“I dream of a digital India where farmers are empowered with real time information to be connected with global markets”-Narendra Modi
In Banihalli, a village 80 kilometres from Bangalore, a group of farmers gather in a courtyard and discuss worm composting after watching a video of the process. Since the video features a fellow villager, who has shot it, the farmers are able to connect with the message. “This way the farmers easily identify with the specific agricultural practice. The videos are shot by them but we make sure that its quality is good,” says 29-year-old Rikin Gandhi, an NRI from New Jersey, who is the CEO of Digital Green, a non-profit organization. Gandhi, who had never seen a village till 2006, is now reaching out to over 6,000 villages through his organization and working to improve the lives of thousands of farmers.
Born and brought up in the US, Rikin holds degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Masters in Aeronautical and Astronomical Engineering) and Carnegie Mellon (Bachelors in Computer Science).A trained pilot, he was all set to join the US Astronaut programme. While waiting for his US Air Force application to be cleared, he joined Oracle in California. A chance visit to India during that time gave him his first exposure to rural India. Agriculture was not what Gandhi always had in mind. This aerospace engineer from MIT wanted to be a pilot. A minor eye problem came in his way when he applied to the US Navy for a space shuttle programme and he ended up working on the ground. In 2006, he got a chance to visit Indian villages as part of a Microsoft Research India’s project, and the visit changed his life forever. So, what could be called a case of reverse brain drain happened with Rikin joining Microsoft Research in Bangalore as a researcher in the technology for emerging markets in 2006.
The exposure as well as the realisation that 60 percent of his native country’s population relied on agriculture for livelihood made Rikin rethink on his goals. Interacting with the rural folks, he felt that use of technology could improve their economic well-being and he prepared himself to reconnect with his roots for a bigger cause.
“I have been reading autobiographies of astronauts, who see the earth from above with new perspective. They become very philosophical; think about the futility of wars and human greed. Many become farmers, teachers and go all the way to reconnect with people,” says Rikin, adding that going into space was like getting fifteen minutes of fame while working for small and marginal farmers and transforming their lives was more meaningful. “When I started Digital Green, I wasn’t sure how successful it will be. But within two months of the screening of the first video, 58 percent of the farmers had implemented the lessons learnt on their farms,” says Gandhi.
Apart from enabling villagers to access better technologies and solutions, Digital Green has also helped the people in becoming more confident. “I have seen women who would be really shy in the first video in which they are featured, speak confidently and loudly in the next video. The pitch of her voice rises and you can see the positive change in her body language,” Gandhi says.
Gandhi went to a local NGO and used audio-visual tools to engage farmers, and eventually came up with an idea to set up Digital Green, where he would help farmers across India to share the best agricultural practices through videos.The idea is simple: using videos to teach farmers. But the catch is in producing the videos. It is not a team of experts which makes the videos, but local farmers who have learnt the art of filming with Digital Green’s help. Digital Green’s team of 77 members’ works across eight states of India to train farmers to produce and show videos which showcase their problems, solutions and success stories. “The work does not end with merely creating the videos. A facilitator from each village uses the videos to stimulate a discussion around the videos to ensure that people are making the most from them,” Gandhi says.
Selected as an Ashoka fellow and included in the 2010 list of world’s young innovators in Technology Review 35 (published by Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Rikin made Digital Green an independent organisation in 2009, which is now supported by Bill Gates Foundation.Having covered some 500 villages and with a target of 1200 in two years, Digital Green is going global as Rikin starts work in Ethiopia and Uganda in a couple of months. On the reaction of his parents, who had migrated to US for better opportunities, Rikin says they were initially apprehensive but when they saw his work, they were quite excited.
Digital Green’s network of partners and communities have produced over 4,000 videos in 28 languages so far. Digital Green is expanding its geographical footprint in partnership with the Government of India’s Ministry of Rural Development across 10,000 villages over the next 3 years and has extended its presence into parts of Ethiopia, Ghana, and Afghanistan as well. “Though we already have videos on various agricultural topics, we have seen demand from the community on issues related to nutrition and health, and now have content in those areas as well,” Gandhi says.