Speaking at MediaNama’s #NAMA conference during a session on digital in rural, moderated by Kushan Mitra of The Pioneer, S. Sivakumar, Group Head of Agri and IT Businesses for ITC Ltd, and the architect of ITC eChoupal, said that the ecosystem that can put together things in place to trigger digital consumption in rural India is still not in place. Responding to Mitra’s question on whether there existed a rural digital Indian, he mentioned that the scenario was akin to being invited to a party but missing it as you don’t have appropriate party wear- so there’s an opportunity but producers are still not hooked on to it.

For rural masses biggest aspiration is to increase income: Sivakumar said that one aspiration that drives lot of consumption of digital technology, among rural citizens, is the desire to have a higher income. He mentioned that the per capita income of the rural Indian is one third of that of the urban Indian. He also gave the example of the need for substituting the lack of cold storage chains in India with connecting markets, to raise income for the farmer, as he gets a better idea of what is in demand and produces to meet the target, and prevent food wastage.

He emphasized that digital solutions focused on education and health were long term and that there needs to be a short term way of extending the benefit of technology to farmers. He then gave another example- he said that prices of produce can be lowered by raising productivity of farm but  individual condition of each farmer is different, so there needs to be a personalised solution which is not just one way but is based on feedback – so for example data can be generated from a farm using GPS, weather mapping, soil analysis to deliver a personalised solution. This way the solution offered is more instant, and offers an increase in the farmer’s income. He added that creating an application for the urban audience was easy as it is still homogenous, but you can’t deliver one mass customised application for the rural audience.

On Mitra’s question on whether farmers would be willing to pay for digital applications, Sivakumar responded that it should be treated like any other media business where consumer pays partially and the rest could be subsidized by advertisers, and that even more targeted ads are possible in the segment.

He also talked about the importance of an audio visual experience in applications and iterated it with an example of presenting a live case study to a farmer can make the conversation more credible.

On internet infrastructure, Sivakumar mentioned that ITC had implemented V-Sat technology to reduce cost of point to point connectivity. He was also optimistic about the Indian government’s optical fiber project to connect 250,000 village panchayats by 2014 for rural broadband access.

He reiterated that applications themselves are not sufficient and a complete ecosystem has to be in put in place- for example just giving information on a type of input is not sufficient. The farmer also needs to know about its availability and how he can secure credit to get that. “Who ever is engaging with rural india needs to figure out what else are the things required for the ecosystem; whether you’re orchestrating a complete ecosystem or pluging and playing into something which is put together like that,” he said.

Viability Timeframe: Responding to another question from Nikhil Pahwa of MediaNama, on the viability timeframe of rural focused applications for developers, Sivakumar stated that for someone looking at building a complete ecosystem, there’s a 5-7 years window for paying back but for everyone’s who’s plugging in, it coul be instant. “For the orchestrator, getting that anchor application right which will fair for 30-40% of revenue requirements is critical.”

He also dismissed the notion that working across different languages was a potential challenge and said that it’s been overcome. Citing the example of the success of the Green Revolution, Sivakumar mentioned that farmers were the quickest adopters of technology if they can be convinced that it would add value.