Low-tech, low-cost solutions connecting India's farmers

Sanjay Sathe stood by his vines in a sweeping agricultural belt outside the city of Nashik in western India and punched a number into his mobile phone.

"Hello, it's Sanjay Sathe," the 36-year-old grape and tomato farmer announced in the local language, Marathi, as if talking to a friend. "Is it going to rain tomorrow?"

The voice at the other end of the line told him there would be 25 millimetres (one inch) of rain and temperatures would be a cool 24 degrees (75 Fahrenheit).

He was also told how best to treat a furry white substance he had noticed on some of his leaves.

Farmers like Sathe are increasingly being seen as key customers in India's competitive mobile phone market, as the number of subscribers across the country grows at staggering rates.

Between 16 and 20 million new subscribers are signing up every month and in the last year alone, the number of mobile customers soared 49 percent to 617.5 million.

Some estimates suggest that India will have more than 1.1 billion phone subscriptions in the next two years - some people already have more than one - with about a quarter of them in rural areas as the decade draws to a close.

But while people in big cities anticipate the imminent arrival of third-generation phones with high-speed Internet access, low-cost solutions for low-tech devices are set to remain the main focus for sales in rural India.

"Mobile phone firms are looking out for products suitable for particular areas," said Amit Ahire, a telecoms research analyst at Ambit Capital in Mumbai.

"The key market is still voice. It will probably take some time for data penetration," he told AFP.

Sathe, one of an estimated 400 million small farmers in India, is a case in point.

He uses a basic pay-as-you-go mobile phone in a plastic protective rain cover that only allows him to send and receive text messages and make voice calls.

On it, he receives an automated voice call five times a day, detailing local weather reports and market prices for his produce. The SIM card cost him just 16 rupees (35 US cents).

The service - specifically set up for farmers like him by India's leading mobile phone operator Bharti Airtel - also gives him access to a helpline at 60 paises (one US cent) per minute to get specialist advice from experts.

Airtel is also running a pilot project in Maharashtra to test the use of farm sprinkler systems that can be activated via mobile phone.

Other companies like Tata Teleservices, which runs Tata Indicom, run a similar service for fishermen in southern Tamil Nadu state, giving weather conditions, fish and market prices in the local language.

Ultra-low cost handsets from less than 2,000 rupees are increasingly available for low-wage earners.

Other phones have batteries that can last up to a month without a recharge or are solar-powered to open up communications to people without regular power.

Like many telecoms bosses, the managing director and chief executive of Vodafone Essar, Marten Pieters, said rural India was a "great challenge as well as a tremendous opportunity".

There are hopes that high-speed 3G services - earmarked to roll out in India from this month - could transform impoverished and hard-to-reach rural areas.

The 3G networks will allow Internet download speeds on mobile handsets similar to the speeds of computers, giving telecom providers the opportunity to offer new services.

"Mobile communications will play a big role in financial inclusion, enabling m-healthcare and m-education in rural India which will have a multiplier effect on its economic development," Vodafone Essar's Pieters told AFP by email.

But experts suggested that farmers and other rural dwellers are likely to have to wait some time to see that happen.

Chronic electricity supply problems need to be addressed while the physical infrastructure itself to allow high-speed Internet access over mobile phones is lacking.

Building 3G networks, which are already operational in most developed countries, is expensive and they are likely to be restricted to urban areas to begin with.

Handset prices and tariffs also need to fall while specific content in local languages has to be developed, said Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society in the southern city of Bangalore.

"It (the roll-out of 3G) is going to proceed in the same old order: the cities first, then the villages will follow," he added.

Sathe said the information he gets on his slower 2G network already helps him grow a better crop and earn more money.

Ravinder Bhaskar Dheeple, another local farmer in Nashik district who is involved in the water sprinkler project, said the system saves him time, money and manpower.

But farmers now want even more tailored services, including international market prices for local grape producers who sell to exporters, said Subash Kodme at the farmers' co-operative in Chandori village.

The Internet and 3G are still unfamiliar concepts, he says, but society chairman Kiran Tarle Tukram looks interested when told about applications like video calls that could help farmers battling high labour and fuel costs.

"We could have direct contact with the buyers and cut out the middle man," he said to nods of approval from a group of barefoot committee members in white cotton homespun and Nehru caps.

"Thirty percent of our revenue from crops goes to commission agents."