Turmeric farmers in India recently leveraged Facebook as a means of sharing information and eliminating middle men when oversupply and crashing prices threatened their livelihoods. Farmers were able to send messages and organize a boycott through a facebook mobile phone application. ICT solutions are increasingly critical in connecting farmers with market opportunities.

KOLKATA: Last month, the turmeric farmers of Maharashtra’s Sangli district found themselves in a desperate situation. Oversupply had resulted in prices crashing in the local turmeric market, Asia’s biggest, threatening their livelihood. And with several thousands growing the commodity across Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, any meaningful strategy to halt the price crash meant involving a sizeable number of farmers.

That’s when local farmer Atul Salunkhe, 31, had a brainwave. How about using Facebook to contact other turmeric growers across the country? Salunkhe had opened a Facebook account three months back to trace his college friends. Now he decided to use it for more pressing reasons.

“I knew some farmers in Andhra Pradesh with Facebook accounts. I immediately asked them what should be done about prices. They suggested that we should reduce supply for a few days. I conveyed this view to everyone in the village,” says Salunkhe, who uses his smartphone to access Facebook. Farmers depend on market sales for regular income and don’t find it easy to give it up even temporarily. His neighbours in Atpadi village sought time and thought it over for a day.

Eliminating Middlemen

On January 13, farmers of Atpadi village asked Salunkhe to send out a message that no one should participate in the local auctions. In a matter of minutes, Salunkhe conveyed this to 35 farmers on social media from Sangli district alone. The news went viral after that, says Salunkhe.

Every village of Sangli district, which has 25,000 turmeric farmers, heard of the boycott call. “For the next few days, each afternoon we chatted online to finalise details of the boycott,” he says.

On the morning of January 22, the Sangli auction yard stood empty. Thousands of farmers had stayed away. A protest that would have earlier taken months to organise now occurred within 10 days. When the farmers resumed selling their produce at the auction, the prices doubled from Rs 4 per kg to Rs 8 per kg. The boycott had served its purpose.

“Facebook farmers played a crucial role in stopping the auction and solving the problem,” says Raghunath Ramachandra Patil, president, Shetkari Sangathana, a political party with farmer members. The small protest at Sangli may not be a patch on the social media-led ‘Arab Spring’, but it does point to the growing importance of social networking websites in the Indian countryside.

From sharing critical information in real time to eliminating middlemen to opening up marketing opportunities for companies looking to tap rural consumers, social media is becoming a powerful tool of communication across India’s 600,000 villages. Technology experts say the community has always been central to rural India and therefore its acceptance of social media tools is not surprising.

“Community concept has always been prevalent in villages,” says Asheesh Raina, analyst at technology research firm Gartner India. “Earlier, a village sarpanch would sit under a tree and discuss certain issues with villagers before taking a final call. Facebook and Twitter are an extension of this concept.” Farmer bodies are quick to point out the advantages of social media.

“Earlier, we used to grow two-three crops together. Agricultural inputs were different for each crop and often farmers would find it difficult,” says Yogesh Kumar Dahiya, chairman of Farmers’ Forum in Saharanpur, UP.

And it’s catching on. Small tea growers in West Bengal will launch a website this month and link it with Facebook and Twitter so that growers can interact with international buyers directly, says BG Chakroborty, Confederation of Indian Small Tea Growers Association. Farmers involved in dairy, horticulture and floriculture are increasingly using social networking sites, adds K Prabhakar Reddy of the Consortium of Indian Farmers Association.