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How Smartphones Saved Bangamunda’s Tomatoes

Mukesh Dubey

Program Coordinator – ICT and Partnerships, Trickle Up India

 

Mobile technology has become an integral component of the Graduation Approach for Trickle Up as an effective tool for field agents, coaches, and project participants to leverage access to social protection programs, financial inclusion, improvements to health, clean water and sanitation, and build livelihood skills.

 

In July and August 2017, the most recent season for cultivating vegetables, the tobacco caterpillar attacked the tomato crops of families living in extreme poverty in Bangamunda block of Sundergarh district in Odisha. They faced the loss of the entire crop they had cultivated on leased land.

For families living in extreme poverty, such a loss could be catastrophic.

 

Luckily, Bangamunda is one of the communities in Trickle Up's M-Powered project. The pilot project provides women living in extreme poverty with a smartphone, connecting them with livelihoods coaches, government services, program staff, and one another. Faced with the loss of their livelihood, the affected participants immediately used their smartphones to alert local Community Resource Persons (CRPs) and coaches to the situation and asked for help. The CRPs and coaches who received the alert sent photos of the damaged crops to a group chat of their peers to consult in real time on the best solution.

 

Coaches, CRPs, staff from Trickle Up, local partners, and the Odisha Livelihood Mission (OLM) all responded to the urgent request.

They discussed the participants’ best options and advised on which organic pesticides to use to save the tomatoes. With this information, the participants were able to minimize the loss of their crops. This is just one of many instances where agricultural specialists can rapidly intervene to help participants when crops are attacked by pests.

 

The group chat also allows project staff to help participants access social security and other government services. The group regularly shares useful information for participants, such as jobs through Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), housing through Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY), sanitation, health camps, insurance programs, vaccination of livestock, market price of vegetables and other crops, best livelihood practices, and other relevant government programs.

 

As part of the M-Powered project supported by Tata Communications, coaches and CRPs use smartphones to access information and communicate with participants, and use apps made by the local and central government to conduct financial transactions or get status updates on housing projects. They also train participants on how to use Trickle Up’s custom app ‘Package of Practices’ (POP) to support their livelihoods. Smartphones help participants communicate regularly with CRPs and coaches about their agriculture, livestock, and savings group meetings. Some participants also used the POP app during the last crop season to improve their cultivation practices by optimizing the timing and tracking of their agricultural activities.

 

The smartphone has provided a much-needed boost to real-time exchange of information among participants, CRPs, and coaches. It’s not just a tool to access information, but also an asset that’s changing how participants use information to enhance their lives.

 

The integration of mobile technology into the Graduation Approach can do wonders to facilitate the work of coaches and CRPs. Smartphones can help them more easily and frequently provide support to participants. The four key areas where smartphones can add value in Graduation are:

 

  1. Market Analyses: Market assessments are done to provide relevant, customized livelihood options for ultrapoor participants. Digital technology can help link participants with value chains to allow access and entry to the market. With real-time information, supply, and prices, digital technology can create a more level playing field for women and help increase their participation in local markets.
  2. Coaching: Mobile technology can revolutionize coaching, the most important component of Graduation. Participants with smartphones have instant access to their coaches, which can increase their engagement on a more personal level. Coaches can keep track of each participant’s progress and provide instant support, even remotely. Coaches, with the help of digital technology, become a source of relevant information on government social protection programs that previously participants found difficult to access.
  3. Savings: Smartphones are also a tool to promote financial literacy and inclusion. Linking participants’ bank accounts with their mobile numbers aligns with the government’s focus on creating a digital economy. They can now access credit and debit notes on their phones, instead of spending valuable time and money on traveling to a bank. They can also access information about insurance, pensions, and other transactions like subsidies through their phones.
  4. Skills Training: Smartphone applications like Trickle Up’s POP app can help change the livelihood practices of participants through easy and simple navigation supported by step-by-step audio-visual content created for illiterate women. Smartphones also work as an extension of classroom training to help participants use information while at home or in their fields.

 

These observations are based on learnings from the M-Powered project in Odisha and Jharkhand. Many challenges remain, including functional and digital illiteracy, poor data connectivity, and social power dynamics at the household and community level, which pose a threat to the integration of technology in poverty alleviation programs. However, as the government focuses on building a digital economy by linking social security programs to the ever-expanding reach of mobile services in rural India, the landscape of rural poverty is rapidly changing. Many first generation smartphone users are in rural areas; in fact, rural markets account for 60% of new mobile subscription growth. It is projected that by 2020, 1.2 billion people in India will have a mobile subscription.

 

Given this context, Graduation programs will soon need to integrate their components with digital technologies to help rural families in extreme poverty improve their economic and social well-being. Trickle Up is excited to see how our pilot project continues to evolve, and incorporate learnings from this initial digital inclusion work into our future projects globally.