In the aftermath of COVID-19, the FarmPrecise app is a boon for Maharashtra’s rural communities involved in agriculture
By Vikas Prakash Joshi
The classic 1987 movie, Graduate has a timeless scene where Benjamin Braddock, a young man just graduated from college, is advised to go into ‘plastics’, as that’s where the future lies. If this movie was to be remade in 2020, Benjamin would probably be told to chase ‘data’.
The era we live in today, is unquestionably that of information; indeed, it is dubbed the ‘Information Age’. At the click of a mouse, we can get any kind of information we want. Companies provide us vast quantities of data and in return, patiently monitor our every move to make it easier to sell specific products to us. While this ‘data explosion’ has been criticized by many, the fact is we have immensely benefited from it.
However, while this data boom is true for the urban areas, in the remote rural pockets of India, there is a need for a different kind of information. Farmers, for instance, are one such segment of the population who require accurate, timely and reliable information on a variety of different aspects of sustainable farming practices. These include the immediate fallout of the climate crisis, fluctuations in weather, soil type, impending extreme weather events, quantity of fertiliser to be used and a whole host of other data points. In the era of climate emergency, these aspects have become all the more pressing.
Farmers in India traditionally relied—and still rely–on knowledge passed on from one generation to the next, generally through oral traditions. The oral traditions would encompass aspects like how to know which crop to grow in which season, which soil is suited to what crop, when to start sowing and reaping, dealing with changes in weather, how to deal with pests, and so on. Unfortunately, due to the climate crisis and variability of weather patterns, these traditional knowledge systems are now proving inadequate. Farmers require inputs that are of a specialised nature.
Agromet advisory system
This realisation motivated WOTR to pioneer the agromet advisory system of crop and locale-specific mobile advisories sent through Short Messaging Services (SMS) based on the data provided by India’s national weather service—the India Meteorological Department. This service is currently available in the states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana and has been operational since December 2012. Besides this, WOTR also provides weather advisories in the form of wallpapers; these have been issued since November 2011. In that regard, Crispino Lobo, co-founder and Managing Trustee, WOTR, gives us an insight into how the FarmPrecise App was conceptualised.
Crispino says farmers realise that changing weather patterns and extreme weather events are causing them losses and putting at risk their crops and livestock. “While they acknowledge the value of weather-based crop advisories they receive from the national advisory system, their insistent demand has been that they be provided advisories that are dynamic and customised to their specific farm situation. They want personalised advisories that address all crucial aspects of crop management on a real-time basis. This need led us to develop the FarmPrecise app in collaboration with the IMD and with some ICAR-affiliated institutions. With new services being constantly added to FarmPrecise, our aim is to help farmers not only to mitigate weather risks on an ongoing basis, but also improve their income and enable them to share their experiences with other farmers,” explains Crispino.
There were two main areas of limitations in the Agromet services dissemination, which led WOTR to realise the need for creating an app. According to Ajay Shelke of the IT Department at WOTR, these services are not customised nor are tailored to the ground reality. “The farmer himself plays no role in generating them; he is just a consumer. What we realised in the last seven years since agro met advisories started is that we need a customised decision support system. So we decided to make a mobile app-based service which would do precisely that. This is what led to the inception of a new app—FarmPrecise,” Ajay points out. Ideation of this app started at the end of 2017 while development work started in July 2018; it is now in its second iteration and is going to be in its third in the coming kharif season.
The well-known wireless technology leader Qualcomm Inc. has supported the app, under their Wireless Reach programme.
Purpose of FarmPrecise App
The purpose behind FarmPrecise App is to provide farmers dynamic advisories that are tailored to specific farms and weather-responsive advisories across key aspects of their operations. This will help them mitigate weather-induced risks, reduce losses and costs of production, increase productivity and improve incomes.
Based on the data shared by the farmer, she/he gets advisories across different categories: 5-day weather forecasts, information about the market prices for different crops at nearby markets, nutrients management, irrigation management, integrated pest and disease management and general best practices in agriculture. In that sense, the FarmPrecise app gives a complete package of advisories to the farmer.
One of the key points is that it is a ‘dynamic’ app which responds to any changes in the daily weather conditions. Some salient benefits of FarmPrecise are its participatory nature, expert advice remotely from agronomists, customisable farm specifications and the emphasis on environment-friendly practices.
It has already recorded 9,000 downloads and currently has 3,500 active users in the state of Maharashtra. The work is underway to take it to Madhya Pradesh and Telangana.
What farmers are saying
The app is showing positive impacts already, as some farmers testify. Eshwer Wagh, of Kolegan village, Jalna district, explains the average farmer generally finds it difficult to accurately record their expenditure on different components like fertilisers, pesticides, seeds and inputs. However, in the FarmPrecise app, the date of sowing as well as the cost incurred on various inputs are accurately recorded. This makes it much easier to calculate the true income one earns from agriculture, and keep track.
Satish Dhawle, of Thigalkheda village, Jalna, points out that in the past, farmers would use ‘medicines’ and fertiliser indiscriminately and without considering the soil or crop type. However, through FarmPrecise, the advisories clearly specify which ‘medicines’ are to be used for what crop. “In the past we would go to the market on a fixed day, and hence miss out on optimum pricing for our produce. Thanks to this app, we are now aware when there is an increase or decrease in prices. Hence, we plan our market visits accordingly,” he affirms.
Challenges in design and maintenance
As can be imagined, there were many challenges in designing and maintaining FarmPrecise for the rural areas of the country.
According to Ujjval Pamnani, who was deeply involved in developing the app, the three main challenges from a technical point of view, are: first, building trust in farmers, as they are reluctant to change their age-old practices. Second, we need to create an app which a farmer will feel comfortable to use as the middle-aged in the farming community in particular, are not technology savvy. Third, there is the major issue of low internet bandwidth in rural areas,” he points out.
However, WOTR has evolved strategies to deal with these challenges. The app is being optimised to work well even in areas where network connectivity is an issue and the language used and the user interface is being kept simple and intuitive so that a person with low levels of formal education can easily understand and use it. To build trust among the farmers, WOTR is engaging its ground staff and network to publicise FarmPrecise amongst the rural communities and create a positive perception.
Farm Precise and COVID-19
Considering the aftermath of COVID-19 and the ongoing lockdown, efforts are being made to adapt FarmPrecise accordingly. Abhishek Sharma, Product Manager at WOTR, says the app is sending COVID-19 related material, in the form of guidelines to ensure that farmers are safe from the virus. These guidelines include directives to sanitise their machinery and tools, maintaining physical distancing while loading and unloading farm produce and washing hands regularly.
Future course of action
As we plan for a post-lockdown future, especially in the context of COVID-19, WOTR plans to market the app aggressively among the rural communities, through a variety of mechanisms including social media, radio advertisements, webinars, press releases, printed collaterals and so on. The goal is to take it to at least one lakh farmers in all the three states: Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Telangana, with plans to take it elsewhere going forward.
After the crippling blows dealt by the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown, the agriculture sector needs to be revived. FarmPrecise fits in very well in the post-lockdown scenario. The app enables farmers to consult agronomists, gives them information about agricultural pricing news, and links them to other farmers through our forum—all of these remotely. Second, farmers want to minimise expenditure, since the lockdown has resulted in reduced incomes. In that regard, the app is promoting lower cost and environment-friendly natural options.
“In the coming year, we want to position FarmPrecise as a complete package for farmers, both within Maharashtra and elsewhere in the country,” signs off Ajay Shelke.
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