This man is bridging the information gap in agriculture using smart phones

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In a quest to answer simple queries of his villager Sibjan Chaulagain created a platform that is benefiting farmers from 15 districts in Nepal. Leveraging the penetration of mobile phones and internet in rural Nepal he is taking the crucial information on pest, weather, soil and prices to farmers.

In conversation with Sibjan Chaulagain, Managing Director and Co-founder of ICT for Agri PVT. LTD who gave us an heartfelt account of his entrepreneurial journey.

What is ICT for Agri? Could you briefly introduce your company and its services to us?
ICT stands for Information and Communication Technology. As the name suggest, we focus on providing information and communication technology to the agriculture sector of Nepal.
We disburse information on market prices, weather forecasts, details of pest, diseases and advice on how to grow and cultivate different kinds of crops and vegetables suitable to the local climate and soil condition. We send out this information through SMS and our mobile application called Krishi Guru catering to farmers both with and without smart phones.  Through our app Krishi Guru, we provide valuable information by using graphics and videos. Farmers can also send pictures of infected crop and get a resolution for their farming issues.
The platform is open to anyone interested in sharing information and helping the farming community.

Apart from this, we have information on more than hundred crops, vegetables, and livestock and methods to make them commercially viable. Our motive is to solve the problem of information scarcity that exists in the current market.

Who can take advantage of the services provided by ICT for Agri?
Basically, we focus on the needs of value-chain actors in the agriculture sector. The value chain actor essentially means the farmers, market traders; agriculture input suppliers as well as organizations who work towards the development of the sector. Using our platform farmers can post a query on fertilizer, pesticides, seeds etc we have experts who answer their questions. A trader can place an order for a commodity and quote the price they are willing to offer. Similarly, we have organizations which provide information on different market trends and opportunities like subsidies that are made available to the farmers and how can they avail it.

How has the journey of ICT for Agri been so far?
The journey of ICT for Agri dates back to 2013. I am an engineer by education. When I graduated in the year 2011, instead of taking up a job, I went back to my village Sindhuli and started teaching computer science.  Because I was the first engineer in my village, people thought that I know everything – including agriculture. So they would come and ask me questions like, “why is my livestock falling sick?” or “what disease is harming my crops?” and “what is the cure for this problem”. I had no idea! I decided to develop a solution to answer these simple questions. Initially, my focus was on digital education, but then I realized that most of the people in my village were farmers and not just that, there are about 12 million people who are involved in the agriculture sector in Nepal.
Around the same time, I was selected as a youth council member in US Embassy. We had a program called civic engagement project, so I pitched ICT4Agri and received seed funding. We built our mobile application and SMS- based platform and implemented the pilot in my village. Using Information and Communication Technology to uplift the agriculture sector of Nepal was a fairly new idea back in 2014. Since then, we have covered more than 15 districts in Nepal by collaborating with renowned organizations like ICIMOD, CARE and ADRA.

From an Engineer to an Entrepreneur, what were the challenges that you had to face to come this far and how did you overcome those challenges?
The most challenging part for us was to convince farmers to adopt technology required to access critical information pertaining to their farms and crops that we readily provide.  People in remote places knew that the information we were providing was vital for them but they barely knew how to check SMSes on their phone.
In the initial days, we were sending SMSes in Nepali using English script but the farmers had to visit nearby schools to ask teachers or students to translate the information to them so we decided to move to Devnagari Script.
Another issue we faced was character limitation of feature phones. We could not send lengthy SMSes nor could we send graphics which is possible in apps. On the other hand, farmers with smartphones did not have Google accounts which meant they could not download our app and access data. We are still working on resolving these challenges.

Who are the intermediary organization do you collaborate with and how do you work with them?
The organizations that we collaborate with give us information about the different agricultural sectors of Nepal. For example, we collaborated with Large Cardamom Entrepreneur Association, a body that is responsible in determining the market prices for cardamom. They update the prices of cardamom on day to day basis on Krishi Guru and the farmers who want to get this information can place an enquiry by using our SMS code, IFA, ACH. During season, the number of inquiries exceeds 500 per day!

How many villages  your currently working in?
Currently, we are working in the Nawalparasi district as well as four districts of far-western development region including Kailali, Dadeldhura, Surkhet, and Banke.  We have partnered with ADRA-Nepal and cover four districts in Terai and with ICIMOD we cover Taplejung.

What is the defining need of your organization?
It is really difficult for us to find human resources with expertise in the field of agriculture and information technology. Agriculture and IT graduates come to our organization to gain real experience, but they tend to seek permanent jobs in Government sectors, hence our employee turnover rate is high.

How many employees are currently working in ICT for Agri?
We have a total of 6 people working at ICT for Agri on fulltime basis.

What is your customer base like?
We have more than 80,000 downloads of our app Krishi Guru and 250,000 plus followers on social media. We also receive around 500 SMSes every day and have more than 10 organizations subscribed to us.

What is the legal structure of your company?
Since we decided to convert the civic engagement project into a social business, for the first couple of years we operated as a non-profit distributing company. Now we are registered as Pvt. Ltd. Company.

What were your sources of funding?
ICT for Agri received its seed investment from the Youth Council organized by the US Embassy. Since then, my co-founder Ishwor Mall (who joined me in 2016) and I have invested in this company with our own money. Our customers are farmers with low disposable income and our business is not attractive for investors who expect a high rate of return. However, we were able to generate funds by winning several awards including Ncell App Camp 2014, Reconnect Challenge, Echoing Green Fellowship and Data Driven Farming award by US-AID.

What is your revenue model?
We do not charge the farmers. Instead, we charge the organizations that provide services to the people working in the agriculture sector. We also receive a very small amount of commission from the SMS service that we provide. However, the app is completely free of cost.

How has the overall return on business been so far?
From the generated revenue and grant’s fundings, we have been able to sustain our business till now. We have been investing in research and development so I will say that the returns have been good enough to allow us to continue the work we are doing.

What are the future plans for ICT for Agri?
As I mentioned, one of the major hiccups we faced in implementation of ICT was the skepticism of the farmers. So we are looking for strong enablers who can assist us by taking this application to a large number of people. With this objective, we plan to collaborate with major stakeholders in telecommunication sector who are interested in the field of agriculture and technology.

Interested in learning more about ICT for Agri? You can reach Sibjan Chaulagain at info@ict4agri.com.

Interviewed by Shambhavi Singh and Edited by Jasmin Karmacharya