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."

News
people

Actress sees off speculation about her appearance in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
Serge Pizzorno of Kasabian and Noel Fielding backstage at the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts
musicKasabian and Noel Fielding attack 'boring' musicians
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
people

Sport
nflAtlanta Falcons can't count and don't know what the UK looks like
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
High notes, flat performance: Jake Bugg
music

Review: Despite an uphill climb to see Jake Bugg in action, his performance is notably flat

News
The Putin automaton will go on sale next month in Germany
videoMusical Putin toy showing him annexing Crimea could sell for millions
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Telecoms Engineer - Telecoms Admin - £35,000 - 5 month FTC

    £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 5 month Fixed Term Contract - Telecommunicati...

    Norwegian Speaking Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 per annum + competitive OTE: SThree: Progressive in Manchester is seeki...

    IT Systems Business Analyst - Watford - £28k + bonus + benefits

    £24000 - £28000 per annum + bonus & benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Business Syste...

    Telecoms Engineer - Telecoms Administrator - London - £26,000

    £26000 per annum + 25 days holiday & further benefits: Ashdown Group: Telecomm...

    Day In a Page

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London