In Bangladesh, availability of timely and appropriate information is a big challenge due to an inefficient extension system. Farmers lack access to relevant and timely information, knowledge about new technologies, skills, practices, ways to collaborate with the market and resources to overcome these limitations. As a result, smallholders are vulnerable to crop related diseases, suffer productivity constraints and fail to take advantage of potential farming opportunities. Poor awareness and lack of understanding of the benefits of information services among farmers are also challenges.
To address these issues, the Bangladesh Institute of ICT in Development (BIID), in collaboration with Katalyst (a multi donor development initiative) and Grameen Phone (a leading telecom operator), launched the e-Krishok initiative in 2008. e-Krishok aims to bridge the information gap that exists in the agriculture sector and build awareness and capacity of farmers to use ICT-enabled information and advisory services. BIID is also working to demonstrate the potential of the existing mobile network to reach the last mile and connect smallscale farmers with e-Krishok services.
e-Krishok offers information and advisory services through mobile phones (call back and SMS) and email. All information is sourced from the government and private sectors: e-Krishok collates and disseminates this directly to farmers. Through the 'push pull' service, farmers receive two SMS messages on a particular topic they request, at a cost of US$0.03 per SMS. A second service enables farmers to receive a call from a BIID information officer to respond to their immediate needs (US$0.07 per minute), and four SMS messages, containing relevant information about the topic in question. "It was a different experience to get my problems solved over my phone, by which I saved my crop [rice]. I never received a solution so quickly. It will be very easy for me now to call e-Krishok and solve problems," explains Ekram Hoosain, a farmer from Bagerhat.
Initially, the service was tested through a pilot at Grameen Phone Community Information Centres (CIC) in ten locations. In 2009, it was replicated in 100 CIC locations across the country, and by February 2010 e-Krishok had enlisted over 15,000 farmers and provided information and advice on crops, fisheries and livestock to 8,000 farmers.
This initial success led BIID to introduce e-Krishok as a 'service' package (providing information and advisory service, extension and market linkage) across Bangladesh's network of telecentres and through input retailers nationwide. Now available to any information centre with internet facilities or a mobile phone, the service has expanded to cover the entire country; it is now available at 350 centres and is hoping to reach 500,000 farmers in 2012.
To link farmers with the service and act as an interface between the farmers and the technology, BIID has a team of 'business promoters' (BP). BPs send farmers' queries - about solutions for pests and diseases, fertiliser dosages, and input information via email, or link farmers directly to BIID agriculture experts over the phone.
"When we introduced e-Krishok, integration of ICT was quite new in Bangladesh, so the awareness level among farmers, input suppliers and government extension officials was very low," says Shahid Uddin Akbar, CEO of BIID. "We are still working to increase this awareness. We organise various events, including farmer visits and demonstrations, and use different tools - direct communication, brochures, posters, and newspaper advertisements - to build awareness among the stakeholders."
To improve the sustainability of the project, BIID has partnered with various organisations, including input suppliers, who provide content for e-Krishok, link with local retailers, support awareness programmes, and in return BIID promotes their products among the farmers for a small cost; in Bangladesh, input suppliers are usually dependent on distributors and retailers, so the companies have little direct connection with farmers. The government is also outsourcing some extension services to BIID. "The core lesson we learned from e-Krishok is that serving the poor whilst making a profit is possible," Akbar explains. "Our vision is for e-Krishok to become the most reliable agricultural extension service provider and integrate other key services for farmers, including market linkage and crop insurance."