24 January 2008

Lifelong learning with farmers in Madurai, South India

These days, India is a ‘boomtown’ of information and communication initiatives in agriculture and rural development. Mobile phones are fast reaching rural areas, phone centres are available in towns and villages, and government, private companies and civil society are experimenting with ways that information and communication technologies (ICTs) including the Internet can be used to benefit farmers and rural communities (see www.i4donline.net).

One of the most interesting of these initiatives is happening near Madurai in southern India. Here, farmer associations, self-help groups, NGOs, Internet kiosks, banks, agricultural and veterinary universities and colleges are coming together to harness information, knowledge and ICTs for agricultural development.

Conceived by the Commonwealth of Learning, such efforts are creating a paradigm shift in the concept and practice of extension.

The common descriptor for these efforts is ‘L3 Farmers’ – LifeLong Learning for Farmers, a programme which was launched by Sir John Daniel, COL President & CEO at Theni in Madurai District.

Kannivadi village knowledge centre – the precursor

According to ‘development catalyst’ K. Balasubramanian, long associated with these activities through the MSSRF and COL, the critical dimension is to enable discourse and dialogue among the different people and organizations involved. According to ‘Bala’, people and communities have to mobilize themselves, it does not so matter much how, so they can discuss what they need and join forces to get it. Finding and empowering the mobilizers, or catalysts for change, is crucial. One of the key results of the L3 Farmers project is the way it has encouraged banks and NGOs to pay more attention to this mobilizing role, even hiring people to do work with community groups and do it properly.

As an example, in Kannivadi, an hour and a half by road from Madurai, the ‘Reddiarchatram Seed Growers Association’ got together and invested in a ‘knowledge centre’ to help document and share their knowledge. They set up and run a local e-commerce web site. Supported by the MSSRF, they also focused on ways the local farming community could use the Internet and ICTs to bring in information and knowledge, localizing this for their specific needs.

Using email, they provide local weather data to the Indian weather service. They also share the ‘national’ data locally, combining the scientific forecasts with traditional local forecasts to guide farming decisions. They produce a local newspaper – by farmers for farmers - with a mix of practical stories and educational content, they have also compiled a series of training manuals and documented local agricultural practices through photos (and powerpoint). One of the strengths of this community owned knowledge centre is the way it has mobilized community volunteers and attracted visitors from close and far to see how local knowledge can be documented and shared and used to overcome rural problems.

Father Thomas Amirtham on the farmer knowledge centre at Kannivadi:

L3 Farmers in India

Further away, other small towns have set up Internet Kiosks – supported by nLogue, a local ICT company. Concerned at the fragile business models of these kiosks, and the potential poor performance of its loans to them, the State Bank of India (SBI) joined forces with the COL and other local actors to see if a different model could be developed. The result is something different from the farmer association in Kannivadi, but sharing some of the same elements.

Community mobilization is again key. In five villages, landless farmers, mainly women, got together into self-help groups. They then decided to get into the dairy business. With support from COL, the various actors in the local dairy ‘value chain’ came together to devise a programme that all could benefit from.

Through the project, the new dairy farmers were assisted to buy suitable animals and then to learn how to take care of them. They committed to a process of self-learning supported by the Internet kiosks. The State Bank provided credit to the farmers to enter the dairy business. It financed the purchase of the animals as well as insurance and helped to organize buy-back of the products, an essential market element of the initiative. Milk buyers and the private sector were brought in to ensure there would be a market for the dairy products. The ICT kiosks provided learning facilities for the farmers and helped connect them to outside information and expertise (from the local veterinary university for instance).

The story is recounted by Karen Speirs:

"Alagan Muthammal lives in a marginalised community in the village of Uppukottai in Tamil Nadu. A 64-year-old illiterate woman; she was widowed a decade ago. Almost two years ago, Ms Muthammal visited a computer kiosk in her local village. The computer centre is part of the Lifelong Learning for Farmers programme, which links local farmers with educators, who provide up-to-date information about farming, and with banks, who provide the funding. Ms Muthammal joined the local farmers association in the village and started to use the computer to learn about dairy farming and how to market dairy products. Seeing that she had taken some training, the State Bank of India granted Ms Muthammal a loan and for the first time in her life, she was able to acquire assets. Ms Muthammal now owns two cows and two calves and has a steady income from the sale of dairy products. By gaining access to information, she has vaulted above the poverty line to become a self-sufficient member of society."

The ICT kiosks also found a new ‘facilitating’ intermediary role – and income - connecting the producers with other organizations, acting as community mobilizers, and providing ICT-based services. Critically, these new roles helped turn the Internet Kiosks into viable enterprises – that could repay their loans to the State Bank and provide livelihoods for their owners.

According to Dr. Henry Francis of the SBI office in Chennai, some of the results so far are excellent: “in other places the failure rates are high, but here the non-performing loan rates are close to 0%.” This is good news for the world’s largest bank (measured by numbers of branches) whose aim is to provide 18% of its loans to agriculture. He elaborates: “Simply giving loans may not help,” adding capacity building and learning is essential so the farmers are given the best chance to make a success of their new businesses. The ICTs were important but “alone, they cannot deliver goods.” Used to support learning and allied with credit, ICTs help put money in the pockets of the farmers. This is the bottom line.

Ajit Maru reflects on the L3 Farmers project:

What does the future hold?

The Kannivadi farmers group are maintaining their village knowledge centre. They are considering if and how they want to make their local knowledge available beyond their local communities. So far, they have ‘limited’ dissemination of their products to people living in a 20 mile radius, considering these as the people most likely to be most interested in what they produced. A decision to publish their information products online has not yet been made. The issues of cost recovery and intellectual ownership seem to be more critical to this decision than any concern for open access – the knowledge has of course been generated as a ‘private good’ for the members of the farmer association! Beyond the knowledge centre, they see many commercial opportunities that might be developed, supported by ICTs.

The dairy groups continue to thrive. They achieved high rates of loan repayments, they continue to use the Internet kiosks to support their learning. In some cases, they have also used the Internet as a tool to identify services and benefits they are entitled to receive, and to enforce their claims. Some of the people involved are branching out to create similar initiatives, setting up new farmer associations, engaging new organizations (colleges) investing in different value chains (goat rearing), and generally borrowing ideas from both the knowledge centre and L3 Farmers models. VIDAYAL, a local NGO, and Arul Anadar College are both formulating local projects that, while building on Kannivadi and L3 Farmers experiences, will add their own particular features. The innovations continue!

Beyond India, COL has launched an L3 Farmers project in Sri Lanka; similar initiatives are being adapted and introduced in Jamaica, Kenya, Mauritius and Papua New Guinea.

Reflections and lessons

What has the initiative achieved? Ajit Maru and Thomas Amirtham single out a few points in their interviews above.

In a recent presentation, COL President Sir John Daniel singled out some L3 Farmers learning points. These include: The project began with – and is designed around - the people who wanted to improve their livelihoods, the people of the villages. It uses local resources: It depends on local resources, starting with the commitment of the people, but also harnessing the entrepreneurial spirit of the ICT kiosk movement, and showing the commercial banks new business opportunities in the villages. It is designed so that everyone wins: The farmers become more prosperous; the ICT kiosks have a growing business; the banks lend more money (and more of it is repaid); the improved links between farmers and markets benefit both producers and consumers; and the consortium of knowledge providers has the satisfaction of making an impact. The project focuses on individuals as well as individuals in groups. The only way that everyone can win is for everyone to work together.

What else can we observe?

  1. L3 farmers exhibits the features of an ‘innovation systems approach’ in which change is catalyzed among the different actors in a value chain. In this case, the value chain was dairy production; the actors in the innovation system include villagers, milk buyers, Internet kiosks, farmer associations, colleges and universities, banks, and more. COL and MSSRF were also actors in the innovation systems, helping broker cooperation and collaboration among the various parties. The power of such an approach is that it recognizes that all the actors in a value chain have roles and responsibilities and need to be engaged in the proposed changes. Such an approach is inclusive and, when well facilitated, empowers the different groups to improve their own livelihoods. [more on innovation systems at www.innovationafrica.net , www.innovationstudies.org; and in the World Bank book]

  2. As Bala argued from the beginning, the key to success has been the way that the communities have ’mobilized’ themselves, or been mobilized. In Kannivadi, this has happened over several years and the farmers association has had time to decide what it wants to do. The dairy projects were developed over a much shorter time – around six months – and several of the people involved suggested that more time is needed in future. In discussions in Kannivadi in December 2007, the need for community mobilizers was clearly recognized. There seemed to be some discussion as to who these people should be and if and how an existing group, such as the Reddiarchatram Seed Growers Association, could also help farmers in other areas form groups and get mobilized. Representatives of the company sponsoring the Internet Kiosks were also questioning if the kiosk operators should necessarily always have this mobilizing role. While someone clearly needs to play the essential mobilizing and enabling roles, it is likely to be slightly different in each situation.

  3. Closely linked with both of these previous notions, the L3 Farmers and related projects have given priority to ‘discourse and dialogue’ among the various people and groups. There has to be platforms and spaces – and time – for people with different perspectives to get to know each other, to build trust, and then work together. Here, it seems that support by COL and other trusted ‘outside’ partners has been important.

  4. One of the big ‘wins’ has been the combination of learning and credit available through L3 Farmers. As Dr. Francis of the SBI emphasized, credit on its own was often not enough. Relevant learning helped the farmers build profitable dairy businesses that could also repay their loans.

  5. Finally, while both the L3 Farmer and Kannivadi projects had ICT components, it is striking how little they come up in conversations and project documents. The other elements seem much more critical. The ICTs do however play an important role; they are used to support learning, to connect to the outside, and to document knowledge. They are not however the starting point for the projects, merely an important component. The case of the Internet kiosks is interesting as they were set up to ‘just’ provide Internet services. Their inclusion as components in a wider development project seems to be providing them a more sustainable business model.

Further reading

The concepts underlying the L3 Farmers initiative are described by K.Balasubramanian, Ajit Maru, and Krishna Alluri in a 2006 case study (pdf version) [pages 9-12].

Sir John Daniel and Krishna Alluri reflect on the project in an article entitled 'Using technology to expand learning: Helping farmers prosper.'

An earlier article that focuses more on the Kannivadi farming communities is: K. Balasubramanian; P. Thamizoli. 2003. Social differentiation in the horizontal transfer of knowledge: A case study from South India. Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension, 9(2): 51 – 60.

Story by Peter Ballantyne. He visited Madurai in December 2007 for the Commonwealth of Learning.


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