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Issue of May 2006 

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Empowering the masses

The eChoupal advantage

ITC's eChoupal project is a winner—for farmers who get better remuneration and for the company that's assured quality inputs for its business

V V R Babu

Imagine an illiterate farmer in a remote village in Madhya Pradesh sitting at a desktop wired up to the WWW through a small VSAT link, powered by a tiny power generator by the side, and surfing away to glory downloading invaluable information about weather forecasts and sowing trends.

Imagine farmers checking prices for soya beans at the nearest government-run market, or even on an international commodities exchange. “A few years ago such a scenario would have seemed outlandish but today it’s a reality,” says V V R Babu, CIO, ITC (eChoupal Project).

IT for the Masses

The eChoupal project covers over 35,000 villages in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttaranchal providing millions of farmers with critical information on farming. The Choupal services are being delivered by over 6,000 Sanchalaks and over 17,000 Upa Sanchalaks to these remotest areas.

Multiple Benefits

Farmers can look at weather forecasts, order fertiliser and herbicide, and consult an agronomist by e-mail when their crops turn yellow. At some eChoupals they can even buy life insurance, apply for loans and also check their children’s exam results.

While much has been written about the social benefits of ITC’s eChoupal, the matter of the fact is that the project was conceptualised with a pure business focus to create farmer communities in villages to facilitate sourcing of high-quality farm produce for the company’s fast growing agribusiness.

Better Payment

In IT parlance, eChoupal is an intelligent blend of applications like CRM and supply chain management. For instance, by helping the farmer identify and control his inputs and farming practices, and by paying more for better quality, ITC has been able to preserve the source and improve the quality of produce.

The project was built using .NET. The first implementation of a Soya Choupal took eight months but later extensions like the Aqua Choupal for aquamarine farmers took between six and eight weeks.

Today eChoupal is a flexible, easy to deploy solution. ITC Infotech provided an in-house team of 25 to 30 people in the initial stage and this gradually came down to around 20 people, and finally a five-member team to maintain the project.

The portfolio of commodities sourced has been vastly expanded to include maize, barley, sorghum, and pulses, and the sourcing cycle is extended almost around the year. In the commodities market, these two factors are helping ITC create a definite competitive advantage.

The Problems

“Initially we thought that we would work with DoT to upgrade rural telephone exchanges. The department was proactive in upgrading many rural exchanges to electronic ones. After 15 months we found that the experience was not satisfactory,” explained Babu.

Power cuts in rural areas can run for eight to 10 hours. ITC even went so far as to provide gensets at a few locations hoping to spur DoT to doing the same. It didn’t work out and in 2001 ITC shifted its focus to using Ku Band VSATs. Power remained a problem and it was solved by using solar panels.

The EChoupal Roadmap

ITC now plans to leverage its eChoupal infrastructure to sell third-party products, provide rural market research services, and in the social sector, to provide services like health advisories and enable e-governance.

ITC eChoupal has embarked in on providing best of the class retailing and shopping experiences to the rural consumers by building retail shopping complexes that provide integrated facilities under one roof. Under the brand ‘Choupal Sagar,’ these shopping complexes house—a procurement centre, retail store, food court, farmer facility centre and healthcare clinic.

In healthcare services, a pilot project has been launched along with leading corporate healthcare service providers, to extend reliable and quality healthcare services to the remotest villages. Several health camps conducted during the pilots are encouraging and the project is in the midst of scaling up to other locations.

ITC eChoupal is currently piloting delivery of quality education services to the rural areas leveraging the physical and digital infrastructure developed for commodities sourcing and consumer retail services.

With updates from Vinita Gupta

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Indian Express - Business Publications Division

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