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.”
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.
“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 ”
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.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF SHEFFIELD HALLAM UNIVERSIT Y
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.
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
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.