Rikin Gandhi and The Africa Impact

Rikin Gandhi was all set to join the US Air Force when he realised that he needed to do his bit in eliminating poverty. He ‘reverse-migrated’ to India where his idea for Digital Green was formed. Apart from working in 1,200 villages in India, Digital Green is also looking to contribute towards East Africa’s progress. I spoke to him about his work in India, collaborations in Africa, and what he thinks about the future of Africa.

Can you tell us about Digital Green and the work you’re doing in India?

Digital Green uses technology and social organization to improve the efficiency of agricultural extension efforts. We partner with organisations that are already working with farming communities and train these partners and members of the communities that they work with to produce short videos (about 8 to 10 minutes long) on practices and technologies that can improve their productivity and income.  Local farmers feature at the centre of these videos as role models for other farmers so they can be motivated and try for themselves these practices and techniques. We’re currently working in 6 states (Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkand, Orissa) with 80,000 farmers across 1,200 villages. To do so, we work with 8 partner organisations - 7 of which are NGOs and one is a government department: The Ministry of Rural Development.

So, tell us what made you think of Africa?

We’ve always been interested in exploring extensions to our model into other geographies.  Our approach centres on finding partners that have an established level of domain expertise about locally relevant agricultural practises, some established scale in operations, and rapport among the communities that they work with. So, we look for partners with which this system could potentially improve the efficiency of the work that they’re already doing with farming communities.  There seem to be a growing number of interested and capable organizations in Africa. We’re interested to see how the system needs to adapt to local contexts and communities.

Do you think are any similarities in the rural spaces in both regions?

The African continent and India are incredibly diverse.  In many countries, there are growing numbers of Self Help Groups (SHGs) or farmer clubs that provide a forum for sharing videos and engaging individuals in a regular process of learning. It can be difficult when people are not organized to connect with them on an individual level. So, we need some sort of criteria, some kind of community dynamics, some level of partner organisational dynamics to be able to say that it’s something appropriate for us to partner with. But, at the same time, we’re open to new circumstances. In India, for example, we started off in Karnataka and then moved on to Jharkhand where electricity grid connectivity is more limited. We had to adapt our model an transition from the TVs and DVD players that we initially were using to screen videos to battery-operated pico projectors.

You’ve already started a partnership with IDE Ethiopia. Can you tell us how that came about?

One of our board members is also on the board of IDE International.  She helped introduce the organizations.  We initiated our interactions by having members of our senior team visit IDE in Ethiopia and members of IDE’s team visit us in India. Though IDE also works in India, we found that IDE’s team in Ethiopia works more holistically across agricultural value chains: from finance to agricultural inputs to production techniques to markets.  The diversity of IDE’s interventions provides a base for working together since we prefer engaging farmers in a regular process of video production and dissemination.

What is your level of partnership with them?

We’ve begun with a remote collaboration in which we’ve had exchange visits between the Digital Green and IDE teams.  In August, members of IDE’s team from Ethiopia visited some of our established locations in Madhya Pradesh, India to observe the end-to-end Digital Green system and to participate in an initial round of video production training.  This month, members of our team visited Ethiopia to conduct training on video dissemination, data management, and feedback to essentially institutionalise this process in IDE’s existing operations. IDE Ethiopia, like our other partners, has taken ownership of driving the work forward in their context.  Our team primarily is involved in providing technology development and technical assistance to our partners in operationalizing the system and ensuring quality in its process and impact.  Since we currently don’t have any members of our team physically based in Africa, it’s a new sort of collaboration for us and we’re gaining learnings on improving our approach and training programs which are also informing our work in scaling up with the system with the Government of India. 

What kind of challenges do you think you might face trying to set it up over there?

Since we’re using franchise-like approach to initiate our work in Ethiopia, our challenge is to institutionalise a process without having a team member on the ground there.  IDE is trying to take the Digital Green model forward on their own with limited training and support from our team – along the lines of a franchisee.  We have already encountered challenges: for instance, connecting with the IDE team via Skype and sharing videos that they have produced over YouTube can be a challenge as connectivity is often more limited in Ethiopia than it is in India. 

Do you have plans with any other organisations?

Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Oxfam America, and Sasakawa African Association will be visiting us in India in March and plan to start up in manner similar to IDE Ethiopia.  We are in discussions with other organizations in Kenya, Rwanda, Ghana, and Tanzania as well.

Does the future look optimistic for you in 2012?

Our main focus will be in India because we’ll be scaling up with the Government of India’s Ministry of Rural Development from 1m000 to 10,000 villages over the next 3.5 years.
At the same time, we look forward to continuing to seed these collaborations in other geographies and sectors in a low-touch manner.  Based on the traction that these partnerships develop, we plan to engage with them more intensively going forward.

Rikin was elected into the Ashoka Fellowship in 2010. You can read his profile here.

To learn more about Digital Green, please visit their website here.
By Sathy Joseph