Since December 2017, approximately 15,000 farmers in Meghalaya have been busy thumbing in four digits into their mobile phones: 1 9 1 7. The toll-free number connects them to a call centre based in Shillong’s Laitumkhrah area, manned by 20 operators. The operators, who are “agriculture specialists”, are available on call from 10 am to 5 pm, Mondays through Saturdays, to answer “any and every query” a farmer (or a buyer, for that matter) might have. Ri Bhoi district’s Ninestar Shadap, a ginger and paddy farmer who lives in Palwi village, has been using the helpline since March. “For the first time in my life, I am directly speaking to customers outside of my little village,” he says.
Shadap is one of the 15,064 farmers who are registered under the Meghalaya government’s 1917 iTeams (Integrated Technology Enabled Agriculture Management System), which was launched in December 2017 to primarily “connect farmers to markets”. But according to Sampath Kumar, the brain behind the initiative, the 1917 service has many ramifications beyond, and can potentially be a game-changer in Meghalaya’s agriculture economy. Kumar, who is an official in the state’s Agriculture department, compares the functioning of the 1917 model to that of popular e-commerce platforms. “This is like EBay or Amazon for farmers,” he says. The service, however, works more like an emergency helpline. “Like the UP100 (for state-wide safety in Uttar Pradesh) or 108 (for medical emergencies). Farmers, often located in the remote areas, require similar kind of assistance.”
Officially launched on December 29, 2017, the 1917 Service, has really taken off only in the last couple of months. “A farmer’s main problem is that he is not directly connected to the market. He has no idea about market patterns, and often loses money,” says Kumar.
Currently the heart of the entire program is centred around two “cloud-based” call centres referred to as the Agricultural Response Centres (one in Shillong, another smaller one in Tura) that connect about 15,000 farmers to a pool of 150 plus buyers including startups, commercial ventures and independent customers. “The motive is too set the farmers free,” says Kumar, adding that the helpline number (1917) corresponds to the year of the Mahatma Gandhi’s Champaran Satyagraha. “A pure but very lucky coincidence,” Kumar says, “I chose the number randomly from the pool of available toll-free numbers given by the Ministry of Telecom. Only later did I realise the significance of the date.”
One way to “set the farmers free”, according to Kumar, was providing them knowledge through technology. He calls the 1917 service a “disruptive innovation”: “We disrupt — through technology — what is believed to be current market information. We are accessing information which is otherwise not known to people,” he says, adding that he had done a course on “Disruptive Innovation” at the Harvard Business School in 2013. “In another couple of months, we will be able to get some kind of trends using the data available to us: which produce does well, which area does well, so on and so forth.”
On the ground, however, these technical terms do not mean much to the farmer — as in the case of 37-year-old ginger farmer, Respilia Lyngdoh from Ribhoi’s Umden Mission Village. “We are poor people,” says Lyngdoh, who lives with her 70-year-old mother, “We like 1917 because it has helped us save money.” Ever since Lyngdoh started using the helpline (though she claims that she has never dialled the number herself but is helped by another local resident) in April, she has saved “a lot of money.” “The service also helps us transport our ginger to the local markets, as well as bring us gobar from the local market to our homes. Before we had to spend on private vehicles. They charged Rs 3,000 for a journey of two hours. But these new people charge us much less — Rs 1,000,” she says. Part of the 1917 Service are a fleet of “Agri-Response Vehicles” or “ARV”s — 19 vans which give farmers logistical support in terms of picking up and dropping produce as well as arriving on the spot on a need-basis. “It’s like Uber for farmers,” explains Kumar.
On the other end, is florist Bhakupar L. Nawnai, who owns TimbreTown Enterprise in Shillong’s Laitumkhrah. “Meghalaya is a small state but it is hard to contact farmers, and get into interior areas,” he says. Earlier Nawnai would go on field visits to sources roses etc. “Many times it would go in vain. Sometimes the deal would take days to close, but with 1917, I save a lot of time. Connectivity makes things so much easier,” he says.
The 1917 initiative also includes extension services: “Suppose a farmer has a problem — maybe his crops have been attacked, or his livestock is ill. He can dial us and talk to ta subject matter specialist. If the issue is beyond our capabilities we rope in higher-level authorities outside the call centre,” says Kumar.
Lyngdoh and Shadap, both of whom are from the Ri Bhoi district (though different villages), feel that the service has brought “happiness to everyone in their respective villages.” Currently, the service is functional in clusters: Ri Bhoi, West Khasi Hills, and West Garo Hills.
Kumar says that while they have a functional website now, they are planning to create social media handles too to reach out to more buyers. “Startups are already approaching us. Often, Meghalaya’s Lakadong turmeric generates special interest — and thus, many young people want to do business in agriculture,” says Kumar, while he is careful to add that such initiatives take time to work. “We have to win the confidence of both the farmers and buyers first. That’s foremost.” he says.