thomsonreutersThomson Reuters’ Reuters Market Light has ventured into Himachal Pradesh with its SMS based service for farmers. The distribution network is being set up and work has just begun there, Ranjit Pawar, Vice President – Operations, Reuters Market Light (RML), Thomson Reuters told MediaNama.

Launched in October 2007 after more than a year of research on information needs of farmers in India, Market Light has established itself in three states – Punjab, Haryana and Maharashtra today. It will expand to UP, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh next. “Gujarat is especially a good prospect for us as it has high teledensity,” says Pawar.

Quick Facts About RML

Commodities Tracked: 125
Mandis Observed For Prices: 400, out of which 195 are in Maharashtra
Type of Information: Weather, crop information, mandima prices and regional news.
Packages: Rs 175 for 3 months, Rs 350 for 6 months, Rs 650 for 1 year

Longer Subscriptions A Positive Indicator

Till 2008, most customers preferred quarterly packages but since then the trend has moved to half yearly and yearly subscriptions which could be an indicator of acceptance. On an average, customers are buying RML’s service for 5.5 months, Pawar said.

RML To Stay A Premium Service

focus2jun08In Punjab and Haryana, RML has experimented with different price points: the same packages cost Rs 250, Rs 500 and Rs 850. Feedback from the sector puts this as too high a rate for agri information and that a subscription price of Rs 15 per month is what will work. RML has a different take, though.

Pawar gives the example of a farmer in Sangli who saved Rs 250,000 by using RML’s information service. By taking immediate action on receiving an SMS on the relative humidity, he protected his crops while another farmer in his vicinity lost Rs 500,000. “So when people are saving in thousands, they will also spend a premium for quality content,” he said.

Content – Aggregation; Detail; Support From Institutes; Accuracy

RML’s operations are spread over eight states, but most are offices where content is produced and aggregated by a team of 300 employees. This team is an editorial set up that collects daily news about agriculture, schemes launched by the government, weather and local news. This news is specific to the point that they inform farmers when a particular mandi in a village is closed or if a pest or disease outbreak has taken place that could affect their crops. It is also customised so users can filter information by taluk-level and choose crops in which they are interested.

RML also partners with agricultural institutes which are looking for more ways to distribute information to farmers. These are usually central government funded institutes who are directed by the government to aid farmers in their states. Students and researchers in these institutes contribute content of relevance to RML who then includes it in their package and delivers it to farmers.

On being asked what the accuracy of their service is, Ranjit said he would not be able to reveal internal information. The service activation time is between 24 to 48 hours.

Delivery: SMS versus GPRS versus Voice

The choice of Indians has always been SMS. “SMS works better in cases where data needs to be recorded and referred back to at a later date, such as the mandi prices or crop related information,” Ranjit says. Voice suffices for delivering news on the mobile, but remember that voice is a costlier medium. Nokia’s Life Tools also requires GPRS enabled mobiles.

Poor GPRS connectivity is the top challenge for players in this sector. GPRS is still not popular in the country and much less so in the hinterlands, so those entering the business may want to think twice whether they should hang everything on GPRS. The additional cost of data usage is also a deterrant for rural users. Unless there is some bundling of GPRS with such a service, it is not likely to be received with any fanfare.

Local Language Fonts; RML’s Own App; Usability; TCS’ MKrishi

Compatibility with local language scripts (fonts) such as Brahmi is also a hurdle. Many mobile owners have low end handsets that are not upgraded. So offering a service in local languages – however creative and impressive the concept appears today – is bound to fall flat.

Ranjit informs us that work on building their own “special, downloadable application” has begun. It will be similar to Nokia’s Life Tools. It will have a user-friendly content format that is in the making. Innovations that will improve usability are already taking place – Tata Consultancy Services‘ MKrishi service won it an award from Wall Street Journal for using voice SMS to help illiterate farmers send queries and ask for advice or information. MKrishi is powered by Mobile Agro Advisory System and will soon be rolled out by Tata Indicom, Hindu reports.

Limitations of Direct Selling In Rural India

RML constantly receives feedback that customers are unable to renew their subscriptions. “It is a limitation of our direct selling model. Our sales people are unable to find existing customers by their addresses,” Ranjit said. Such problems – lack of reliable databases on addresses and unreachability – are unforseen and are a common hurdle to most services targeting rural India.

RML currently has a network of hundreds of sales personnel so will scaling this up further help? Before making that decision, the company must decide which road to take.

Future Plans

The options are:

a) Go solo, launch their own application and retain their pricing strategy. For this they will have to ramp up their sales network, which will require large investment. Is the three year old company ready for such a huge step?  RML has the confidence to be on their own. “There will always be space for highly customised content even if it is at a slight premium,” he said.

or

b) Partner with operators, handset manufacturers and state governments as a content provider.”Till now we have been directly selling to farmers, but we could just focus on managing technology and letting operators take over marketing and distribution,” said Ranjit. RML will partner with multiple players and not go exclusive so customers can have options. “We will partner with whoever comes out with a good interface,” said Ranjit. The content is network agnostic and RML is speaking to operators but has not concluded any discussions.

Pan-India With Nokia’s Life Tools; Competitors

RML recently entered into a content tie up with Nokia for Life Tools, which was launched in Maharashtra. Now it is in talks with the handset manufacturer for a pan-India launch, Ranjit informs us.

Telco BSNL and mobile VAS provider OnMobile teamed up for Mandi On Mobile service in UP along with the state government, we learn via Techtree. Airtel also launched a rural mobile service with IFFCO a few years ago in East UP, which you can read about in Business Standard. With more operators now targeting rural India, the time is ripe for agriculture related value added services.

With thanks to PM for asking us to get more inputs on RML

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