on attempting a procedure. In other cases, extension support was required for adoption. In the case above, of the twelve interested farmers, only three farmers successfully completed the process without any field support, three farmers began the process on their own but requested follow-up support to validate their work, and six farmers required the full-time supervision of extension staff.

Our finding was that mediation is essential to the process of extension that farmers were most convinced by appropriately targeted and pitched content, and that concrete, short-term incentives are critical in the beginning.  Promoting participation in both recordings and screenings builds momentum in a community to be involved in the process of learning, adopting, and innovating better agricultural practices. When farmers attend content screenings, village mediators encourage these farmers to share their personal experiences to motivate their peer groups.

The local generation of the content allows farmers to verify actual instances appearing in video, by authenticating a known source or physically visiting the recorded field. During DG screenings, viewers frequently ask for the names and villages of recorded farmers. Some farmers even compete to be included in the content, so that they can be seen by their peers on TV. In other cases, farmers refusing even to participate in screenings would later become die-hard DG farmers when they themselves were featured in a video.

Scalability Model

The DG database is not intended to be a physically centralised system. Instead, DG is designed to work as a decentralised network of hubs and spokes. The hubs-and-spokes model is how we may effectively scale up the DG system. Each hub is a demonstration village, which is transformed into a centre of excellence through the concerted efforts of NGOs and experts, and the hubs themselves are 'networked' together. The spokes are typically neighboring villages that also need help, but which are difficult to reach because of a lack in expert resources. Each hub is responsible for expert content production for the local region, content distribution in its local neighborhood, teacher training, and interactions with other hubs. Recording hubs in which field extension activities are concentrated provide a sequential stream of new content that can be screened to surrounding hubs and spokes.

Conclusions and Future Work

In a one-year trial involving 20 villages (1,470 households) in Karnataka, India, DG increased the adoption of certain agriculture practices seven-fold over a classic Training and Visit-based approach.  This system still requires the support of the existing extension system, but it magnifies its effectiveness by using relevant content and a local presence to connect with farmers on a sustained basis.  DG was shown to be ten times more effective per dollar spent.  Investments included a performance-based honorarium for a local facilitator, a shared TV and DVD player in each village, and one digital camcorder and PC shared across the project area.  The table below summarises the cost-benefit analysis of DG in comparison to Training and Visit:

A key factor that resulted in the substantial gain of DG over Training & Visit is the sustained presence of a local facilitator who regularly engages his or her community.  In addition, DG improves the efficiency of extension officers who can reach a greater number of villages with the support of a local facilitator and shared TV and DVD player.  The on-demand nature of video offers the capacity for repetition to ensure that concepts are grasped and novelty is introduced by showcasing a building 'critical mass' of farmers adopting practices.  Some farmers are incentivised to adopt practices just to be featured 'on TV'. This reduces the perceived disconnect between experts and farmers, and allows farmers to authenticate the viability of the content. Using cost-realistic technologies, like TVs, DVD players, and camcorders, DG cultivates an ecosystem of educational, entrepreneurial, and entertaining content. Local relevance stimulates the viral diffusion of agricultural practices. In fact, some farmers compete to appear on a sort-of 'Farmer Idol' program which reinforces existing social networks and generates motivational 'currency'. 

We believe the project can have much wider impact, so we have rolled out DG as an independent non-profit that will seed the system with organisations that have the interest and capacity to integrate DG it into their existing operations. We are building a hub-and-spokes network of partners, including agricultural universities, ministries of agriculture, and NGOs, in regions across South Asia and Africa that could benefit from the system.

Rikin Gandhi,  riking@microsoft.com
Rajesh Veeraraghavan, rajeshv@berkeley.edu
Kentaro Toyama, kentoy@microsoft.com
Vanaja Ramprasad, greenfound@vsnl.net

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