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Lessons from the Field: Usability of Digital Financial Services for the Farmer Segment in India

In our previous post, we highlight the role of technology (and mobile phone/smartphone based solutions in particular) in overcoming the information asymmetries that persist in agriculture in India, especially among small and marginal farmers. The opportunity afforded by smartphone based solutions to providing digital financial solutions in combination with improved access to crucial agricultural information promises to be both cost-effective, and rapidly scalable; this combination could be a powerful means to vastly improve the productivity and growth of the agricultural sector in the country. However, a key element of app-based products and solutions that is critical to take-up and usage, but is often overlooked, is the ease of usage. Additionally, we argue, given that digital/ ICT literacy remains a challenge in rural India, ensuring that app-design is human centric, and allows for easy transferability of skills across services/ solutions must be given higher priority.

In this post, we summarize our early findings from our ongoing fieldwork. First, we map out the landscape of existing app-based services in India. We present this mapping based on an analysis of Google Play Store, private company websites, and other forums. Following this, we provide a brief summary of our findings based on focus group discussions that are currently ongoing in Gulbarga and Mandya in Karnataka. For these focus group discussions, we rely on a framework wherein we evaluate smartphone application access and usage through the lens of desirability/ usability, in addition to the more traditional lens of viability and feasibility. This allows us to capture awareness, usage, and perceptions regarding the usage of these app-based services.

From our mapping of app-based services that are currently available online, it is clear that a significant number of stakeholders are trying to leverage the smartphone as a means to provide agricultural extension services, across the country. The solutions we identified are provided by both government and private entities — including fertilizer manufacturers, agri-tech firms, and more recently, startups. Overall, we identified at least 90–100 existing app-based solutions available currently, that focus on the agriculture sector, and provide services ranging across information of various kinds — market prices, weather, farming technology, agro-advisory and nutrient management. This is merely the tip of the iceberg. As per one estimate, there are at least 300 start-ups in India, that seek to harness technology to bring improvements to the agricultural sector, many of which rely on localized smartphone based solutions[1]. In many cases, such solutions bundle in additional services like market linkages, expense trackers/ financial management, access to magazines focused on agriculture etc.

These findings highlight the scope of the opportunity afforded by increasing smartphone penetration in rural India — that of providing low-cost, and highly scalable access to crucial information to lakhs of farmers. They also highlight that stakeholders are trying to capitalize on the opportunity at hand, and trying to penetrate rural areas to provide these services at scale. Indeed, for the applications identified, the total number of reported downloads was around 3.4 million (where data is available) — suggesting that the number of farmers accessing, and interacting with these applications is not small either. These numbers however, do not speak much as to the nature, and quality of these interactions. Neither do they tell us about whether an application is used continuously; and if it isn’t, what the main challenges/ barriers to usage are. In this aspect, we rely on insights from our focus group discussions with over 60 farmers in Gulbarga and Mandya districts in Karnataka.

Thus far, data reveals that there is indeed a vast difference between access and usage of agri-tech services. The discussions underline the role of comfort and ease of use, and lastly, speak to the importance of product relevance and suitability — highlighting some key gaps in these aspects. We find that over and above the penetration of smartphone based solutions, the Krishi Vikas Kendra operates an agri-advisory/ information service, at scale, relying only on SMS. Farmers report that the KVK registers mobile numbers of farmers and sends them weather information and other information related to pesticides through messages. However, there are vast gaps in coverage and awareness for this service. Nevertheless, it does appear that SMS based services serve an important — though limited — function in information dissemination.

Product relevance appears to be a key driver of the take-up and usage of app-based products and solutions as well. It is extremely interesting to note that most of the available smartphone based services are of relevance between the sowing and harvesting phases. There was a reported dearth of feasible solutions aimed at post-harvest aspects, which are crucial. For example, it was reported that farmers received information about the price of the crop, but it was not useful as they were not able to sell their produce at that price.

Overall, both smartphone penetration, and awareness regarding android/ smartphone applications are indeed extant in both study areas; however, they are at a very nascent stage. Across all focus groups, younger participants report more familiarity with using smartphones, and also report finding it easier to make the switch from feature phones to smartphones. Similarly, age is an important factor in determining familiarity and comfort with installing, using and navigating smartphone applications. Among the younger demographic, smartphones appear to be used far more for entertainment purposes, than to access agricultural services, or even financial services. This broadly mirrors a trend reported by the IAMAI (2017), where a majority of rural smartphone users report using internet access for entertainment, online communication, and social networking[2]. Thus, while smartphone access and usage may indeed by on the rise, a lot remains to be done in order to ensure that this medium is also used as a means of information dissemination, and key service delivery.

Other common themes that have emerged in the discussions regarding usability of mobile app-based services include a lack of training, and familiarity with smartphones apps, and thus a lack of confidence. Furthermore, many services appear to only offer English interfaces, which poses a severe barrier for many farmers. Lastly, in a smaller number of cases, a preference for video prompts/ instructions/ information delivery was expressed, as compared to text based content.

We find that the desirability/ usability aspect is as much a function of good product and user interface design, as it is of ensuring product relevance and suitability. Given the rapid increase in the number of such services available, the challenge is not only to ensure that users are comfortable interacting with any one service — but also that they are able to navigate the landscape of services with ease. In the following weeks, we aim to gather more details on the importance of user interface design and farmers’ perceptions on the same.



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