When it comes to seeking agricultural advice, most farmers in Bangladesh’s rural countryside still prefer the age old style - learning from the elders. Agricultural advice flies free in the village tea shops under the banyan tree, or in the courtyard of the matobbor (wise man in village).
With the modernisation of seeds, fertiliser and pesticides, the advice from the elders often fail to save the day for the new farmers. So, the next best option for the farmers is to seek information and advice from the government appointed agricultural officer in the vicinity.
However, a farmer seeking information and farming advice through dialling into call centres, or using the Internet or mobile apps, was still a rare occurrence in the rural areas of Bangladesh.
Until a few years ago. Now, this is an everyday reality.
Meet Jahir Uddin, a farmer from Kapasia of Gazipur. Jahir cultivates rice, potato and chillies throughout the year. For long, he has been consulting the elders or the local agricultural officer whenever he faced any problems.
Now, he calls into the call centre.
A few days ago, Jahir was facing problems with his tomato cultivation.
“During the upcoming winter season, I planted tomato in three bighas of my land. After few days, many of the tomato plants were attacked by insects - I didn’t know what to do. A fellow farmer advised me to call the call centre. He gave me a number that I dialled and explained my problem. The person at the other end of the line advised me to use a certain pesticide. I used it and got the benefit almost immediately,” said Jahir Uddin.
He soon spread the word to other farmers. “Now, many of us consider calling that number as it is very beneficial. Whenever we face any problem, we do that,” he added.
The number that Jahir dialled was 16123 and the person who received the call and provided advice accordingly was a designated person employed by the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) of the Bangladesh government.
Tahsin Rahman, an agricultural officer of DAE, said that one can get all sorts of information and consultation by calling this number. “Our call centre service is located in Khamarbari in Dhaka. Here, designated agricultural officers are assigned to receive the calls and listen what the farmers have to say.”
Rahman said that they have ready solutions for all the common problems. “We have charts and manuals for all sort of crops. Whenever we receive any common complaint related with farming, pesticide and fertiliser usage, we immediately provide the necessary solutions.”
He also said that if they come across any new problem for which they don’t have immediate solutions, or need to visit the site in person to understand the actual scenario, they provide necessary advice, numbers and addresses, so that farmers can contact the agricultural officers at the zone where they are located.
Farmers can call the centre on any day except Fridays and government holidays, from 9 am to 5 pm. At first farmers were able to call the centres free of charge, but now they need to spend 25 paisa per minute to make calls into the number.
“This call centre service has been immensely popular among the farmers, and its popularity is increasing day by day,” said Rahman, adding that the DAE started the initiative in June 2014.
The initiative of aiding farmers through call centre services is still a very new concept in the country. Mobile operator Banglalink first started the service of providing agricultural advice at its call centres. Other operators and some non-governmental organisations also took several initiatives to aid farmers through digital services.
Banglalink now provides different services to the farmers through its ‘Banglalink Krishi Jiggasha’. A farmer can call 7676 and can ask all sort of questions related to farming and agriculture.
Banglalink has been providing this service since 2008, and it has created a database comprising of nearly 40,000 questions and answers related to farming, pesticide and fertiliser usage and many more. They also started a separate service in 2011. Under that service, a farmer can call 2474 and can place queries about the market price of any agricultural products. They can also receive advice on buying crops and where to sell crops for maximising profits.
Grameenphone has also started a service for helping farmers. The operator provides agricultural services to the farmers through its 27676 call centre number. Grameenphone is also aiding the DAE to facilitate it service.
Providing similar services to farmers, Robi has an SMS-based ‘mfarmer’ service. It also has another call centre service named ‘Krishi Barta’. Through these two services, the farmers not only get various information and advice, but also can learn about the weather forecast.
Meanwhile, a non-government organisation named Bangladesh Institute of ICT in Development (BIID) has been providing call centre and ICT services to farmers since 2008.
One of its services, named ‘e-krishak’, is very popular among the farmers. Under ‘e-krishak’, there is a helpline for getting agricultural information, advice on marketing the products online and planning assistance for maximising profit on cultivation. The farmers can get these services by calling 16250.
Grameen-Intel Social Business, another social business company, has also started providing services to the farmers through mobile apps and call centres.
Under a project titled ‘krishē’, Grameen-Intel engages a call center to reach farmers located at remote places with appropriate fertiliser related information. The combination of telecommunication platform and software technology to provide correct fertiliser recommendations for the farmers is key to this project.
Another of Grameen-Intel’s e-Agro software ‘mrittikā’ is providing fertiliser recommendations that are delivered to farmers across the country using the telecommunication network.
Meanwhile, a software named Nutrient Manager for Rice (NM Rice) has also been providing information about the right usage of fertiliser for last two years. This country-specific software was jointly developed by the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), and functions like a decision-making tool. It provides farmers with recommendations on how much and when to apply fertilisers to have a higher yield after some specific information is given as input.