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Jayanta Chatterjee Industrial Management Engineering Department Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur
Abstract Modern information and communications technologies (ICTs) and web based marketing of agricultural produce hold great promise for the socio-economic development of rural hinterlands in India. However, if they are to serve the `unserved’ and spawn innovation at grass root level their implementation must be carefully localised. This paper explores several models of ICT deployment and information design issues which have been tried in various parts of the developing world in the context of agricultural marketing over the web and uses that learning with field experience from a live project. The flexible systems framework is found appropriate and useful to design the next action agenda. The ‘anytime-anywhere’ advantage of e marketing leads to efficient price discovery and offers economy of transaction for agricultural trading. This attracts many rural developmental agencies to deploy websites for marketing agricultural produce. But in spite of a core value proposition and significant investment by the Indian government/NGOs and commercial agencies in developing such portals, many have failed. Internet traffic on these websites is either very limited or none at all. Yet there is a lack of empirical studies on the modes of their failures. This study using the SAP-LAP methodology examines the experiences of a number of internet portals from India and other countries engaged in rural marketing or disseminating rural development information, with usability measures derived from farmers and traders and those suggested by researchers. The findings are used in developing a conceptual framework for e-marketing info design for agricultural market in rural northern India for the portal http://www.digitalmandi.net (DM). Medialab Asia, Kanpur – Lucknow (MLAKLH) hub operating from IIT Kanpur (http://www.iitk.ac.in/MLAsia/index.htm) funded this project. Situation Common wisdom has it that the advent of modern information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as telephony or the internet hold unprecedented opportunities for rural development. Researchers, policymakers and entrepreneurs alike frequently claim that ICTs represent one of the most powerful tools in the struggle against poverty. The significance of the Web in disseminating information and communicating this effectively to the targeted user has been sufficiently debated. Most experts agree to it that the Web will have a great impact on the way rural marketing would be conducted in the 1
future, yet there has been little research towards exploring the effectiveness of the provision of agriculture-related and rural marketing information in the electronic form. This study set out to assess the current performance of agricultural websites in some key areas of information provision through such websites maintained by government departments and agencies, private profit-motivated as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and to identify the barriers to communication. The results offer significant implications for researchers and practitioners interested in development of portal information structure for Web development, multi-dimensional communication, electronic commerce networks and e-commerce trading platforms for rural marketing. There are a number of ways – some obvious and some not-so-obvious ones – in which ICTs may serve the development process. For instance rural entrepreneurs can benefit because ICTs help to improve access to markets or supply chains and provide a broader base for decision-making, thus making risk more calculable. Moreover, many local communities have experienced that ICTs have increased bottom-up participation in the governance processes and may expand the reach and accessibility of government services and public infrastructure. In Andhra Pradesh, Internet-based Integrated Citizen Service Centres allow for electronic bill payment, issuing of certificates, permits and licenses; or access to public information. The electronic village project of M.S.Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Pondicherry received the Stockholm award for its promise. However, there is as yet little systematic empirical evidence of the supposed enormous ‘developmental’ impacts of ICTs. Moreover, in many – especially rural – areas, the private sector is yet to invest significantly in ICT experiments (except for a few like ITC or Tata Chemicals) because of lack of experience with rural markets or low purchasing power of the local population. This means that, if ICT access is to be expanded, public money will have to be spent – which in turn means that there are important trade-offs to be considered. In many areas, there are serious questions about how much money policymakers should spare for the build-up of ICTs instead of investing further in potable water supply, roads, electricity or other physical infrastructure projects. Given such trade-offs, there is a need to identify which kinds of ICT access deliver the best value for money, and how the limited resources that can be spent on it can be made to best suit the particular needs of rural India. A number of `models’ have so far been tried. One of the most famous projects of successful ICT application for development is the Grameen Village Phone system, undertaken by Grameen Telecom (a member of the Grameen Group). The project aims at ultimately spreading phone access to the over 100 million inhabitants of Bangladesh who are so far ‘unwired’, made possible by combining the Grameen Bank’s expertise in village-based micro-enterprise and micro-credit with the latest digital wireless technology. The aim is to have selected member borrowers of Grameen Bank purchase the phones under a lease programme and make the phones available to all users in the village on a fee-paying basis.
Another model of ICT provision in rural areas of developing countries, and one which attempts to combine phone access with access to the Internet is that of the so-called Telecentres or Information Kiosks or the recently introduced Infothela of MLAKLH. An Infothela is a common point of access for multiple users (often an entire community), providing a range of ICT services including Internet, fax, phone, e-mail, word processing, and even specialised information retrieval or applications (e.g. distance education or matrimonial matchmaking). Telecentres have been established widely in the developing world, and vary in their service provision and means of funding. In Peru, the establishment of numerous `Cabañas Públicas’ created one of the highest concentrations of public internet access and a significant reduction in prices. Nevertheless, the experience with telecentres has so far been a mixed one. In numerous cases, usage, particularly of PCs, has been lower than expected or commercial viability was not attained. Of the over 70 Community Telecentres established since 1997 by the South African Universal Services Agency, only 40 per cent remain open today, with only 3 per cent making enough money to cover costs. Buried at the end of the World Bank policy paper on the ‘Networking revolution: opportunities and challenges for developing countries’ ( June, 2000) is an account of multipurpose community telecentres (MCTs) in rural Mexico. It turns out that of twentythree MCTs built in rural Mexico, only five were working two years later. This is a failure rate of 80 percent. The policy paper comments, “Problems encountered included insufficient maintenance funding, inadequate political interest and will, and cultural constraints which hamper community interest in the projects.” The paper gives no hint why “political interest and will” might have been inadequate and why community interest might have been constrained by that holdall excuse for failure, “culture.” The paper concludes that the Mexican case “underscores the importance of participatory design and attention to sustainability issues in the development of such programs.” Actor Internet and Information Kiosks exist in various kinds, each with their respective merits. First, one might distinguish between the small private sector cyber cafes on the one hand and bigger, donor-funded telecentres like e-Seva in Andhra Pradesh or e-Village in Pondicherry on the other hand. Smaller, privately run cyber cafes are often financially self-sustaining – but are thus usually restricted to areas where they expect to be viable (usually urban centers) and are usually neither within physical nor financial reach of the poor. They are also unlikely to be able to provide local content. – By contrast, larger, often externally funded telecentres are rarely financially sustainable but can focus more on specific ‘development’ – aspects, including access specifically targeted at rural communities and the poorest in general, as well as a focus on training.
A second distinction is according to the institutional context they are embedded in. This often has a significant influence on the ‘developmental impact’ of telecentres. Commercial telecentres and commercial franchises (like e-choupals of ITC) are usually closest to commercial viability but, as mentioned, are unlikely to have an impact on the poor outside the economic circle of the e-Choupals. Telecentres run by or with the involvement of developmental NGOs are more likely to target poor and marginalised communities and focus on much-needed additional services like training, content creation, provision of public goods without which ICT access would be of limited developmental use. Telecentres in village schools for example as another alternative have the significant advantage that for their establishment an existing physical infrastructure only has to be extended and some of the ICT-relevant training can be cost-effectively integrated into the mainstream curriculum of the educational institution. This partnership has successfully worked in the DM project. One further idea for the Digital Mandi that evolved was Virtual Telephones or village voice mail systems, as have been set up in Brazil. These can provide individuals with their own telephone number and access to a voice mailbox. In other words, the individual need not possess a telephone but can receive calls to a voice mailbox using his/her personal PIN. Extending this idea to text e-mail access, a South African company assigns e-mail addresses to every Post Office box address in the country, thereby providing electronic mail indirectly to around eight million South African households through public internet terminals located in post offices which users can access with a personal identification number. The Postal Department in India has now taken up a similar programme. . Problem Thus there are a number of alternatives and apparently mutually exclusive business models for ICT implementation in Rural India. On one hand it appears that kiosks run by local entrepreneurs with localized and targeted applications (like e choupals in Northern India or voicemail service in Brazil or matrimonial matchmaking service in Tamil Nadu) will succeed on the other hand following the success model of the world wide web itself one may suggest that if an infrastructure is created and user friendly appropriate interfaces are continuously accessible then local rural folks will develop their own applications and Information Kiosks or Infothela will survive. The Digital Mandi Project conceived as an electronic trading platform for agrocommodities of Northern India and meant to run as a core application on the mobile Infothela faced additional problems. Barriers to information access may be physical, economic, intellectual or technological, that impede a user’s participation in the activities on a website. The barriers may be actively imposed by the architects and website designers or they may be allowed to continue simply through their lack of action or lack of understanding of the critical user
conditions. Such critical user conditions may arise due to particular demographic, geographic, cultural, social, psychological, economic or other factors. Issues related to usability such as ease of use, usefulness (Davis, 1989), decision effectiveness (Mason et al, 1973), user response, user satisfaction (Doll et al, 1988) and many other aspect of usability have been studied in great detail by researchers. But interactions with focus groups at various agricultural market places around Lucknow-Kanpur showed the need of a more detailed study on Information communication barriers on a more localised set of priorities. Learning A general framework for web design keeping in mind the human-computer interaction theories (Pirolli, 2001), web site usability principles (Huang, 2003), information intensity paradigm (Palmer and Griffith, 1998), e-customization models (Ansari and Mela, 2003) and heuristic evaluation models (Agarwal and Venkatesh, 2003) is already in place and is assumed to sufficiently address the question of defining broad guidelines for designing any successful website. It is therefore, assumed that a website with relatively high-level of accurate, up-to-date and pertinent content, deployed in a user-friendly way, customized to particular user groups, and tailored to specific geographical needs should be universally successful and hence, accepted in India too. However many such efforts have apparently failed to achieve their targets. The challenges to agricultural website usability for rural marketing in India arise mainly because of the highly specific local needs and the great diversity in local conditions. The major challenges are • • • • • • Poor literacy rate – low use of textual information Remote village locations - physical distances compounding problems of lack of proper price information and habitual dependence on middlemen. Absence of alternate media for dissemination of info. Absence of info in vernacular languages and multiplicity of languages. Cash crunch of farmers, immediate cash transaction system and reluctance of banks to provide soft loans to farmers. Economic, low-cost solutions - any technology solution aimed at benefiting the masses in rural India must be affordable and low-cost so that the perceived economic benefits of such an endeavor are much more than the cost of switching over to a different technological solution.
In the absence of timely and correct information about prices, arrivals and market trends, compounded with the problems of low cash-at-hand and proper advice, farmers are forced to sell their produce at lower-than-expected rates. The result is that the benefits of the ‘green revolution’ have not really percolated down to the farmers. Action The Digital Mandi project demonstrates that there are a number of features pertaining to the ICT access projects that are particularly successful from a ‘developmental’ viewpoint This means, for instance, to somehow convey the relevant (local) content provided 5
through internet access to the largely illiterate rural populations of developing countries in local language may have far- reaching spin-offs. A model that inspired the Mandi team was The Kothmale Community Radio in Sri Lanka. This project has combined community radio and Internet access. It has a leased line connection to the Internet, and in the so-called process of ‘radio browsing’ programme presenters browse the Web in the studio on behalf of listeners (who provide requests/input through phone or post). Relevant ‘experts’ from the community then interpret the information for listeners. Another good example of the creation of relevant local content are the ‘Infoshops’ in Pondicherry, India. After information requirements are identified during a trial period, volunteers from the village create a local database comprising government programs for low income rural families; cost and availability of farming inputs such as seeds and fertilisers, grain prices in different local markets; a directory of insurance plans for crops and families; pest managements plans for rice and sugar cane; a directory of local hospitals, medical practitioners and their specialties; a regional timetable for buses and trains; a directory of local veterinarians, cattle and animal husbandry programs. All these preceding experiments contributed to the Digital Mandi design. Web site success depends on a number of factors the most important of which is the ‘website design’, which encompasses both the content creation and information design. All website design issues aim at providing certain requisite features in the website. Jonathan Palmer (see references) has contented that website success depends on such factors as website download delays, navigation, content, interactivity and responsiveness. The inclusion of these features into a good website can be addressed as (a) contentrelated issues, (b) information design issues and (c) communication design issues. Traditionally, the basic work of a good website design has been considered as addressing the content-creation and context-appropriateness issues only. While website designing objectives for other purposes may be fulfilled by creating a good fusion of relatively high-level content with fine design features taking care of the issues mentioned above, they would certainly fall behind their objectives when considering agricultural websites for rural marketing. The reasons as has been listed earlier, can be found in the inherent characteristics of rural markets in India. These websites are therefore bound to fail unless delivery services for agricultural information can be effectively integrated with good information design models and grass root innovators/ social activists’ agenda.
Performance The basic findings from our initial research at Digital Mandi has shown that the presence of a number of desired features in a website leads to higher user satisfaction. Such features are broadly aimed at satisfying one or the other of the following immediate user objectives: a) Ease of access. b) Up-to-date content.
c) Layout, design, consistent themes. d) Easy navigation. e) Higher interactivity. f) Access through multiple media. g) Higher use of non-textual information. h) Multiple languages. i) Lower cost of transaction. It was assumed that each of these factors contributed to higher user satisfaction. The Digital Mandi project now wants to integrate an ethnographic approach with flexible systems methodology to focus on the communication design issues for web-portals specifically devoted to rural marketing in India. The specific research questions are: 1. What are the major information design features for rural marketing in India? Hypotheses (a), (b), (c), (d) and (e) are tested to find answer to this question. 2. What are the major communication media tools to be used for agricultural websites in India? Hypothesis (f) is tested against this question. 3. What are the modes employed to transcend communication and cost barriers for specific user groups? • What local language solutions are to be provided through which media? • What non-textual solutions can be provided for the undereducated, untrained user? • What makes ICT relevant for the unserved rural communities? Hypotheses (g), (h) and (i) are being tested against this group of questions.
Conclusion The general results of this study are presented in a tabular form. The list is not exhaustive but can be assumed to be a representative sample of the most-widely used or known (by search engines) for rural marketing and the general responses of researchers. The basic website layout varies from the single-page, no partition, no frames approach to the four-partitions (a top main menu, a left/right lower-level menu, a bottom links bar and a central space) approach which is also the most-widely accepted layout in the corporate websites (Huang, 2003). More than 50% of the websites provide up-to-date content. A website worth mentioning is www.agmarknet.nic.in, a government-promoted website which gives daily up-to-date pricing information of a range of commodities covering many major cities in India. A few of the websites provide for multiple language solutions. Similarly, other features are also provided in some websites and not in others. There can be no disagreement on the fact that no website is perfect by information design metrics as formulated by researchers. However, the abysmally low traffic at these
websites when compared to the actual activity in the physical world cannot be explained by the minor shortcomings exhibited by lack of one or a few information design features in the websites. The communication issues on the other hand have hardly been considered in the websites studied. While it is expected that multimedia usage will revolutionize the conventional methods of communication for marketing on the internet (Palmer and Griffith, 1998), the status of their use for rural marketing shows the opposite. None of the websites studied used voice as a means of communication for trading in commodities. Even though it is a known fact that almost all the transaction in the physical trading of agro-commodities is done by voice communication over telephone (both fixed and mobile) and the integration of voice with internet through CTI (Computer Telephony Integration) has become possible, it is surprising that websites have yet not tried to offer this new powerful means of communication as an alternative to the much costlier internet-and-computer medium. Only one website, www.agriwatch.com was found to provide the SMS facility for message alerts on prices of particular commodities. Some websites do utilize fine graphics and animations to convey general introductory information about their services. An example is www.tarahaat.com, the site also uses voice effectively for dissemination of information. However, the use of animation and video is very limited considering the huge potential it has even for the purpose of reading out textual information. One reason for low use of animation and video on the websites could be the larger bandwidth requirement for downloading or streaming, particularly considering the lack of good internet bandwidth in villages and semi-urban areas. Most of the time, this also requires downloading additional plug-ins or video players on the client’s computer increasing the chances of the user-dissatisfaction and his switching to some other website immediately. Voice communication however, requires lower downloading time and minimal software components. Still the use of voice in the websites is completely absent for the purpose of trading in commodities. Local language solutions are being provided in some websites (Appendix) and more websites are moving toward providing many language options to access their information bank. Move towards complete non-textual solutions for the untrained and illiterate user seem a distant dream at the moment. One obvious reason could be the economics of providing a ‘no-keyboard’ solution for such a user. 1. These findings are used in developing a new generation e-marketing info design for agricultural markets in rural northern India. (Appendix 1)
There are several limitations to the use of the results of this study. Firstly, the data collected may only be a snapshot of the websites for rural marketing. Secondly, the study was conducted for a period of about 2 years; no trends can be predicted based on the results of this study. Thirdly, the results may not be considered applicable to similar
markets elsewhere, particularly those in the developing nations, because of the very specific factors socio-economic, political and psychological, in the Indian market and the market makers. Also, no user perceptions were gathered during the study. The study was limited to discovering, enlisting and identifying user-satisfying information design features in websites. A further study using statistical analyses of user perceptions could be done. References
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Appendix 1 The basic technological features incorporated in this new info design for agricultural markets are: 2. Portal Information Architecture: Creation of a scalable portal architecture providing searchable information in local language on market functions, market finance, development programs, government laws, policies, annual budget, technology and machinery, infrastructure facilities, constitution/composition of Market Committee, statistical information on all aspects of agriculture, directories of sugar-related, pulserelated and other (equipment and chemicals) companies etc. Retrieval of volumes of agriculture-related content from various research institutes, their digitization and representation in a format easily comprehensible to farmers and market makers. The portal will incorporate most of the information design guidelines suggested by researchers and our study: a 4-part layout design with a top and side showing important navigation links, use of consistent design themes, provision of sitemaps, search tools, use of metadata and side-bars to ease navigation, provision of feedback
forms, discussion forums, contact links to enhance personalization and customization. Proper help and instruction facilities will be provided at every step with textual help supplemented by voice and graphic help. This architecture will ensure decentralized and hence, scalable solution. 3. Language solutions: There are eighteen official languages in India. There are many more languages some of which are spoken by more than a million people. Therefore, conversion of available agro-knowledge base into Hindi (the language spoken by the majority) and later into other Indian languages and continuous testing of the relevancy of content and its depiction for the farmers and small traders by regularly interacting with various focus groups is being done. 4. Symbolic/iconic solutions for the uninitiated: The literacy rate in rural India is very low. With only about 3% of the whole population wired, e-literacy in rural India will not be more than 2-3%. A program to ensure that villagers can be made literate and eliterate could be the ideal solution. However, symbolic solution based on universal icons is considered a suitable alternative. Hence, continuous enhancement of iconic/universal symbol/text-to-speech type open interfaces for every activity on the site is done, so that literacy or computer literacy will not be barriers for any user. 5. Limited Broadcast: Customized information for subscribers according to their preference. National and international updates and significant alarms/updates through SMS, web and voice mail. 6. Voice-based solutions: A voicemail system using IVR/CTI based store, forward, broadcast, copy and other facilities is being created. All interfaces will be in many Indian languages as well as in English. The web based and voice based systems will be integrated. 7. Web Broadcast: A medium of communication that is popular and widely used in rural India is radio. Using this medium for information dissemination will help do away with information manipulation. Therefore, mailing of voice files from the site to a Radio station for the pre-dawn broadcast and updates during the trading session is being implemented. 8. GIS information network: The wealth of research databases/GIS based insights and water management strategies available at institutes will be used to establish GISbased information network accessible to all through the website which will provide soil and farm-related information to farmers. Intelligent warehouse receipt: In developing countries like India, commercial warehousing and warehouse receipt financing can play an important part in creating efficient markets. This will break down the barriers between banks and indigenous farming and trading sectors increase trade liquidity and thereby reduce intra-seasonal price fluctuations. To this end, implementation of a proof-of concept of an ‘intelligent’ warehouse receipt based trading system is being planned in the near future.
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