Every other week, 22-year-old Dharmendra Kumar transforms his family’s buffalo shed into a makeshift movie theater. His younger brother milks their animals and sweeps out the stall as Kumar tapes a white paper rectangle to a brown, fuzzy blanket on the wall.
About 30 women in sarees stream in, bow slightly to Kumar and his family and sit cross-legged on the floor. The children and babies settling into their mother’s laps have light brown hair, a sign of malnutrition.
The woman in the 10 minute video demonstrates a new farming technique. She’s from a nearby village, speaks Hindi with the same local inflection and wears her saree with the loose end draped over head — just like these women.
This customized video approach was developed at Microsoft Research India after observing that rural farmers were more willing to take advice from people of the same sex, ethnic group, and economic position, the Bloomberg has reported.
The New Delhi-based nonprofit Digital Green is using the method to train farmers in India and Africa about farming, nutrition, and maternal health.
“It’s a unique way of doing really targeted behavioral change,” said Julia Lowe, program officer with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is helping fund the program. “It will be particularly meaningful when it comes to more personal behaviors – health practices, household decision making, things that are really very personal.”
Digital Green was founded by employees of Microsoft Research India, a unit of Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), which conducts research in computer science and software engineering.
The government of India is using the approach in an ambitious poverty alleviation plan to convince women in 70 million households to plant and sell their own crops. The goal is for these women, many of whom live on less than $2 a day, to increase their household income to as much as $1,600 a year.
Instead of sending paid agricultural experts – mostly men – to teach these women farming techniques, the government has enlisted Digital Green’s strategy of making instructional videos starring local females and distributing them in surrounding villages.
Here’s how it works: Digital Green trains local community members to storyboard, shoot, act in and screen videos. The villages where they work often lack reliable electricity, much less televisions or smartphones, so community members carry sandwich-sized battery-run projectors to show the videos at village meetings on any available wall.
The people who screen the instructional movies, like Kumar, keep track of questions and how many adopt the new practices to help directors improve the next version. Digital Green has nearly 4,000 videos in 28 languages.
The approach, which relies on existing community networks, is cheaper and more effective than traditional farmer education programs, according to a World Bank report.
Women in India do much of the farm labor – 60 percent according to the New Delhi office of advocacy group UN Women – yet they’ve been excluded from education programs run by the government and the private sector since they often don’t own land and lack legal rights to their husbands’ property.
Before Dharmendra Kumar started showing Digital Green videos this summer, the women of Gosaibigha Village, in the northeastern state of Bihar, say they had never received outside farming help. “We learned to plant from our elders,” 60-year-old Laxmi Devi said.
Gosaibigha sits seven kilometers (4.4 miles) from the main road, a collection of crude brick houses surrounded by rice paddy fields and palm trees. People here have been growing their rice in the traditional way by making small mounds ten centimeters apart and placing three or four seeds in each mound, with the help of commercial fertilizers when they can afford them.
The government is trying to move farmers away from this method, because the crowded seedlings have to compete for nutrients, water and sunlight, and fertilizers can be prohibitively expensive. They want growers to adopt a method developed in the 1980s that can be more productive.
The System for Rice Intensification, or SRI, calls for spacing the mounds 25 centimeters apart and placing only one seed in each mound. It also calls for transplanting the seedlings earlier, which requires much more care, and using compost to treat the soil. SRI can yield twice as much rice using less seed and water, although it involves more work.
Fifty-year-old Kavita Devi watched a series of Digital Green videos last summer on SRI and got the confidence to lease land and plant her own rice. Until July, she had only worked on other people’s farms in exchange for ten pounds of rice.
“I see ‘didi’ working in the field in the videos. They look very successful,” Devi said in Hindi, using the word for sister. “I would like to be one of them. I want to educate my children. That’s why I want to use the same methods in my farming so I can move ahead in the future, just like ‘didi’ in the video.”
Devi will plant spinach and other vegetable cash crops next year to sell at the market and supplement the $25 to $30 her husband sends home each month from his job as a carpenter in the provincial capital of Bihar, more than two hours away by bus.
“I’ll be in a video someday,” she said.
Sending out agricultural experts is expensive and time-consuming. Between the government and private sector, there are 100,000 agricultural trainers in India, and less than six percent of farmers say they’ve interacted with an extension agent, according to the World Bank.
“Reaching out to a large number of poor households is a big challenge for us,” said Alok De, national mission manager of India’s National Rural Livelihoods Mission. “We see that quite often the poorest of the poor farmers are somehow left out. Women were never included. So our program is targeting women and poor small and marginal farmers. Digital Green will help us reach them in a cost-effective manner.”
When Rikin Gandhi, 33, was at Microsoft India Research developing the method that would become Digital Green, he spent six months watching agricultural trainers in the southern state of Karnataka.
“That was a really hard track,” said Gandhi, who helped found Digital Green. “They were doing all of this hard work and expending a lot of time and effort without people showing up for their trainings.”
Gandhi, a former Oracle Corp. software engineer from New Jersey, had been hired by Microsoft Research India’s technology for emerging markets group to find a way to improve farmer education with videos. After six months in the village, he came back with a methodology.
One of the most important insights was that “viewers identify with those featured in videos based on dialect and appearance, etcetera to determine whether it is someone they can trust,” said Gandhi. Even items like a watch or plastic bucket could cause a viewer to tune out.
“Folks sometimes see an object like a watch as associated with those of a higher demographic and may consider the practice that is being shared as irrelevant,” he said.
Gandhi determined that it wasn’t enough to just play the video, the community member has to stop and ask questions and generate a discussion for viewers to adopt the practice.
Microsoft Research, which operates much like a university, then tested the method against control groups for about 16 months.
“At the end it was pretty clear that Digital Green was much better,” Kentaro Toyama, associate professor at University of Michigan’s School of Information said. Toyama ran the emerging markets lab at Microsoft Research India then, and still sits on Digital Green’s board of directors.
The experiments showed that video was seven times more likely to convince farmers to try something new than the traditional method. An Indian agency that replaced its extension agent with a community member showing Digital Green videos cut its village education costs in half, according to the World Bank.
The old method cost $605 a year per village and was successful in convincing farmers to adopt new methods only 16 percent of the time. With the Digital Green model, it cost the agency $288 a year per village and boosted the adoption rate to 49 percent.
The Gates Foundation has so far invested $13 million for Digital Green to work in India and will also spend $12 million for them to train more women in Ethiopia in farming, nutrition, and child and maternal health.
“It extends beyond agriculture. I was surprised to see women want to participate in a video even if it’s about breast feeding, which is much more personal,” Lowe from the Gates Foundation said. “It’s an exciting tool to change these behaviors that are extremely sticky in communities and have been resistant to a lot of intervention to date.”
This summer, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention called Gandhi and asked if Digital Green’s approach might be useful in addressing the community’s resistance to changing burial practices in Ebola-effected areas, Gandhi said, referring to the outbreak in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.
Digital Green, however, depends on existing networks, such as women’s self-help groups in India, to make and distribute videos.
“If the channel doesn’t exist, then you need some serious time to build it,” Lowe said. “I would say it’s not a prime case for an emergency response.”
When the community channels are there, Lowe is betting Digital Green will transform the toughest problems around the world.
Toyama is running a larger set of random controlled trials to test Digital Green’s efficacy now that it’s operating on a large scale. The results might encourage more governments to adopt Digital Green and its approach to behavioral change.
“It’s going to be huge,” said Lowe.