In 2000, Babulal Madhav, a farmer who manages about 50 acres of land in Nathu Barkheda, a village in Bhopal District of Madhya Pradesh, noticed that another farmer in his district had been given a computer and a Sanchalak designation by ITC, the consumer goods company. He approached them: he wanted to be computer literate too. After all he was a B.Sc. graduate and his son, a Commerce post-graduate.
Today a computer proudly sits in his baithak and a VSAT dish perches atop his roof. ITC trained him in computer basics and his son did the rest. He is one of 6500 odd Sanchalaks for ITC's e-Choupal initiative: the formidable procurement and distribution programme rolled by the FMCG giant which now covers 38,500 villages across nine states of India.
ITC is using the e-Choupal programme to make the procurement process more efficient through the timely use of information technology. For instance, every evening, ITC broadcasts the prices of soya bean at several mandis in Madhya Pradesh through the computer at the e-Choupal. It also indicates the price at which ITC's hub point will buy the beans. "Farmers usually come by in the evening to find the price," says Madhav In addition, since all interfaces are in Hindi, language is not an issue.
The 'hub and spoke' e-Choupal also manages ITC's grain procurement.Since the selling points or hubs are close to the farmers, they save on transportation. "I even take it on my own bullock cart" says Jeevan Patel a farmer. Moreover, the electronic weighing machines installed there ensure that they are getting a fair price, which ITC pays immediately.
From livelihood to learning - the network has many uses
The Sanchalak also offers other services from soil testing support to advice on farming methods, weedicides and insecticides. Madhav, who is still clearly excited about introduction of technology into his life, explains that he has access to several Hindi websites including, Agriwatch, Webdunia, MP exam results and Choupal radio. "When the exam results are out, we print the results out free of cost for students," says the proud farmer.
A particularly useful service is the district weather forecast . Choupal radio also often offers relevant discussions on agricultural practices. Farmers are also shown promotional films by LIC on insurance benefits. Of course, all these shows are played on the computer at the e-Choupal. Not surprisingly, Madhav also sells LIC policies and Kissan Credit cards.
Farmers like Madhav, who are Sanchalaks, can earn an additional income of Rs. 50,000 to 60,000 per year from their role in the procurement chain set up by ITC. Additional income flows in for Madhav as he is also a wholesaler for ITC's FMCG products.
ITC's e-procurement chain and FMCG distribution network, is changing the lives of many such farmers in villages covered by the e-Choupal initiative. From livelihood to leisure, the network is touching their lives, and changing it for the better.They also see additional possibilities, "It would be great if the company could allow us access to other websites. Why can't I book railway tickets for example?" demands Madhav. This group of farmers, it would appear, looks all set to bridge the digital divide….