Transforming Ag Extensions in India:A Moment with Rikin Ghandi of Digital Green

Rikin Gandhi is chief executive officer of Digital Green.

Rikin’s interests include sustainable agriculture and technology for socioeconomic development. He co-founded Digital Green as a research project in Microsoft Research India’s Technology for Emerging Markets team and now leads the spin-off of Digital Green that works to amplify the effectiveness of agricultural development globally. Rikin is a licensed private pilot and received patents for linguistic search algorithms that he helped develop at Oracle. He has a master’s in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University.
Rikin: Growing up I was inspired by astronauts and I wanted to put together my own astronaut playbook by studying computer science, aerospace engineering, getting a pilot license and was about to enlist in the US Air Force when I said college friends who are starting up a venture out in India and that’s what brought me out to India to work with farmers for the first time.
Question: When you started with the venture had you already gone through school?
Rikin: Yes, I studied computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and aerospace engineering at MIT and was working actually here in the Bay Area at Oracle when I had these friends starting up this venture with farmers in India.
Question: Coming out with an aerospace degree out of MIT is no small feat but to do about face and to say well yeah here I have an aerospace degree but my passion is with the farmers in India is that about what it was?
Rikin: It was kind of like that. When I was growing up I focused on just the first part of these astronaut biographies that I had read about what it took to get to space, but while I was waiting for that my Air Force application to clear, I started to look at what these astronauts do when they come back to earth after they fulfilled their childhood dreams. Many of these astronauts end up coming back to reconnect with the world and its people after seeing the world from a unique perspective and becoming in fact some of them farmers in the midwest or public schoolteachers.
Question: How did Digital Green come about?
Rikin: The biodiesel venture that I was working on with these friends in rural India flopped within the first six months. I then connected with Microsoft Research in the southern Indian city of Bangalore where they have a group that focuses on technology for emerging markets just with an academic interest to see if there is a role for digital technology in small-scale agricultural systems which dominate sort of the world’s food and agricultural system. Basically sixty percent of India’s 1.3 billion population depends on agriculture as a source of livelihood, that’s what set me on this journey to see if there was something that we could do with tech in these communities.
Question: You’re doing something much different than farming and the growing of crops, what is that?
Rikin: Basically what we do with these farmers is that we train them to produce short videos that are by farmers for farmers to exchange agricultural practices that can boost their productivity more efficiently. You can think of it like a peer-to-peer video exchange essentially for these farming communities. We do that now across 12 countries with 1.2 million farmers. What we’ve also realized is that these farmers need more than just boosting their productivity they also need access to markets and so about two years ago we actually introduced a new service which you can think of like an Uber pool for farmers where we match them with nearby transporters to carry their perishable food and vegetable produce to nearby wholesale markets and get them paid back on the same day.
Question: How do you come in contact with the farmers and get them enrolled?
Rikin: The primary way that establish trust and relationship with these communities is by partnering with local organizations, oftentimes these are other nonprofits that already have grassroots level connections to these communities and nowadays it’s mostly government departments ministries of Agriculture and Rural Development who have large foot soldiers essentially on the ground whose job is to train farmers on ways to boost it a Productivity. This this whole model of agricultural development is called Agricultural Extension and it borrows from the US where we have these land-grant institutions like the University of California and Cornell and Texas A&M that similarly have these extension programs that train US farmers by bringing out the latest research to the fields of these farmers.
Question: What are some of the challenges that these rural farmers are facing?
Rikin: It’s a global challenge for farmers around the world. You can think of this profession as one of the riskiest. There are so many externalities, whether it is weathers or poor market conditions that really affect the viability of this profession. What’s inspiring is that these farmers, for instance in India, represent the second highest farm output in the world in aggregate, this fifty percent of India’s population that depends on agriculture, but at the same time they’re earning just one to two dollars a day in income and are even having basic issues of food sufficiency which is such a surprise that they’re the primary producers of agricultural produce but yet they don’t have enough food for their own families to eat. We see that even here in the US. Many of the food deserts that we talk about in the US are in places like Fresno. This year it has had the lowest farm income for over more than 12 years in the US then than any preceding year.
Question: I understand that India has a water challenge right now and that you address that how to how to more efficiently use the water and for the growing a crops?
Rikin: With changes in the environment and climate, farmers are the first sort of people who are immediately affected by it on their livelihoods, so we certainly have a lot of practices related to how do we you build greater resilience for these communities by for instance water conservation structures or setting up simple farm ponds on their small 1 to 2 acre plots just to be able to recharge the groundwater supplies. It’s a major issue especially as people are digging deeper and deeper wells for the urban centers, but even agriculture ends up being a major consumer of freshwater and so a lot of our practices are around how do you reduce the consumption of irrigation and other types of inputs that at this point are putting a lot of farmers sort of into a place of negative returns on their investments.
Question: Would you say that you’re more in an advisory that the model of digital green is more of an advisory to governments and their Agriculture Departments?
Rikin: Yes, we partner closely with these government organizations that are already working with these farming communities because we don’t want to set up a parallel system to the work that they’re already doing, but we see opportunities to really boost their efficiency and so the reason why our approach works is because we’re not producing videos for them, rather we’re training their staff and the communities that they work with to produce these videos by themselves and for that are communities that they serve so that this can then just become part of their day-to-day operations to impact more communities in a more targeted way.
Question: You’re now in 12 countries in just 12 years. Can you tell us how you went about that expansion?
Rikin: Our primary approach in terms of how we scale is largely through these partner organizations which in large part are nowadays these government ministries of Agriculture & Rural Development that already have these large teams on the ground that have the trust relationships with these farming communities and the expertise to know what practices are going to be relevant in different places and times and that’s really what we’re piggybacking on top of by using that platform to then introduce these videos that are produced by and for the community to basically improve their efficiency. We do have a team now about a 150 people who are distributed across the 12 countries where we now operate but it’s really when our partners internalize this approach into their day-to-day operations that were able to kind of have this scaled impact.
Question: Do you do a lot of travel in your in your day to day activities?
Rikin: Every month I’m in a country that we operate in between Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Question: In the future farming some people have been convinced that the need to do a lot of vertical farms, could you elaborate on that and whether it applies to the rural farms?
Rikin: Vertical farming in general such as in the west has this conception of high investment in setting up for instance aquaponic infrastructure in a shipping container providing various types of electricity and connectivity to be able to automate the production of these vertical farms. There’s a corollary though for how even in these rural farms in remote parts of South Asia and Africa that have no power and no connectivity, how they can replicate some of those same benefits though of vertical farming and that is you can still layer one crop on top of the other because there are different standing lens, so different types of crops that you might grow and they also have different time frames and seasonality associated with when they’re going to be available for harvesting for instance. A lot of our practices are around saying that for even the small farmer who just has one to two acres worth of land, how can they maximize their return on investment for that small acreage by increasing both the intensification and diversification of the production that they have in that small area of land. Oftentimes we think about in agriculture that there could be economies of scale by like for instance investing in technology, but the main asset that these small farmers in Asia and Africa have is their land and themselves. You can get more efficiency on these small plots than you could even in a 10,000 acre farm in the west.
Question: There’s a big popularity especially in in America about getting things that are organic, however I understand there’s a big challenge for the farmer without the use of pesticides and the fertilizers. Are you addressing that for some of these farms?
Rikin: Some of these farmers across Africa and Asia are actually organic by default and that is because they just have no access to fertilizers or pesticides or even seeds from agro dealers of various kinds and for those folks sometimes the basic issue is food sufficiency, they don’t even have enough to eat for themselves and for their families and sometimes it is that you just need perhaps fertilizers to actually be able to just boost your production so that you can move off of a subsistence level. In other parts of India they’re overusing fertilizers and pesticides and a lot of this is getting into the runoff that gets into the aquifers and even effects human health and so in that case it is sometimes about reducing these external inputs or synthetic inputs and going to a more organic based production but as you said for anyone who’s making like the transition to say certified organic, that’s a big step and you might do that if you can really claim certification and command a price premium for your product but that has lots of dependencies on is there a market for like organic produce and a lot of the places that we operate, there’s a trust deficit even on the consumer side to believe is something that’s labeled organic truly organic and if they don’t believe it they’re not going to pay for it.
Question: What’s your revenue model, how do you guys sustain yourself?
Rikin: We basically have two arms two digital green, one is our non profit one where we see agricultural education and training using videos produced by and for farmers really as a public good because these small farmers have just basic issues of meeting their own food sufficiency needs and nobody has even invested in providing them even basic education. That’s why we do that in close collaboration with the governments that we partner with and the government’s typically will invest in all the capital costs the projectors the cameras the computers the people who typically are of their own teams who produce and show the videos they cover all of those kind of operating costs and donors from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to USAID and corporate social responsibility programs of Google Cisco Oracle types of companies fund our technology development and training support to these governments. The other venture the logistic service that I mentioned of that helps to match farmers with nearby transporters and take their produce to market for sale, the farmers actually pay for that service because we’re basically providing a cheaper alternative to the farmers taking the produce on their own by bus or by bicycle to the marketplace and we basically save them time and money to do so.
Question: If a person is interested in engaging your services, how where they go about contacting you.
Rikin: Check out our website at DigitalGreen.org. and of course you’re most welcome to email me directly.
Edited for Concision
Bio Courtesy of Rikin Ghandi