THE PROJECT: Build an IT system connecting rural farmers in India with crop experts
THE BUDGET: £364,500
THE TIMELINE: Late 2006 to early 2009
THE SEED OF AN IDEA
Looking to examine the relationship between technology and social development, researchers at Sheffield Hallam University in Sheffield, England teamed up with a co-op of 600 farmers in India. The goal was to create software that would let the largely illiterate farmers send multimedia messages to agricultural experts who would offer advice—all via mobile phones.
Despite the project team's best intentions, the farmers were “quite distrustful,” says Andy Dearden, PhD, a reader at the university. To increase buy-in, he enlisted the aid of S.M. Haider Rizvi, PhD, director of policy analysis at the School of Good Governance & Policy Analysis, Bhopal, India.
“Dr. Rizvi went back and forth to work with the farmers and built their trust over an extended period of time before we began the software development,” says Dr. Dearden. “That was crucial.”
I was not very experienced in project management when I began this project and I learned the importance of having a clearly defined memorandum of understanding with project partners at the beginning of a project. Otherwise things diverge too easily.
—Andy Dearden, PhD, Sheffield Hallum University, Sheffield, England
Through a series of workshops, Dr. Rizvi had the farmers define their current practices and identify problems. Then, he showed them how computers could help.
SAME COUNTRY, DIFFERENT WORLDS
Software developers made a 24-hour journey by rail from Hyderabad in Southern India to the farms in Sironj in the center of the country.
The physical distance was one thing, but the project team was surprised by the cultural differences between the farmers and the developers from the city. “Sustaining [the farmers’] interest and transforming them into co-designers was difficult,” admits Dr. Rizvi.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SHEFFIELD HALLAM UNIVERSITY
Once the developers returned home, they spent the next six weeks using agile methodologies to create the software. The developers then delivered the software in a series of releases over a four-month period. There was just one glitch: The farmers were overwhelmed by the constant updates.
“The software developers embraced the agile process, but I had to slow them down because the farmers needed more time to get their heads around each deliverable,” Dr. Dearden says.
If a few deadlines were missed along the way, that was okay with him.
“The end date was less important than the project outcomes,” Dr. Dearden says, “because if we had gotten a piece of software but the farmers weren't on board with it, the project would not have been a success.”
NAME THAT BUG
The system rolled out to 25 of a planned 40 villages in June 2008. By borrowing a mobile from a project team member if they don't have one themselves, the farmers can ask questions “about pests and disease treatment, or what they should plant based on weather conditions,” Dr. Dearden explains. The software also lets them take pictures and record audio files that can be e-mailed to agricultural advisers who review and respond.
The pilot project worked well, although a lack of funding temporarily put the system on hold. Now, with the support of the Madhya Pradesh state government, the team is expanding the initiative. Dr. Dearden is also working with the World Health Organization to launch similar projects in Africa.
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