How do you build an app for farmers?

Farming, as we know, is a very important sector for India. There are around a hundred million families (a population of approximately 400-500 million) in the country that depend on farming for a living. Most of them, however, are smallholder farmers who own typically 1-2 hectares or 2-4 hectares of farmland. Moreover, although agriculture directly or indirectly accounts for almost half the total employment in the country, it only accounts for 16 percent of the national GDP. This clearly indicates a need to improve the efficiency, productivity, and financial success of the industry. Technology can be of great help in this regard, especially if implemented through the medium of the mobile phone, which is by far the most convenient, accessible, and affordable tool for communication and connectivity today. It is, however, a trickier task than it seems, as most farmers donโ€™t know how to use their phone for improving productivity.

Developing an app for farmers is different than doing it for digital natives.

There is no doubt that mobile-based apps can help farmers address many of the difficult, long-standing problems they face โ€“ problems related to various aspects such as cultivation; preparing the land; sowing the seeds; water management; handling the soil health; pest control; harvesting, and more. Let us take the issue of pest management in cotton farming, for instance. Cotton farmers suffer every year as pests destroy large portions of their crop. This can be prevented by using a mobile app that can tell them whether, which, and how much pesticide should be sprayed. It can help them save them unnecessary costs and preserve the soil. AI-based apps can also provide better rainfall predictions; detect the soil mixture and texture; and advise farmers on the optimum amount of water to use for irrigation.

The question is, how to design such apps for farmers. Designing an app for those who understand technology, and are used to some level of complexity, is easy. But it is important to bear in mind that the digital literacy of most farmers is very limited. At best, they might know how to use WhatsApp and YouTube, but not much more. Yet, the apps that are designed for them should help them make faster, informed decisions.

The app should address the specific needs and speak the language of the farmers it is trying to help.

A useful solution can only be made if one has a good sense of its intended users and their needs. This is the first principle of the design process. Conducting interviews among farmers and observing their behaviour in real life can be a good way to shape oneโ€™s ideas and guide the app design process. It makes a huge difference if the app interface is in the farmerโ€™s own native language, as not everyone is well-versed in, or even comfortable with, English. Visual cues, too, can help in making the app more user-friendly. Real-life-like images can be used instead of abstract illustrations to help convey an idea.

The app should be designed to context and should simplify choices.

For digital natives, recommendations are often given through choices, such as a choice between Option A and Option B to solve a problem. When it comes to farmers, it might not always be that simple. Sometimes, they donโ€™t understand the concept of choice. The onus is on app developers to find ways to make that choice obvious. Furthermore, it must be remembered that the app is meant to be used by farmers when they are on their farms. For a mobile app to be used outdoors in broad daylight, it must have the right colour, contrast, and font size for easy reading and operations. It must also draw the userโ€™s attention to action items and highlight all that is important.

The need for easy-to-use apps and collaborative efforts, going forward.

The growing sense of familiarity that farmers will develop with an app after repeated use is extremely important. The app publishers must take care that they donโ€™t change too many things too fast. Updates and improvements to the interface and the functionalities of the app must be done in a slow, staggered manner. Else, there is the risk that the farmers might feel lost and stop using the app altogether. How to keep the app relevant and updated while making the corresponding changes easy to follow for users is a challenge that app developers will always have to contend with. Furthermore, given that users, when they turn to the app for help, might not always be in a place with adequate network coverage, it is a good idea to build a feature into the app that offers recommendations offline.

A few years ago, the Prime Minister had called for concerted efforts towards doubling the income of the Indian farmers. Efforts in this direction will progress much faster and achieve much better outcomes if private sector organizations partner with governments, NGOs, agriculture universities, and technical organizations to develop app-based solutions for farmers and deploy them at scale. It is a worthy goal to work towards, and an achievable one, at that.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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