Using Mobile Technology to Help Farmers in India Boost Their Productivity

The majority of India’s labor force is dependent on agriculture for a living, so crop-damaging disease, floods, droughts, and pests imperil tens of millions of people. Vaishak Kumar, a political science major who graduated from Penn in May, grew up in an Indian farming community in the state of Karnataka. He saw the plight of farmers firsthand watching his grandfather and uncles work the land.

Kumar, one of three winners of the President’s Engagement Prize, has returned to his hometown of Mysore to establish the NESARA agriculture extension project. Roughly translated, “Nesara” means “sun” in Kannada, one of the languages of southern India. Working in partnership with a local NGO, NESARA is utilizing cost-efficient technology to educate farmers about cutting-edge agronomic research.

NESARA targets the vast majority of farmers in India who are semi-literate with small land holdings that generate little income.

“The farmers don’t get bank loans because they don’t have collateral, so they end up borrowing from local loan sharks for each season’s farming activities,” Kumar explains. “They are doing farming in an insufficient manner, so they have low yields and don’t get enough income. They can’t pay back loans that they get from loan sharks and end up in a vicious debt cycle."

  Farmers can use mobile phones to take pictures of their diseased crops, and send the images to scientists, who can determine what’s wrong and explain through text messages or telephone conversations how to treat the plant.

Farmers can use mobile phones to take pictures of their diseased crops, and send the images to scientists, who can determine what’s wrong and explain through text messages or telephone conversations how to treat the plant.

Kumar says NESARA will set up a low-cost mobile lab in Mysore to teach farmers basic agronomy, the science that looks at agriculture from an integrated, holistic perspective. The project will take place in villages with crops of vegetables, fruits, and staples such as rice.

Kumar learned about global economies during a stint as an intern at IRIS - Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques in Paris and as a research assistant in Penn’s Think Tanks & Civil Societies Program. The most invaluable insights he gained came from talks with his project mentor, Devesh Kapur. In the fall of 2015, Kumar took a course that Kapur taught, “The Political Economy of Development.”

The two brainstormed about how to use modern technology, such as mobile phones, to address challenges facing Indian farmers.

“Because cell phones in India are cheap, even poor families have them,” Kumar says. “We will be sending them timely alerts about the weather and certain stages of the agricultural cycle and provide them with information that goes with the reminders.”

Kumar plans to equip certain members of farming communities with smart phones so they can send scientists photos of their crops from different angles. An image of a rotten leaf, for example, could be send to a crop scientist, who could determine what’s wrong and explain through a text message or telephone conversation how to treat the plant. Instead of waiting for the entire crop to die, the farmer could take action based on the diagnosis.

NESARA will also provide debt counseling for farmers to enable them to make wise financial choices when they acquire fresh capital.

“We’re going to improve the way they do agriculture so they get a better yield and we’re going to help them best market the product to get the best price and hopefully better income and be able to escape from the cycle of debt,” Kumar says.

  • Text by Jacquie Posey
  • Homepage photo by Rebecca Elias Abboud