Farmers view Dhanaji Dongre's crops in Khandali, India, and ask why they are looking so much better. Dongre says it's because he is using agricultural information transmitted to his cellular phone, and he shares that information with others. This is how mobile data empowers people in rural India.
Dongre farms some eight acres with such crops as corn, tomatoes, eggplant, and wheat. He lives in a modest home with simple furnishings, and he typically uses animals for farming rather than tractors or other motorized equipment.
Dongre’s handset is a Nokia "feature phone" employing GSM's slow GPRS and SMS data. In fact, 3G became available to consumers in India earlier this year, but still isn't widespread.
Still, Dongre's phone pulls in a tremendous amount of data for farming, using Nokia's new Life Tools agricultural software, which transmits updates a few times a day.
The most valuable feature for Dongre is current local market prices for his crops. In this area, farmers are held hostage, in a financial sense, to middlemen who purchase crops for resale to distributors. Without knowing market prices, farmers sometimes receive less than they should. Using cellular phones, farmers like Dongre select pricing information for two or three crops. They can point to prices displayed on the screen to demand the true market value, which could decrease the middlemen's profits.
Life Tools' agricultural module also transmits information about pesticides and plant diseases, fertilizers, planting schedules, weather forecasts, and other relevant data (e.g., power outages, strikes by workers). Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) has established an "agriculture desk" staffed by experts who determine and review data that's transmitted over Life Tools.
As a result of access to such information, Dongre's income has improved significantly, so the cost of Life Tools is more than paid for by additional profits.
Another Indian in the vicinity, Hanumant Markat, works about four acres. He also has Life Tools, but the service's educational module is mainly used by his children to learn English.
Dina Mehta, a well known Indian blogger and market researcher who's head of a firm named Mosoci, and I sat with our shoes off on carpets outside Markat's house as the outside lights flickered on and off (a common occurrence in rural India). Dina and I asked questions, and she translated between Maranthi and English (as she also had when interviewing Dongre).
Markat's son, Umesh, who is in the ninth grade, learns how to read and write English in school. But he uses the Life Tools educational module to learn how to speak English phrases and sentences, which he demonstrated to us. The module translates Maranthi into English. Other educational modules in Life Tools offer general knowledge, exam preparation, and exam results.
Umesh sees learning English as a ticket to a better life, a common theme in the Indian countryside.
Life Tools' monthly subscription averages 30 rupees (US$0.61) to 60 rupees ($1.22) per month, although subscribing to the four educational modules and the agricultural modules combining both market prices and agricultural updates would add a dollar or two. That's cheap by Western standards, but not for the many Indians who make less than $1,000 a year.
Despite the relatively low cost of the service, Nokia sees the possibility of significant revenues. India has more than 1.1 billion people, cellphone service is booming, and at least 60 percent of the population works in agriculture. Nokia has captured almost 60 percent of the Indian handset market, with the majority being lower-cost feature phones.
Life Tools can work with the company's high-end handsets, but the software is specifically designed for basic phones, SMS, and slow cellular networks. As a result, the updates are brief, and there aren't detailed graphics to illustrate information (e.g., photos of crop diseases and insects).
Ultimately, the lessons Nokia's learning in India can translate into more software and services for other emerging nations. Coincidentally, by providing content for some of the most critical vocations, such as agriculture and education, Nokia might in some ways help influence their development.
[Disclosure: Alan Reiter is a participant in Nokia's "blogger relations program" and was invited to India to learn about Nokia's new cellphone software and services. Nokia paid Alan's expenses, including transportation, hotels, and meals. He was not paid any fee.]
— Alan Reiter, President, Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing