Story by Nicole Yada, a U of G student writer with SPARK (Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge)

Prof. Jana Janakiram, in blue, meets with Indian farmers. Photo Courtesy Open Distance Learning for Seed Technology

Cellphones can be used for video conferencing, editing documents and even to locate the nearest restaurant − but to help grow crops?

Indeed. In India, cellphone technology is being used by Guelph professors Douglas Pletsch and Jana Janakiram, School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, in a project called Open Distance Learning (ODL) for Seed Technology. Indian farmers can use their cellphones to access agronomic information immediately and use it to improve their agricultural practices.

The current initiative is an extension of a project started 15 years ago by Pletsch and Janakiram, who are working on a proposal for a larger, more detailed program to replace it. Last year, Janakiram asked Prof. Naresh Thevathasan, School of Environmental Sciences, to use his agroforestry expertise to continue the project. Thevathasan has received a $300,000 grant from the Canadian International Development Agency to oversee the project until July 2013.

The ODL project has several goals. It aims to compile improved seed technologies and improved agroforestry skills and practices. Researchers also want to increase awareness of gender and social issues; the grant proposal specifies that 50 per cent of new workers trained must be women. Finally, the project aims to educate the public about fair government practices and public responsibilities.

When Pletsch and Janakiram started the program, all materials were distributed to farmers in print. But advances in technology have changed how the open distance learning program operates. Cellphones are so cheap in India that virtually everyone has one, and they’re now the primary tool for ODL extension work.

A cellphone directory allows farmers to call for immediate answers to their questions. Cellphones have also eased the costs associated with travel time between villages. And farmers receive advanced agricultural technology voice messages up to four times a day, three minutes at a time, with timely problem-solving information.

Through cellphone contact with Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, farmers can educate themselves about the market and fair prices for their commodities. In some cases, the university helps to link farmers to banks, which provide them with loans.

It’s the farmers’ responsibility to create their own business plans for repaying the loans. The researchers emphasize that it’s important the materials aren’t free; paying for the information means that people will value it.

Janakiram describes the initiative as a partnership. Indian farmers benefit from the advanced scientific knowledge shared by Guelph researchers, and the researchers learn from the farmers about their crops. This information can then be used to aid farmers in other countries.

The Guelph team hopes to have assisted 4,000 farmers by the end of the interim program, but Thevathasan stresses their work can’t be quantified by simple statistics. The ultimate goal is to improve the livelihood and, consequently, the quality of life of farmers and their families.

“The benefit is much larger than numbers,” he says.