Saturday, June 15, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Farmers’ friend Krishi Call Centre struggling to survive

  • Centre became operational in 2012
  • Provides incoming and outgoing services
  • 126,070 callers served since 2020
Update : 03 May 2024, 09:24 AM

The Agriculture Information Service (AIS) launched a call centre in June 2012, with the objective of solving the problems of farmers on an immediate basis and expanding the latest technology, services and information related to farming. 

After 12 years, there are seven “borrowed” staff in the call centre, and three of them are on leave. 

The centre at Khamarbari in the capital’s Farmgate on Monday was found operating from a small room measuring 13 feet by 20 feet. 

A few officers were seen working there, some of whom had come on “attachment”, while others may have been called for urgent work.

However, two of the seven staff members are currently in foundation training, while one is on maternity leave. 

AIS officials say it is not possible to provide the required services to farmers due to the lack of adequate manpower and budget allocation.

In 2012, farmers had to contact a long number of Teletalk. Later, in 2014, in collaboration with a2i project, a short code (16123) was allocated to the centre.

According to sources at the centre, they receive around 180-200 calls every day. Often there is no opportunity to answer the queries immediately. 

For this, the centre works in two parts. One is “incoming” when farmers are served immediately. The second is “outgoing” when the centre’s staff call the farmers back after gathering the required information.

When the centre was about to be closed

The AIS director, Dr Surajit Saha Roy, spoke to Bangla Tribune about the centre’s activities. 

"First, the work of the call centre started with people in the AIS wing. Then some people were taken on attachment from the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE). Later, an NGO named Practical Action provided financial support to it. They have supported us well.”

Afterward, he added that a project was taken to strengthen the call centre. “Six cadres joined here on deputation from the project. There were two shifts between 7am and 9pm. At that time, we could serve a lot of farmers. 

“Later, when cooperation from Practical Action ceased and there were no funds—as latest as June 30, 2023—our call centre was about to be closed.”

Then the ministry took some steps. “We brought some officials step by step and continued the operation of the call centre during office hours from 9am to 4pm. We also kept the centre open even on Saturdays to achieve the target.”

He added that previously there had been no provision for outgoing calls. “Many times the farmers called us, but immediate service could not be provided. Now we contact that number after gathering the required information.

The image shows the activities of Krishi Call Centre  at Khamarbari in the capital’s Farmgate. Photo: Bangla Tribune

High target, low manpower

Dr Surajit said the current officers of the call centre are from the DAE.

“Their posting is elsewhere, but they are attached here. Four people are currently working and can receive over 200 calls during working hours. Of the remaining three, one is on maternity leave, while two have gone for foundation training. Seven people can receive more than 300 calls.”

He added that all incoming and outgoing calls are recorded.

Since 2020, at least 1,26,070 callers have been served. On the other hand, at least 96,781 callers could not be serviced because most of those calls may have come “after office hours”, said officials.

According to AIS officials, they have a target of serving 40,400 callers for the fiscal year 2023-2024. Against the target, the centre has attended 30,042 calls from June last year till April 29.

Badal Chandra Sarker, the ICT in-charge and technical participant at the AIS, said: "Our target is high, but we have a shortage of manpower. In the current financial year, we have achieved 74% of the target. We have also increased monitoring. I hope the quality of service will gradually improve.”

Farmer Md Belal from Danajpur village under Pirganj Upazila of Thakurgaon contacted the call centre on Monday morning when this reporter visited the spot. 

“I called the call centre to ask about a problem in my paddy field—white liquid was coming out of the paddy sheaves. They listened to my problem and gave me a solution. I hope to get good results within a few days,” he told Bangla Tribune.

Officials demand training

Agriculture Officer Farhana Yasmin, who was working at the call centre, said: "Farmers usually call to enquire about plant diseases, pest attacks, and fertilizer management. Sometimes they talk for two minutes, sometimes for five minutes. It's not so much of a problem, we suggest solutions. However, if there are complications, we advise them to contact the nearby agricultural officer.”

Asked if there was there was a chance to meet the targets that have been set, Farhana said: "We are trying our best. We currently have four people working. The other three are on training and vacation.”

Regarding the quality and progress of the call centre service, Farhana Yasmin said: "We are not getting any training. There are new types of technology and solutions to the problems, but we are not getting to know them. We often suggest old solutions (to farmers).”

She said farmers often complain about new kinds of problems they face in the agricultural fields, but most of the time they do not have any new solutions to them. 

"When they want to know about a new disease or a new insect, we look online for solutions and then tell them as we do not have the training for that specific problem,” Farhana added.

The Information Officer of the call centre, Dr Aklima Khatun, said: "The office has to be kept open on Saturday to meet the target of the call centre. Our biggest challenge is that we are not getting any outside support.”

Regarding the training of the workers, Dr Aklima Khatun said: "If we work with an NGO or if the government provides funds, or if we get a project that has already been submitted, then we can arrange training for the workers.”

Leaflets claim free calls, farmers pay 25 paisa per minute

Despite leaflets from the Ministry of Agriculture claiming that the calls to the call centre are free, farmers are actually charged 25 paisa per minute. 

This practice has been going on for several years. 

However, the website of the Agricultural Information Service says farmers get instant expert advice on any problem related to agriculture by calling the shortcode 16123 at the rate of 25 paisa per minute (excluding VAT and supplementary duty) from any operator's mobile phone.

An official acknowledged the error, attributing it to potential printing mistakes in the ministry's leaflets.

New plans 

Dr Surajit Saha Roy said they are planning to make the agricultural call centre more modern and suitable for the farmers.

“Farmers’ needs do not follow our office hours. They should call us whenever they need our service. Hence, we have submitted a program proposal so that we can serve them whenever they need us,” he said.

He said the program will be operated through machines. When a farmer calls, through artificial intelligence, their problems will be converted into texts. Then the machine will find solutions for the problem from stored data of the centre, and suggest them to the farmer in the form of a voice. 

“If this program can be implemented, we will be able to provide services to the farmers 24 hours a day,” he added. 

Dr Surajit Saha Roy also said there are no plans to turn the call centre into a hotline service. 

“Like the hotline number 999 of the law enforcement agencies, our number 16123 should also be turned into a hotline.”

He added that currently the officers are only able to respond to farmers in Dhaka due to several factors like dialect restrictions and proper knowledge of the problem.

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