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  • Writer's pictureNabilah Noorani

The Power of Agri-Data By All, For All

When our work on crowdsourcing price data halted trade in an agricultural market!

On February 2, I woke up to frantic calls at 4 am from users in Jabalpur, a city in central India. I learned that traders had gone on strike with a demand that they would not participate in crop sale auctions until sharing of price data is prohibited on our app. Market officials took away the mobile phones of people who were contributing price data and threatened to file a police complaint against them.

I was in San Francisco attending an Unconference on how to build AI-powered non-profits. I didn’t expect this call because I understood our work as just enabling farmers to share data with each other and make better decisions. I found it difficult to fathom how a simple, digital information intervention could cause so much stir. On our flagship product, Bolbhav, users can upload sale receipts live from agricultural market auctions, which are then aggregated and made available for all to see. Pictures of the receipt are taken against the crop sold, for users to gauge prices based on a crop’s quality. How could this mere sharing of information invite police enquiries?

I needed a moment to shake off my sleepiness and fully comprehend the gravity of the event. We designed the app with the intent that people who are not present in the market can know prices in real time and make better sale-related decisions or negotiate better at the farmgate. To our surprise, farmers also started using it within the market, in real-time. Farmers started asking for higher prices in the auction by showing receipts of other farmers from our app.

Historically, farmers have accepted any price offered during the auction, and there is no real conversation around price. As more and more farmers started comparing their prices and crop quality with others in the same market, they felt the need to communicate their dissatisfaction with the price received by them. This change in the power equation had irked the traders who brought a market as big as Jabalpur, where over trade of over a million dollars happen each day, to a halt.

Under their pressure, mandi officials who had previously granted Bolbhav written permission to work in the mandi, revoked it. They issued a letter threatening disciplinary action against us if users continued to upload receipts. The text below is a translation of the letter we received in Hindi.

Subject: Regarding Collection of Prices From Auction Activity This letter pertains to the subject matter that prices for agricultural produce are being collected through receipts from auctions conducted in the Mandi premises. Regarding the matter, it is stated that you are prohibited from collecting price-related receipts as mentioned above. Should this act be repeated in the future, disciplinary action will be undertaken against you, for which you will be held personally accountable.

After this event, the atmosphere in our virtual team meeting, was serious and sullen. Still in beta, our product is live in a controlled environment and serves over 15,000 users across 8 agricultural markets. If market officials ban data contributions to our app, we will not be able to achieve the critical mass of contributors needed for network effects to kick in.

Our CEO, Vikas asked why everyone was low despite such good news. The good news? "Looks like we are going in the right direction", he stated in his signature style. "It's time to celebrate and eat some sweets". He spoke about how we should have been concerned if no one noticed our solution. This event, where our work attracted the attention of influential stakeholders in the market, proved that we were on to something meaningful.

He went on to add that instead of retreating from the market, we should double down on our efforts towards crowdsourcing data. Currently, from this market we are capturing a high volume of sale data (around 40-50% of daily sales) but our number of contributors is only a handful. We are overly dependent on super contributors. This has increased our risk because it is easy for anyone to threaten and stop a few people from contributing. But if over a hundred people contribute on any given day, then it would be very difficult for any traders or market officials to stop them.

The chart below shows the count of receipts submitted each day and the count of unique contributors since the launch of our product in this market on 26th October 2023.

In line with this, we launched a campaign to create more awareness about the platform’s ‘for farmers, by farmers’ model amongst our users. It is the idea that information is available when people share and that contributing information leads to greater awareness amongst the community. Collectively, people can make better decisions and negotiate for higher prices. The video shared below is part of this campaign.

This incident has emboldened us to continue to do work that democratises information for farmers. More information for more power for more income, has never been more clear. Until now, 4% of users have contributed receipts at least once. Our target is that this number would reach 25% within the next quarter. We look forward to sharing more updates from this information movement soon!


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