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Volume 19, No. 1, February 2009


Table of Contents

 

Taking ICTs to the Grassroots

A Case Study of the LifeLines India Initiative

 

Anusha Lall and Swati Sahi

OneWorld South Asia

anusha.lall@oneworld.net

swati.sahi@oneworld.net

 

Abstract

The LifeLines 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 India . The project was originally designed to deliver critical information pertaining to agriculture and animal husbandry to farmers in rural India via a digital platform, using the telephone as a primary medium for information access and use. Successes in this area have led to the project being extended to the field of education also. Its replication in Nepal and Sri Lanka is also being explored.

The Context

LifeLines India was conceived by British Telecom (BT) and OneWorld as a digital inclusion programme that can make a real difference to the lives of people in the developing world. The overarching objective of LifeLines India was to increase livelihood and income opportunities for Indian farmers with access to technology and critical information, and take a step forward in the realization of the Millennium Development Goals.

The context in which the project has been conceptualized and is being implemented can be substantiated with some facts and figures. India 's population is estimated at 1.13 billion in 2005, projected to cross 1.5 billion in 2015. With a per capita GDP of US$ 3,452 (in terms of purchasing power parity in 2005), the percentage of population living below $1 and $2 in the period 1990-2005 has been assessed at 34.3 per cent and 80.4 per cent respectively, and percentage of population living below the national poverty line over 1990-2004 estimated at 28.6 per cent. The national adult literacy rate (as a percentage of persons aged 15 years and above) 1995-2005 has been estimated at 61 per cent.

The 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, rural India remains home to the majority of the Indian populace, and rural livelihoods retain primacy in terms of focus. Employment in agriculture as percentage of total employment during 1996-2005 has been pegged at 67 per cent (not including the informal agriculture-related sectors).

Access 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 India.

Project Overview

LifeLines India served as BT’s first Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programme based on digital inclusion. OneWorld South Asia, one of the 13 centres of OneWorld International, was chosen to implement the project in the agricultural sector in India (in terms of the technical, marketing and operational deployment of the project). CISCO joined as co-sponsor and partner while TARAhaat, ISAP and Datamation Foundation have been involved in field implementation.

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.

The project was designed to deliver critical information to farmers in rural India in terms of expert guidance on maximizing crop efficiency and life-enhancing advice on animal husbandry, via a digital platform that uses the telephone as primary medium of information access. The strategic objectives were two-fold: to increase livelihood and income opportunities for Indian farmers through key decisive information having direct positive impact on their lives; and concurrently create an agro-business knowledge base as farmers’ queries get answered.

LifeLines India was launched in September 2006 as an information delivery service at the grassroots – Soochna Se Samadhan (Solutions through Information). It was started in 700 villages in north and central India in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, with Haryana joining in later.

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.

The Operational Model

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.

A field worker with a farmer using the LifeLines service

The 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:

1. 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.  

2. 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.  

Knowledge 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

Query: I am Vinita speaking from Haroli (Jhansi). I want to know about the bio-diesel plant and when and how can it be sown? How fertile should the soil be?

Answer: Hello! Ratanjot is known as Jatropha in English; a dry and warm environment is good for it. It can grow in any type of soil. Jatropha is sown during May-June either through seeds or cuttings by keeping it in polythene bags. Before that the polythene bag is filled with a mixture of sand, soil and curding. The seeds can be grown within a space of 5 X 8 ft. It requires almost 1,000 plants for one acre of land.

3. 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.

Farmers 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.

Personal 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.

Implementation Process and Challenges

The 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.

Training 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 audiences. 

The 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.

Complexities 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 here.

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

The 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.

LifeLines 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.

The 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.

Conclusions and the Way Ahead

LifeLines India has demonstrated the power of digitally engineered information and knowledge systems for people in remote rural locations with limited communication facilities. The service has been successful in delivering desired benefits to farmers as originally envisaged in the project objectives.

On 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.

This has been followed by a pilot in Rajasthan’s Udaipur district, where the service reaches about 12,000 teachers in 4,691 schools across 11 blocks, in partnership with the Education Department of the state and UNICEF.

LifeLines-India’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 India , the governments of Nepal and Sri Lanka have requested to replicate the service in their countries. As LifeLines India gets a new avatar, there remains the challenge to create new ways to bridge the digital and information divide, in India and beyond.