Fine-grained support for farmers

Head shot of Zareen Bharucha

India is a nation of farmers, with an estimated 600 million people working 142 million hectares of arable land. But it’s estimated that two-thirds of this land is in the country’s drylands, highly vulnerable to climate change. How can technology help farmers to adapt and thrive?

In these regions in particular, farmers face a ‘triple burden’ of hunger, poverty, and environmental change. Fluctuating rainfall patterns and temperatures, which used to be more predictable, make it harder to manage crops and animals.

In this desperately poor part of the world, making the right call about what to plant, and when, can be the difference between having just enough, and months of hunger.

Data on demand

Fortunately, help is at hand. Technology, as it becomes cheaper and more accessible, is becoming commonplace in Indian agriculture.
Farmers are able to reach for their phones, and tap into messaging services or apps that provide weather forecasts, track changes in market prices for specific crops, or offer information on pest control.

Developed in the public or private sectors, or by non-governmental organisations, these services – and the data they provide – can be a lifeline in an increasingly volatile farming environment. Yet there’s a question mark over who the technology is really helping – especially because, in this tremendously diverse country, farmers’ needs are often highly specific and linked to their individual situation and local environment.

Dr Zareen Bharucha, a Research Fellow in the Global Sustainability Institute, is examining how this emerging breed of information services can be improved.

Zareen is interested in how climate change is affecting the world’s poorest farmers, and how – with truly targeted information – they can adapt to meet the challenge.

“These people’s lives depend on good information,” Zareen says. “However, there is an imbalance between the assumptions of experts making these applications and the realities faced by the farmers using the technology. Nobody has actually evaluated that mismatch before.”

Fine-tuning technology

In a three-month project commissioned by the India-UK Water Centre, Zareen’s team assessed the climate services of four different providers. They also ran a workshop in which representatives from each organisation met farmers face to face.

Encouragingly, all four providers recognised the need to consult farmers to make their applications more effective. The research also identified some gaps in provision.

For example, government-sponsored weather services, while of a high standard, tend to provide forecasts on a district-by-district basis. Since districts in India are huge, forecasts are often of little value to individual farmers, who need much more localised information.

Critically, software developers can also overlook the needs of traditionally marginalised groups.

Zareen is struck by the lack of engagement with women, who until recently were not even officially allowed to own farmland. Partly because of this, they tend to be excluded from the official data that underpins many climate services’ work, even though they perform much of India’s agricultural labour.

In a country so huge, and characterised by such fine-grained inequalities, it is perhaps unsurprising to find that the support for farmers is patchy. Zareen is, however, optimistic that by exposing technology providers to the realities of farming on the ground – as her research has done – things can improve in the long term.

“I don’t think that the problem of helping farmers is as huge and deep as people think,” says Zareen. “These services are a new sector and there is a lot of energy and enthusiasm to improve them. These problems are not intractable, but they do require us to shift people’s understanding of how to help farmers, so they benefit more than merely a few.”

“Changing perspectives is at the heart of this research.”