Mobile Learning: How Smartphones Help Illiterate Farmers in Rural India

Small farmers are some of the most important people in the world – as Hendrik Knoche explains in today’s ‘Digital Diversity’, they provide over half of the world’s food supply. Helping such farmers improve their methods through innovative and efficient agriculture has long been an aim of development projects and an important part of the fight against global hunger. But many small farmers are illiterate, meaning it is difficult for them to share and learn about new farming practices. In addition, such development projects often fail to listen to small farmers’ own local knowledge and ideas about agriculture, causing schemes to fail.

Computer scientist Hendrik, at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, is aiming to change that. He has designed a new smart-phone interface for farmers especially so that both illiterate and literate can share ideas and vital information about agriculture, helping them, and 62% of the world’s food supply, to stay in business.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts from FrontlineSMS about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This article was curated by Olivia O’Sullivan, our Media and Research Assistant.

By Hendrik Knoche

Rain-fed farming provides 62% of the world food supply. In India, small farmers cultivate 50% of the land.  However, these farmers are often held back by inefficient, unproductive methods. Rain-fed farming productivity could improve greatly if individual farmers picked up more innovative methods – improving production, business, and helping to fight hunger. The goal of the development project I work on is to boost the dissemination of information on agriculture and its practices among marginal farmers through information communication technology (ICT).

In 2009 I travelled to Devarahati, a small village three hours north of India’s prolific IT hub Bangalore for the first time, to better understand how to implement this project. At first glance Devarahati’s residents seem to use little advanced technology. In fact few things in this poor community remind me of life in the 21st century. No sanitation is available but for a foot-wide groove in the ground. Drinking water comes from a government sponsored bore-well that required drilling 300ft down to reach the ever dropping water table. However, the pump for the well is only operational during the six-hour period each day when electricity is available.  Those who can afford to build concrete cisterns to collect the monsoonal rain from their homes’ roofs for later consumption.


A view of Devarahati. (Photo: Hendrik Knoche)


When one looks again, however, one sees signs of 20th century developments. A few homes that look like they were constructed a thousand years ago sport satellite dishes. Plastic rubbish is strewn all over the ground. And in the distance two cell phone towers clearly mark the age of mobile communication.

Mobile phones have proven transformative in allowing residents of rural India to communicate more easily and frequently  with city-based family members or obtain information on market prices. They also provide unexpected side benefits. Walking around the village my translator Suma points out farmers wearing earphones – according to her, they are “poorly educated people who don’t even have a SIM card but just use their phones as music players”. One of them, Fakruddin, a 58-year old illiterate farmer, remembers that when GSM coverage arrived in the area five years ago only rich farmers and traders could afford to buy phones and make calls. Now even poor farmers like him can afford mobile technology. He feels that prepaid card call charges are still expensive but Suma counters that providers throw in 150 free text messages per day. However, like most marginal farmers in this area Fakruddin cannot benefit from texting as he cannot read or write the script of his mother tongue, Kannada.


Wiring up in rural India. (Photo: Hendrik Knoche)


Suma seems dismayed that many people in her home community appropriate technology for such mundane activities as entertainment. But I’m thrilled. It is clear that with the right incentives people are investing in individual ownership of technology, managing to charge their phones during the windows at which power is available, and mastering the user interfaces of phones not designed for illiterate people.

For our project the mobile phone is the most promising platform to disseminate relevant information throughout the farming community. A number of services already provide weather forecasts and market prices to farmers via text messages. But these don’t help illiterate farmers. The application that we have been developing is based on a long term involvement with a local NGO and numerous interviews and meetings with farmers. The farming application is for touch screen smart phones, the cost of which has dramatically decreased in recent months.


A smartphone interface for illiterate users. (Photo: Hendrik Knoche)


The application lets literate and illiterate farmers share information about the inputs they use such as seeds, fertilizers and pesticides and learn about problems their peers are facing in terms of pests and diseases and what crop yield and prices they have achieved. The immediacy provided by touch screen technology in conjunction with audio-visual feedback can enable illiterate people to engage with digital information. In a side project we have built an application that allows illiterate users to ‘read’, i.e. listen to, and compose SMS based on previous messages, icons, and speech input.

In a field trial this summer we are hoping to better understand if and how the farmers in Devarahati will appropriate this novel technology into their decision-making processes. For the many farmers who do not own TVs the mobile phone will most likely become a second source of entertainment as well as a flashlight to be used during the frequent power cuts. But we hope that farmers will more readily adopt agricultural innovations if a trusted peer had a good experience with them. Our goal is essentially to use the word-of-mouth approach that locals trust, rather than coming into communities and telling them what to do. It’s just that we’re using technology to make word-of-mouth bigger and better.

Hendrik Knoche is a computer scientist working on user experience in mobile multimedia technology. He is a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, who works on ICT for Development in India as part of the Common Sense net 2.0 project in collaboration with IISc Bangalore and the CKPura trust. This joint effort is sponsored by the Swiss agency for development and cooperation (SDC).

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, mentor, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in “Digital Diversity” about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.

You can read all the posts in this series, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter.


Meet the Author
Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.