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Food Hero: HK Seo — Mass Digital Consulting for Small Farmers

A farmer is receiving an answer to his question from a local agronomic expert on advanced, sustainable cultivation practices through the Avaaj Otalo (Raise your voice) service (Bhaumik Shah (CMF/Awaaz.De))

Our world needs 70 percent more food to feed 9 billion people by 2050. The need for sustainable productivity growth is especially dire in small farms, which produce more than 80 perecent of food in Asia and Africa, thus supporting the livelihood of one third of humanity. Knowledge produced by agricultural universities has the potential to significantly improve productivity of small farms. Yet, research insights rarely reach rural farmers. We envisioned an on-demand information platform for best agricultural practices to help make farms more productive and sustainable. While many rural farmers in developing countries have mobile phones, literacy rates in rural communities remain low. We thus decided to create a low cost, voice-based social networking service, Avaaj Otalo (AO) that allows farmers to interact with local agronomists while sharing field experiences with each other. Avaaj Otalo means “raise your voice.” AO gives farmers across the world a way to raise their voice about agriculture.

AO is a dynamic service. First, experienced agronomists provide content through weekly push calls about inputs, weather and other information useful for promoting agricultural best practices. Second, farmers record questions that agronomists provide answers to within two days. Third, farmers record their own experiences to be shared with other farmers. Weekly calls remind the audience to adopt optimal habits that could easily be forgotten if heard only once. Fielded questions themselves clarify knowledge demand from the bottom up and help solve issues of relevance and timeliness of information that traditional top-down information services have found difficult to address. The platform’s automated surveys and tagging of calls provide useful analytics tools. The service finally strengthens trust between NGOs and clients, redoubling the impact of partnering NGOs' activities.

Many have been responsible for developing AO and making its impact felt. The idea of an on-demand information platform came from two computer scientists, Neil and Tapan. Two economists, Nilesh and Shawn, worked with Development Support Center, a Gujarati NGO, to connect local farmers with our agronomist Tarun over the platform. Honing the service involved many other staff members including Niharika, Tanaya, Lisa, Ishani, HK and Mehroosh. Deserving the most important credit are our partnering small farmers—kind, patient and willing to make their farms more productive and sustainable. Last but not least, we thank you all for discussing food security with us and allowing us to share our passion on this forum.

HK is a graduate student at the University of Chicago GSB and is currently serving as a co-director on the Avaaj Otalo project. He is passionate about creating effective linkages between the private sector, regulatory agencies and NGOs to make powerful, lasting social impacts where they are most needed. As a digital social-networking tool for disadvantaged farmers, AO has been a constant source of inspiration for him, and he is excited to be sharing the project’s vision with like-minded people from across the globe.

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