Telesupport Experiment for Agricultural Information Management in West Bengal, India

Rupak Goswami
Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda University

Jhumpa Ghosh Ray
Change Initiatives, West Bengal

Jhulan Ghose
Telesupport Project


For the last two decades development researchers have shown serious interest in information and communication technologies (ICTs), especially in the context of development (Thioune, 2003). During the early years, it was anticipated that ICTs would become crucially important for sustainable development in developing countries (Credé and Mansell, 1998) and they have truly shown their potential to assist in achieving social outcomes such as increased availability of healthcare and education, better civic dialogue and citizen participation in social development processes (Davison et al., 2000; Harris, 2001; Qureshi and Trumbly-Lamsam, 2008). For the past twenty-five years, most developed countries have witnessed significant changes that can be traced to ICTs and these changes may be observed in different aspects of life – economics, education, communications, leisure and travel (Thioune, 2003). ICTs are also considered as central in the effort to alleviate poverty (Kenny, 2001), ensure food security (Pigato, 2001) and the empowerment of the rural masses (Arunachalam, 2002), although not in the same way as providing sufficient nutrition or adequate shelter is considered as a strategy for poverty alleviation (Kenny, Navas–Sabater and Qiang, 2001).

While the positive role that ICTs can play in the development process is well accepted, it is difficult to demonstrate the links between development and the use of ICTs through rigorous empirical studies. Digital technologies are more like catalysts that facilitate these changes rather than being an end in themselves (Conroy, 2006). As with any other technology, it is the social context in which they have been introduced and implemented that determines their uses and impacts. The digital revolution is relevant only if it takes into consideration the daily realities and aspirations of individuals (Uimonen, 1997). Unfortunately, the impact of ICT-based projects has generally fallen well below the optimistic expectations of its protagonists. Particularly, the non-sustainability of many telecentre initiatives reminds one of the failure of agricultural projects of the past (Beardon, 2005).

One type of modern ICT intervention is the rural telecentre, which has been widely experimented with in third world countries. It is also considered a crucial input for rural development (Chapman, 2002; Proenza, 2001). A telecentre is a physical space that provides public access to ICTs for educational, personal, social and economic development (Gomez, Hunt and Lamoureaux, 1999). It has also been narrowly conceptualized as a place that offers connectivity to the public with computers and networks (Roman and Colle, 2002). Increasingly, there is evidence that telecentre projects are more likely to be successful if computer and internet-based services are only one of several components (Conroy, 2006). A string of literature is available on telecentre operations in Africa (Benjamin, 2000; Jensen, 2001; Mayanja, 2001; Mercer, 2006), Latin America (Hunt, 2001) and Asia (Harris, 2003; Meng, 2002) including India (Cecchini, 2003; Keniston, 2002; Madon, 2005). Available literature covers a wide array of topics including – telecentre design (Morelli, 2003), content creation (Roman and Cole, 2003), telecentre analysis (Bailur, 2007) and evaluation (Hudson, 2001). Telecentre sustainability has also emerged as an issue of concern in the development discourse (Best and Kumar, 2008; Harris, Kumar and Balaji, 2003; Whyte, 2000). But, more empirical work is required to develop systematic understanding of the potential and limitations of telecentres as a mechanism for social and economic development (Colle and Roman, 2002; Fuchs, 1997; McConnell, 2001).

Issues related to sustainability have been examined in three main areas – financial (or economic), political, and social (Bailur, 2007). Although the primary focus has been on financial sustainability, social and political sustainability are also important issues (Colle, 2005; Harris, Kumar and Balaji, 2003; Whyte, 2000). Noticeably, studies tend to focus more on organizational issues than on social issues related to telecentres (Kumar and Best, 2006; Ellen, 2003).

Taking agricultural information management as a point of departure, it is observed that information and knowledge play a central role in rural agricultural development. FAO (2000) expresses the view that information and knowledge play a key role in ensuring food security and sustainable development. The World Bank (2005) takes a similar stance and observes that information and communication technologies are a key input for economic development and growth.

Agricultural extension, in the current scenario of a rapidly changing world, has been recognised as an essential mechanism for delivering knowledge and advice as an input for modern farming (Jones, 1997) and the role of ICT in operationalising this has drawn the interest of practitioners (Astroth, 1990; Richardson, 2003). The application of ICT in the field of agriculture has been reported from different parts of the globe (Dodds, 1999; Kalusopa, 2005; Agwu, Uche-Mba and Akinnagbe, 2008; Arokoyo, 2003). Reports from India also are not difficult to find (Kenny, 2001; Kumar, 2004; Meera, Jhamtani and Rao, 2004; Mukherjee, 2008). As well, there are on telecentre operations which have concentrated on agricultural information management (Harris, Kumar and Balaji, 2003; Thirumavalavan and Garforth, 2009).

India has a large proportion of the poorest people in the world. At the same time, it has a rapidly growing economy and major commercial and manufacturing capability, including extensive expertise in modern ICTs. India’s rural infrastructure is also improving rapidly in most areas. Therefore, India is now better placed to exploit the potential of modern ICTs than most less developed countries (Conroy, 2006). Agriculture is the mainstay of livelihoods for almost 60% of the population and India’s extension system faces a huge task to reach this large client system effectively. ICTs can be of tremendous help for the efficient functioning of the multi-stakeholder propelled agricultural development. Hence, telecentre experimentation with agricultural information management is of paramount interest for agricultural development in the third world.

Background of the TeleSupport Project

Significant amounts of information relevant to poverty reduction and sustainable rural development has been developed over time by local communities, and by research, extension and development organizations. Intermediary organizations in India often work with functional groups in local communities to promote environmentally sound production practices and to ensure the equal participation of women and marginalized groups in the development process. However, the information generated is scattered in NGOs, CBOs, individuals, research organizations and universities and therefore not easily available for local communities. Also it is generally not available in local languages and in a format understandable to potential users (NRSP, 2006).

The TeleSupport project started off with the purpose of development and testing of a model for two-way communication between rural communities in selected regions in India and European and Indian knowledge centres and networks. It was meant to find solutions to local problems in agriculture and natural resources management. The specific objectives for the project were - setting up an institutional framework for implementation of the model including utilisation of existing rural ‘telecentres’ for dissemination of information; and setting up a partner-controlled web-based information platform, shared web-based system management and a knowledge base of good practices (ibid).

Project location

The project was implemented with the financial support of the European Union in two states of India – Kerala and West Bengal (WB). Change Initiatives (CI), an NGO from WB, implemented the WB chapter of the TeleSupport Project. Two villages (Ghoragacha and Madandanga) of Chakdah Block of Nadia district, West Bengal were selected for the project operation. The district and the Block fall in the New Alluvial Zone (one of the six major agro-climatic zones of West Bengal) of WB state and were considered as being within the irrigated agricultural production system by the State Department of Agriculture, West Bengal. The main occupation of the area is agriculture, and high value crops like vegetables and fruits are extensively grown there. Several agricultural research and development organizations are situated near the villages, who work on agricultural research and extension, livestock research and extension, dairy development and fodder cultivation. These were the reason for the selection of the site during the pilot phase of the project as it allowed for access to expert knowledge inputs with relative ease. A survey on information need, perception of villagers regarding ICTs and e-readiness was conducted during the first two months of the project as a basis for further activities and to facilitate monitoring and evaluation (CI, 2006).

The model of information management in the TeleSupport project

Telecenters with functional groups of local users were central in the learning process of the model (Figure 1). Functional groups could be women self-help groups (SHGs) or farmer groups. The information and communication flow in the TeleSupport project focused on Good Practices (GPs). These were defined as ‘Technologies or methods that contribute to sustainable agriculture and NRM’. The GPs focused on different thematic areas such as - Soil fertility, IPM, Post-harvest, and Livestock with cross-cutting issues including Gender in Development and Environment (Newman and Crul, 2006).

Figure 1. Information and two-way communication flow in the Telesupport project (Neuman and Crul, 2006).

The ‘Expert pool’ consisted of information providers and knowledge sources from various levels and backgrounds who generated knowledge and could be used to solve problems in local communities. Thjs included indigenous or local knowledge which had been developed over centuries by local communities. Also the research system comprising research organisations and universities could provide relevant information.

Intermediary organisations consisting of NGOs, Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVK), farmer organizations and other CBOs that played a key role in supporting local communities could also be included. These latter organizations were instrumental in identifying questions from farmer groups, scouting for relevant information in the TeleSupport database/other web resources, contacting experts and ensuring that the information reached local communities in a timely fashion. Radio, TV and journals were considered important in disseminating the information about GPs and played a clear role in upscaling information. The Knowledge Base was built on the Infobridge (a Dutch partner of the project responsible for the information management on the web) platform and played an important role as a systematic and long-term repository of information. Information in various languages and forms could be stored and retrieved (ibid).

Processes of web-based information storage and retrieval

A participatory action research methodology (McIntyre, 2007) was followed for the implementation of the project. The partners in the TeleSupport project identified the GPs and documented them. It included describing the approach/method of application of the practice with a concise summary, and all attributes that were needed to assess the relevance for other communities. Persons of the partner organizations trained in using the web-based platform entered all the data using the agreed TeleSupport data formats. Data were directly visible to all TeleSupport partners, including details of person and time of data entry. GPs were published, and thus available for public view, once their quality was assured. The main responsibility for quality checking rested with the Organisational Data Managers (ODMs) at the intermediary organisations. The Infobridge Foundation played a limited overall supportive role in ensuring data quality. Once the data were visible online, it was checked and feedback was given. The TeleSupport platform had a feedback mechanism in the form of a forum that allowed users to provide feedback and comment on the GPs. Questions could be posted to intermediary organizations like CI, experts in the networks or the originators of the GPs as part of this Communication Model (Newman and Crul, 2006).

Functional groups in local communities were expected to be able to input, search and review on-line GPs that were relevant to local problems. The intermediary organizations ensured that internet connections were available at the Telecenters and that the functional groups could receive initial training in using the web-based platform. Indirect users of the project were extension agencies, agricultural universities, KVKs, Media, radio/TV, commodity dealers etc. These users differed in the way they benefited from the shared aggregated information pool. For the extension agencies and KVK, the information could be used directly in their work. For the media, TeleSupport offered a rich resource that could provide the building blocks for articles and programmes (ibid).

Model developed by the intermediary agency

The model of information management developed by CI is shown in Figure 2. Change Initiatives (CI) established two ‘mobile’ and one ‘fixed’ telecentre which were central to the management of information. The fixed telecentre remained open for seven hours a day (10.00 am to 5.00 pm) and six days a week. The telecentre operator was an agricultural graduate who was also responsible for operating the mobile telecentres in project villages. The mobile telecentre consisted of the telecentre operator (or other project staff) and a laptop having a searchable database of agricultural information in the local language. The mobile telecentre was available in the project villages twice a week on alternate days. The operator checked the agricultural field, talked to the farmers and farm women, visited villagers’ home scouting for the existing farming problems and provided technical assistance to the farmers.

The operator would post the answers to the questions asked by the farmers (asked two days previous when the operator last visited the village) on a board placed at a strategic place within the village so that the maximum number of villagers could have a look. Then he sat with the SHG members in the village and educated them on technical matters related to farming. The operator would answer their existing queries and suggest solutions to the unanswered questions raised by the SHG members during the meeting held two days previous. The operator also searched the laptop containing a searchable database in the local language. This database was developed by CI with the help of Greenstone Digital Library software adapted for the local language by a researcher in Information Science at Burdwan University, West Bengal.

The mobile telecentre operator might also call the operator staying at the fixed telecentre where the internet facility was available. Another option was to call the experts directly who had given verbal consent to help in emergency situations. The unanswered questions were then posted to the TeleSupport expert pool. Searching the web resources and project database was another option. In an emergency, the project staff could visit the nearby Agricultural University or KVK to ensure that the commitment to deliver answers to the community within 48 hours would be maintained. For frequently asked questions or for posted questions of other network members, the project staff prepared Good Agricultural Practice forms and uploaded these to the project database.

Figure 2. Information Management by the Intermediary Agency (Change Initiatives)

Evaluation of the TeleSupport West Bengal Chapter

CI worked in two villages that were close to the static telecentre. This was visited 12 and 13 times respectively by the villagers within the 4 months of the pilot phase. CI elicited technical questions from villagers and briefed them on the answers to some of those questions. While the number of visitors to the static telecentre was negligible, during the mobile telecentre visits to the villages, more than 80 questions related to crop and animal husbandry were received, among which 42 questions were considered to be distinct in nature. The majority of clients were men (male – 34, female – 8). Crop protection, followed by livestock management, were the most important themes of the project in terms of the number of queries received. Questions related to livestock management were mostly on ruminants and poultry (Cattle–2, Goats–4, Chickens–2, Ducks–5).

In most cases, queries were referred to other sources of information for their answer; and the time taken to respond to such questions was typically 2 days. In 45 occasions, a technical expert was consulted for answers. Some questions, however, could not be answered due to the unavailability of a suitable expert during the university visit. Sometimes, the problem was considered as new by the experts and they refused to offer a recommendation due to the lack of available knowledge. Information addressing the queries was supplied to clients in written form, either as printed material (11) or hand-written (36). In addition, 3 video clips were prepared on important best practices and shown to farmers on a laptop during mobile telecentre visits.

New technologies for e.g., ‘Azolla cultivation’, and ‘Perianth mite control of coconut through root feeding’ were introduced during the project tenure. At the time of the project’s termination the TeleSupport website was receiving some 600 users per month. More than 30 organisations became members of TeleSupport and documented Good Practices. The database contained 101 GPs and 78 people had registered to use the discussion boards; 375 ‘posts’ had been made on 232 topics. Eighty ‘experts’ were available to answer the villagers’ questions. As a repository for GP and related information, a shared database on InfoBridge was used that contained more than 6,000 information items including 150 projects and some 1,000 documents (Conroy, 2007).

Email and internet facilities were available and readily accessible at most agricultural research organisations and universities. However, some staff members did not use these facilities on a regular basis and others had limited experience with the use of computers. The e-readiness of staff in intermediary organisations was also found to be widely varying. Thematic coordinators were found to act as moderators to facilitate the discussion on a Good Practice description once it had been placed on the Discussion Forum. However, it is an open question as to whether ‘experts’ would be willing to act as thematic coordinators in the future without financial support.

It became apparent very quickly that farmers were interested in information on a wider range of themes than could be provided in the pilot phase of TeleSupport. The use of a mobile telecentre was an interesting and innovative way of reaching out to more people, especially to conservative Muslim women; but, it demanded access to considerable human resources. Individuals participated in TeleSupport with enthusiasm even when the organisations for which they worked (particularly the formal research system) were reluctant to make a formal commitment to the project (ibid).


An appraisal of the telecentre operations may be conceptualised against ten points put forward by Conroy (2006) in the Working Paper on the TeleSupport project. The telecentre was operated as a not-for-profit which is not natural in Indian context (ibid). The services offered during the piloting were solely on agriculture and allied sectors. This fell short of the information need of the communities. The level of e-readiness was considered to be medium for both the project location and the state of West Bengal. Electricity was somewhat irregular and broadband facility was just starting to expand in the nearby towns during the project period. Frieden (2004) in fact observes that broadband connectivity is crucial for successful telecentre operations. Community participation was not found to be spontaneous and consistent. This might be due to the reason that the farmers of the project villages were habituated to incentivised (being paid for) participation by local agricultural development stakeholders who were mostly output oriented and focused on demonstrating the success of their institutions. Moreover, they needed more diverse informational input for livelihood promotion. That is why, in spite of high relevance of information, farmers’ participation fall short of expectation.

Some of the farmers found the advice of local experts, who had been researching there for several years, precisely appropriate for their farming situation. The Women’s Self Help Groups (SHG), participated actively in the project (as SHG mobilization was integral to CI’s development strategy). Community access to the service was increased to a great extent by the innovation of the ‘mobile telecentre’ and the searchable offline database in the local languages contributed towards the operational sustainability of the mobile telecentre. But, this innovation required additional human and financial resources and this was difficult to sustain for a not-for-profit telecentre. Hence, the pilot phase achieved social sustainability with gender sensitivity, but failed to achieve financial sustainability. Lack of e-readiness, lack of appropriate resource persons among the stakeholders, absence of any incentive system within the organizational context were some other constraints hindering the operational efficiency of the communication system. Interestingly, Cole (2005) has also observed the necessity of capacity building of the university staffs while addressing its sustainability.

With the termination of the pilot project, CI found it hard to continue with the Telecentre operations. Capacity building for local youth did continue, and this created a basis for telecentre sustainability into the future. The functional groups are still active but the availability of qualified operators and the committed local expert pool is ruefully missing. The experiment empowered the villagers, especially the Muslim SHG members, who previously kept themselves confined within the boundary of their household chores. This issue of empowerment through ICT is often considered to be important by some authors (Arunachalam, 2002).

The lessons that were learned and the communication model that was tested in the project villages may prove helpful in the future for grassroot level ICT intervention by intermediary agencies of sub-regional scope. This is true for both CI and any intermediary agency working in ICT4D. Even while the Government of India is implementing its much touted vision of establishing Common Service Centres in one hundred thousand villages, this model doesn’t lose its relevance as far as the process component of telecentre operation is concerned.


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