KOLKATA, India – One-third of the world’s billion or so poor live in India. Moreover, while they reside in rural areas, most of India’s poor live an agricultural lifestyle. With the size of its labor pool, sprawling fertile land and investment in agricultural research, India has become the second largest agricultural producer in the world. However, India’s agricultural success has not translated to better lives for poor farmers. Despite the investment and natural endowments, India’s farm productivity remains low.
Low farm productivity in India is due to a number of problems. Most poor farmers have smaller plots of land, but it is the inability to foster high-yields or receive fair prices which keeps India’s farmers in poverty. The problem is that high-yield farming and selling power require access to information—something which poor rural farmers did not have access to until recently.
For more than a decade now, Indian conglomerate ITC Limited (formerly Imperial Tobacco Company Limited) has been implementing an innovative new technological solution to poor farmers’ access to information problem—the e-Choupal. Using the e-Choupal system, farmers have access to global supply and are able to demand conditions affecting local prices, local weather conditions and crop management knowledge which affect yields. Making use of the e-Choupal has allowed many soybean farmers in India to transform their low-yield farms to highly productive ones.
The e-Choupal works by circumventing a fragmented supply chain and an underdeveloped infrastructure comprised largely of dishonest middlemen who take advantage of farmers. Since most farmers don’t know what fair market prices are, they are forced to be ‘price-takers,’ selling their soybean at whatever prices are set at the local marketplaces (mandi.)
ITC’s e-Choupal is a highly sophisticated system which provides real-time information that equips farmers with modern crop management techniques as well as global market prices. This allows farmers to increase their yields and get better prices for their soybean at the mandi.
The e-Choupal further works by selecting and training lead farmers on how to use the e-Choupal system and providing them with basic Internet access and a computer in their homes. The lead farmer is then duty bound to allow access to and provide help to their neighboring farmers. In keeping with the Hindi meaning of the word Choupal, translated as “a meeting place,” the homes of lead farmers become kiosks where farmers meet to gain access to highly customized knowledge about best farming practices, weather conditions and most importantly global market prices. Farmers then go to the mandi with more produce and knowledge that allows them to be ‘price-givers.’
In 2000 ITC started the e-Choupal with 2000 kiosks. It has since grown to include 6.500 centers that connect 40,000 villages. The system encompasses 4 million farmers across six states and is only gaining in popularity and effectiveness. ITC’s innovative new tech has won several development and business awards and is used as a case study in many schools, including Harvard.
What the e-Choupal demonstrates is how a simple idea and limited resources can be used effectively to empower the world’s poor and help them help themselves out of poverty.