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2/20/2008
01:10 PM
Chris Murphy
Chris Murphy
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Report From India: In The Villages, A Tantalizing Morsel Of Broadband

The farmers of Brahmanwada, a small farming village I visited this week in central India, use a shared Internet connection called e-choupal to check crop prices, so they can decide if it's worth hiring a truck to take their goods to market. It's an Internet success story. But things got really interesting when I asked them what information they'd like to get online that they can't yet, and the ideas started flying.

The farmers of Brahmanwada, a small farming village I visited this week in central India, use a shared Internet connection called e-choupal to check crop prices, so they can decide if it's worth hiring a truck to take their goods to market. It's an Internet success story. But things got really interesting when I asked them what information they'd like to get online that they can't yet, and the ideas started flying.E-choupal is a for-profit effort by ITC, an Indian tobacco company that's diversified widely, including into consumer food products. Over the past seven years, it has installed 6,500 Internet-connected computers in villages in nine states. E-choupal's closely watched by India's business media, in part because it's a rare example of the country's booming IT sector helping people in rural areas. About 70% of India's population depends on agriculture.

(Click here for photos of the people of Brahmanwada and nearby Nandgaon Peth, and the technology behind the e-choupal.)

E-choupal's helping farmers where it's in place. Sitting with a half dozen farmers in Brahmanwada, they explain how, in the past, once they hired a truck to bring crops to market, they had to take the price on offer that day. Now, they can ask the village sanchalak, a respected local farmer who runs the Internet system for a village and is paid by ITC, for the price while still in their village. ITC posts a price online each evening that it will honor the next day for the best quality crops, based on prices trading on the Chicago Board of Trade. Farmers can even check CBOT prices directly, and ITC also posts some rival markets' prices. "If we see a bullish trend, we might advise them to sell a quarter or a third of their crops, and hold on to some for later," says Sanjiv Buskade, a sanchalak at another central India village, Nandgaon Peth.

Such community computer setups are often called "kiosks," though that will give most Westerners an overly grand image of the technology in use. The e-choupal hardware consists of a basic desktop computer, connected to a satellite Internet connection, plus solar panels and batteries for the very frequent times the power is out. (The power was out in Brahmanwada for the first hour I visited. Farmers say power is off about half the day, most days.) A day's sunlight can provide about 40 minutes of computer power, just enough to check the evening's price. All the ITC applications are Web-based. On the back end, ITC connects the e-choupal network to an ERP system from Ramco, an Indian enterprise software company, to process the individual farmer's transactions.

E-choupal is far from a wide-open Internet channel. If someone wants access to a Web site, their sanchalek must request it from ITC. The network's purpose-built by ITC to provide a direct channel for it to buy crops, and, increasingly, to let other companies sell to farmers. ITC lets partners pay to pitch goods such as insurance or pesticides to the farmers for a fee. The e-choupal weather report alone is a big benefit, since rain determines whether it's a good idea to plant seeds.

ITC sees big opportunity in pushing more content and business through this channel it's built. "We're seeing it as a universal network that connects rural India to the rest of the world," says S. Sivakumar, CEO of the ITC's agri-business division. Sivakumar sees opportunities for credit, health care, and education delivered through the network, though it hasn't figured out the business models for all those yet. This year, it hopes to offer for-fee vocational training, such as in basic computer skills, or in the services and retail industries. It's looking to set up microfinance programs so people buy training and pay it back once they get a job. ITC's also looking at whether e-choupals can support fresh produce sales. Today, it focuses on grains.

Farmers have no shortage of ideas for what they'd like to get from the e-choupal Internet network. When I asked, the first was information about employment for their children, when they finish school. They'd like basic English classes for their children, so they could write English-language resumes to post online. For their farms, they'd like market information on how much their cows or buffaloes are worth, and techniques for better managing their chickens. They're eager for any information to increase their crop yields. They want information on the best quality seeds, about farming techniques from other countries that might work here, and about getting financing for a well.

For the kids of Brahmanwada, the e-choupal computer was the first they'd seen. Pawan Vinodrao Bhuyar was impressed enough that, when he had a question on his botany studies he couldn't figure out, he asked the sanchalek to start the computer and find the answer. His teacher approved of his approach. "The teacher said 'If you know the computer, you'll be treated as literate,' " Pawan told me, through a translator. " 'If you don't know the computer, you will be treated as illiterate.'"

ITC's e-choupal is a certainly an Internet success story, and a private-sector driven one at that. This taste of progress, though, only spotlights all that's left to do in getting connectivity to rural areas.

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