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Putting small-scale farmers at the center of the food and agriculture system

A farmer-centered, scalable, data-driven agri-tech intervention for improving rural livelihoods and nutrition

Photo of Rebekah Stutzman
3 9

Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Digital Green

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Large NGO (over 50 employees)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

http://www.digitalgreen.org

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 10+ years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Delhi

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

India

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Coastal region of Andhra Pradesh, a state in southeastern India, cover approximately 95,442 km^2.

What country is your selected Place located in?

India

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Digital Green has worked in Andhra Pradesh (AP) since 2012 in close partnership with AP Department of Agriculture and Cooperation (DoAC) with the aim of improving smallholder farmers’ livelihoods through a community-based video extension approach. This partnership has reached more than 500,000 farmers in AP with information on improved, sustainable agricultural production practices. Combining production of locally-produced videos and human-mediated facilitation has brought the public into the public system. The approach incorporates feedback and data from village-level farmer groups to make interactions with farmers more responsive and accountable at all levels. Building on the success of this work, we have incorporated use of interactive voice response and SMS to extend message reach. AP DoAC has invested human and financial resources to integrate and scale our approach, and partnered with us to continue to test digital technologies that benefit farmers. 

We have selected the state for the potential it holds to demonstrate impact in terms of increased agricultural productivity and incomes in an area with low yields and intense climate change vulnerability. The average plot size of farmers in AP is about 0.7 hectares, and they are intensely vulnerable to shocks. This work builds on our successful partnership with AP DoAC and its commitment to technology-enabled solutions. 

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Often referred to as the 'food bowl of the south’ and ‘rice bowl of India’, Andhra Pradesh (AP) is India’s eighth largest state. AP became a state in 1965 when Andhra state was merged with the Telugu speaking area of Telangana; however, following years of disgruntlement of the people of Telangana, the two states were bifurcated in 2014. The state’s two major regions are Rayalaseema, the inland southwestern portion, and Coastal Andhra to the east and northeast, bordering the Bay of Bengal. About 70% of the population is rural. 

The state is famous for its ancient temples, palaces and museums, traditional silk and cotton hand-weaving techniques, and numerous beaches along its 974 km coastline. It is also known for its Telugu cuisine, native to Telugu people from AP. It is the leading producer of red chili, which influences the liberal use of spices and makes the food one of the spiciest in the world. There are wide social and cultural variances between coastal and inland areas. For instance, millets are consumed in the semi-arid Rayalaseema region, while rice (which constitutes nearly 77% of AP’s total food grain production) is dominant in Coastal Andhra. Seafood features more prominently in coastal area cuisines, whereas vegetables and meat are more popular in the rest of the state. Different communities have their own variations and most rural areas still follow centuries-old cooking traditions. Both cultural factors -- such as the eating habits of the Hindu royal, the Muslim Nawabi royal families and various castes and classifying white-colored rice as a rich person’s food and brown-colored millets as a poor persons’ -- and government policies -- such as subsidies for rice and wheat -- have heavily influenced cuisine and diets. 

Starchy and refined foods are leading to an increase in diabetes in rural areas. While the focus of most studies has been diabetes prevalence in urban areas, smaller more recent studies have shown a prevalence as high as 13% in rural AP.

Nearly two-thirds of AP’s population is dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods and approximately 70% of those farm on one acre or less. As men migrate to cities to seek employment, there are more women-headed rural households and shifts away from family farming system in which women are farm laborers, presenting an opportunity for women to become agribusiness owners. In an effort to address the burdens that are driving rural families away from farming, including debt, declining soil fertility and extreme climate shifts, in 2016 the government of AP began promoting chemical-free farming  as an alternative to chemical-based, capital-intensive agriculture. The set of promoted practices aim to reduce cultivation costs, and enhance soil fertility, yields and climate resilience. Further, efforts are now being made to bring back cultivation of millets native to AP, which are much more nutritious, and offer an alternative to water-intensive rice, as they can withstand extreme heat and drought.

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Much of what rural communities in coastal AP grow, consume and sell has been determined by decades of government policies designed to increase food security and protect smallholder farmers against market price drops. Although well-intentioned, policymakers lacked the power of technology and data that exists now to assess outcomes and inform decisions. Today, though there is sufficient data, it is siloed among separate actors rather than shared across the system to inform agriculture-related functions and farmers are not able to make the choices regarding how to use their own data and with whom to share it. 

Policies promoting high-yielding varieties (HYV) and government-determined Minimum Support Prices (MSP) for a limited set of commodities have greatly increased the area under HYV rice cultivation, on land that traditionally cultivated millets. Limited numbers of procurement centers and missing direct market linkages have given rise to ‘middlemen’ who procure produce at prices below MSP, further increasing economic vulnerability of smallholders, particularly in remote tribal areas with extremely limited market access. 

The disconnect between farmers and markets has moved smallholder farmers away from production of traditional foods, limited consumer choice and adversely affected the environment and health. For example, although millets consume 20%-60% less water than rice and have higher nutritional value, wider availability of refined rice has led to an increasingly starch-heavy rice-based diet. Diabetes and hypertension are making inroads in rural areas even as malnutrition remains a big concern. In rural AP, 60% of women 15-49 years-old are anaemic; and the rate of wasting increased between 2006 and 2016, with prevalence of stunting and wasting among children under 5 years 31% and 17% respectively (NFHS-4). 

Climate change compounds these issues. Coastal AP is one of the most vulnerable regions in India -- and India the world’s 5th most vulnerable country. The shift away from traditional agriculture and crop diversity to dependence on water-intensive rice and a narrow group of HYVs, which require pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation, have combined with increased incidence of extreme weather events to result in high rates of farmer debt and declining soil fertility and land productivity. 

Technology is becoming an important tool, as even government stakeholders become invested in using technology-based solutions to pressing problems and ag-tech providers develop ways to provide smallholders with timely information. However, the numerous actors working on solutions are doing so through disjointed and disparate efforts, addressing just one part of the solution, and smallholders still have limited access to information with which to make decisions that affect their livelihoods and health.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

To address the challenges, food system actors need to ‘talk’ to each other and see how each part affects the others; farmers need the agency to connect with service providers and consumers; and solutions must be driven by local demands and needs, rather than ‘influential’ actors. 

We believe this can be accomplished by empowering farmers to control how their data and information are shared and used so that: they are better connected to consumers; service providers deliver more targeted and quality services; and the system operates more transparently and efficiently. Farmer-level data has been collected for decades (e.g., who and where farmers are, how much land they have, what they grow, etc), but no organization can collect, store, or analyze all the data needed to provide targeted solutions. Putting that data in the hands of farmers, who in turn allow service providers (e.g. extension providers or agribusiness) to access it, can benefit all parties. By enabling open data and integration of these many actors, the end result will be greater coordination and alignment across a wide constellation of public and private agricultural development organizations, to use data and evidence to make decisions, design policies, and offer services and products that meet the demands of producers and consumers; and enable smallholder farmers to access real time information on a variety of factors, including weather advisories, sustainable agricultural practices, good health and nutrition practices, and prices from multiple markets. This can help close the gap between producers and consumers, and help farmers to make decisions suitable to their situations, and to access opportunities that raise their incomes.

Illustrative examples of the effects of our open data sharing vision in coastal AP: smallholder farmers can discover millet processing units and directly reach market buyers to satisfy consumer demand, or they can survey market prices and choose to grow different crops to increase and diversify their incomes. Using a system of digital tags, market buyers can find farmers who are growing particular varieties. Farmer-market linkage gaps can be identified and innovative solutions developed by ag-tech innovators. The government can access and analyze data on changing crop patterns, and discover experts and research institutes to support development of customized advisories that help farmers adapt to climate change and inform emerging policies, such as the National Mission on Millets. Other domain experts and ag-tech innovators, such as those providing weather advisories, pest identification, or soil nutrition information can join with extension providers to develop timely and relevant advisories. Smallholder farmers can access the most relevant advisories (based on their farm’s soil quality, water availability, weather conditions, etc) via community-based videos, local-dialect IVRs, and mobile apps, in a timely way so that they can take appropriate action.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

We envision a food system in coastal AP where each stakeholder has the power of data and evidence to take timely decisions. In this environment: producers control their own data and operate as successful entrepreneurs with sustainable livelihoods and a good quality of life; consumers access nutritious food and are informed about its quality; market actors meet demand and supply challenges with fair and profitable practices; agriculture experts assess cultivation-related needs on a real-time basis to develop localized solutions; ag-tech entrepreneurs assess gaps and develop products and services to address them; and government facilitates farmer-driven interactions and farmer-focused interventions, and ensures checks and balances to maintain system stability.  

Smallholder farmers will be able to derive profit from their land by moving to a multi-cropping system with farming practices that are not only climate change adaptive, but also mitigate agriculture-related impacts. They will know exactly which source is trusted and whom to reach out to whenever they need advice. While most farmers will have access to smartphones and the internet, even those without it will be able to choose the appropriate technology with which to access information they need. By adopting healthy practices and consuming more locally-grown nutritious crops, vegetables and fruits, their own health and nutrition will improve. Consumers, both urban and rural, will be more aware of the food they consume, where it comes from, and the nutrition value it holds. Farmers will be able to see the changing trends in consumption and market demand and, as entrepreneurs, identify opportunities to respond to emerging needs and increase their incomes. 


Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

The image "FarmStack before and after" illustrates the solution summarized in the video

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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3 comments

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Spam
Photo of Aphrodite Oti
Team

Great project for rural communities where majority of smallholder farmers exist. Empowering these set of people is a such means to economic development and food security.

Kudos!

Spam
Photo of Emmanuel Dzisi
Team

Hi, does this technology work outside of India? How can the rest of us leverage on it? Well done.

Spam
Photo of komutunga Everline
Team

The use of technology has the power to reach masses. i would love to network with you on this approach