Taking ICTs to the Grassroots
A Case Study of the LifeLines India Initiative
Anusha Lall and Swati Sahi
OneWorld South Asia
India Initiative launched by OneWorld International in collaboration
with British Telecom (BT) and CISCO
is responsible for promoting digital inclusion and supporting the
realisation of the United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals in
context in which the project has been conceptualized and is being
implemented can be substantiated with some facts and figures.
percentage of urban Indian population had been estimated at 28.7 per
cent in 2005 and is projected to rise to 32 per cent by 2015. However,
to technology has been on a rise with telephone mainlines per 1,000
people having risen from 6 to 45; the number of cellular subscribers
from 0 to 82 per thousand; and internet users from 0 to 55 per thousand
during the period 1990-2005. Despite the rise these statistics pale
against the demographic realities of
Keeping with its aim of using Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to promote sustainable development and human rights, OneWorld South Asia has worked towards strategically positioning ICT tools to a) develop knowledge connectivity; b) create ICT based communication opportunities; and c) build ICT toolsets and capacities to amplify voices of the poor and vulnerable and for the realization of the Millennium Development Goals. The LifeLines India project has been an endeavour in this direction.
project was designed to deliver critical information to farmers in rural
In India most villages ail from limited communication facilities that often hinder farmers from seeking timely help and saving their crops and cattle. LifeLines India has filled this information gap through the simplest and most accessible means of communication - the telephone - by providing timely advice and guidance on sustainable and efficient farming methods, by integrating them with global markets, and ultimately, improving the quality of their lives.
While the telephone serves as the medium of user interface in LifeLines, highly advanced communication technology and customized computing applications have also been configured at the back-end platform to support integrated call handling and management of very large audio and text database.
field worker with a farmer using the LifeLines service
LifeLines India service as offered in the agri-business sector entails
the farmer calling a designated number to register his/her
agriculture-related queries using an Interactive Voice Response System (IVRS).
The farmer is then given a query ID and prompted to call back 24 hours
later for an answer. Farmers pay a nominal fee of Rs 10 for this
service. Revenue earned from call charges is being used to offset part
of the operating expenses of the service. Querying through the IVRS
involves the following steps:
Once a farmer has dialed the designated number from a mobile or
landline, s/he is greeted with a pre-recorded message (the interactive
voice response) that guides and prompts the caller to record the query
in a local language on an automated voicemail system and also generates
an acknowledgement or query-id.
The query registered by the user is stored as a voice clip in the
LifeLines’ database server. LifeLines Knowledge Workers are
responsible for processing the queries, which are accessed by logging
into the application through a web interface.
Workers processing a call
Answers to the queries are sourced from a panel of agriculture and animal husbandry experts, or from the compilation of earlier responses to similar queries that constitute the system’s Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) database (now used as first reference before the query is forwarded to the relevant expert).
Illustration of an agriculture-related FAQ
Once the query has been answered by an expert, the LifeLines application
alerts the Knowledge Worker. The answer is saved as a voice clip in the
FAQ database and is attached or tagged to the specific question for the
farmer to retrieve through the same service after 24 hours.
can also avail LifeLines online service by visiting the nearest
information kiosks. The web interface enables the farmer to access the
database online, listen to audio clips of frequently asked questions,
and send digital images of diseased crops for remote diagnosis and
advice by experts. The user can also retrieve the answer in text format
from his/her village information centre.
interface with farmers in the field is undertaken by a network of
OneWorld Field Workers. Armed with mobile phones, they work in project
villages, encouraging and facilitating the use of LifeLines service by
the rural farming communities.
Process and Challenges
pre-implementation stage of LifeLines India initiative in the
agri-business sector includes identifying local partners and regions of
operation, and chalking out the follow-up partnership strategy and
processes. The information needs of the target population are mapped and
content of the service Customised as per these needs.
and orientation programmes for implementation partners and local field
coordinators are undertaken on a regular basis, along with targeted
marketing, communication and promotion efforts to popularize the
LifeLines India service among farming communities and other key
dialogue between the experts, fellows and farmers is upheld by the close
monitoring of call generation rates and the quality of responses to
ensure quality of service standards, as well as regular feedback from
partners, fellows and end-users. The implementation process of the
LifeLines India initiative was faced with initial challenges that appear
common to the range of ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies
for Development) projects.
of a rural e-services delivery framework had impacted the initial
project implementation schedule and delayed its formal launch.
Challenges included the need to demystify information and also
technology, as well as address constraints of access to technology. The
need for handholding or capacity building of communities to enable them
to effectively use technological tools required close attention, and
continue to do so. Field workers play a critical bridging role in
completing the information cycle for the farmer on the ground. The
relevance of simplified and local language content also gets highlighted
Feedback from the field in the early stages of implementation also led to a reconfiguration of technology to enable the application to be more responsive to farmers’ needs. Field tests with farmers brought out the dire need for information services and direct service feedback from farmers helped to incorporate their needs and suggestions for effective implementation. Options for the operational sustainability of the service were worked upon further, based on preliminary financial analyses and demand forecasts.
Current Status and Impact
LifeLines India initiative is currently underway in four states –
Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana – covering
around 2,000 villages across 23 districts. It is being implemented
through implementation partners in the various districts, including TARAhaat,
ISAP and Datamation
Foundation. The number of field coordinators involved in the project
stands at 61.
India attempts to cover the complete chain of information from
production to consumption, including information on farm inputs like
insect, pest and disease management; seeds and fertilizers; available
funding and Government schemes on loans and subsidies; banking and
insurance; market prices and region specific market information;
watershed management and micro-irrigation; livestock and organic
farming. The expert advice offered and collated so far extends to more
than 50 different fields of agriculture and allied activities.
service receives an average of 450 calls daily contributing to the
development of a database of more than 180,000 ‘frequently asked
questions’. Productivity and incomes have grown tremendously –
ranging from 25 to 150 percent in some cases. A survey conducted by
TARAhaat among farmers in target districts to gauge satisfaction levels
shows an amazing increase in the number of satisfied farmers from an
approximate 6% in October 2006 to around 69% in March 2007. Farmers have
accepted the LifeLines India service as a valuable tool for information
exchange, and there is substantial evidence of its contribution to
improved crop productivity and sustainable farming practices.
and the Way Ahead
a different ground, OneWorld South Asia is now set to repeat the success
of LifeLines in the field of education – in partnership with USAID,
QUEST Alliance and
Vikramshila Education Resource
Society. LifeLines-Education uses the same technology platform with
appropriate adaptation to provide critical academic and pedagogic
support to teachers working in rural areas. Officially launched at
Kolkata on February 29, 2008, the program is already benefiting 2,000
teachers in 571 schools across 164 villages in Bardhaman district of
West Bengal. Since its pilot roll-out in January 2008, the service has
received over 9,000 queries from teachers – a reflection of the
enthusiasm that the service has generated.
has been followed by a pilot in Rajasthan’s
versatile and dynamic application can be customized and adapted locally
for information sharing in other sectors, such as health and employment
as well. OneWorld South Asia now plans to extend the service to new
domains and new locations. Outside