Green SIM initiative by IFFCO, Airtel & ICRISAT

Green SIM is an initiative by Indian Farmers Fertilisers Cooperative Ltd (IFFCO), Bharati Airtel and International Crops Research Institute for the Semiarid Tropics (ICRISAT) to provide information on agriculture to farmers. The venture consists of low-cost mobile phones that are distributed through IFFCO centres bundled with Airtel SIM cards.  These “Green SIM cards” entitle farmers to receive from IFFCO everyday on issues such as mandi prices, farming techniques, weather forecasts, diary farming, animal husbandry, rural health initiatives and fertiliser availability.

While I do not believe that information dissemination of this sort will go as far as bringing a “second green revolution” as an Airtel press release suggests, I concur with various studies that that timely information could be of value to farmers in making critical decisions, and welcome initiatives such as this.

Practical challenges

As someone involved in a project of disseminating information to people in rural areas, I am curious to find what kind of practical challenges the Green SIM project is running into.  Based on our experience, I feel that the most important challenge that the project may face is one of a large proportion of calls being dropped or not picked up by the farmers.  This can happen due to a few reasons:

  1. Five messages every day could quickly become boring, and lead to drops in pick up rates.
  2. There is often a narrow window in which people are available and willing to pick up phone calls. If one were to make one or two calls in a week, it would be possible to identify times of the day when call pick up rates are likely to be high. Such a tweaking would be impossible while broadcasting five messages every day.  In such a case, it is possible that many important messages will not be received by the farmers.
  3. Generic messages are sometimes relevant to the users and sometimes not. The annual report (2013) of ICRISAT mentions that this service is a variant of an android application they developed called the Krisihi Gyan Sagar, which provides customised information to farmers based on their GPS location. The Green Sim initiative in contrast will provide only generic information to farmers.  Giving up on customised messages compromises the degree of relevance of each message, and consequently the interest that farmers might have in the system on the whole.

It would be interesting to learn about the innovations that the Green SIM project is trying in order to confront these problems, and to create a viable sustained system of disseminating useful information to farmers.

Tying the system to a provider

IFFCO is a public funded cooperative that is supposed to work for the benefit of all farmers in India. Ideally, any system of information dissemination of value that it creates should be designed in a way that is not tied to a mobile service provider. The Airtel press release cited above suggests that the company will provide up to 5 free phone calls in a day, which is a substantial advantage that IFFCO should take up. At the same time, I hope that alternative mechanisms have been put in place in order to ensure that information dissemination is not tied to one mobile service provider.

There is a lot more to learn on this project, and a would welcome it if any reader can give me pointers about this.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.