Career change: Rocket scientist finds agriculture more out of this world than space

Writer: Kathleen Phillips, 979-845-2872, 

COLLEGE STATION – Rikin Gandhi put his sights on outer space as a little boy growing up in New Jersey. He chased that dream earning degrees in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University and aeronautical and astronautical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

        Next came a pilot license. But while waiting for acceptance to the U.S. Air Force — his best chance for the giant leap into space  — Gandhi discovered something more out of this world with perhaps more reachable solutions for mankind – agriculture.

        “My first hero in life was the astronaut,” Gandhi recalled. “But my new hero is the small-time, often older farmer in developing countries who may be making $1-$2 a day. People like that are trying to migrate out of agriculture because of the difficulties in making a living, and yet there are limited jobs and food in the big cities.  I thought there had to be a way to keep them on the farm but improve it to the point that they feel like it’s a productive and good place to be.”

        Gandhi, 35, talked about Digital Green, the global effort he founded to address this issue, during the 2017 Texas A&M AgriLife Conference this week in College Station. More than 500 people are attending the conference where one of the themes is the need to develop ways to feed the ever-increasing world population as it races toward almost 10 billion by 2050.

        Having worked at Oracle and Microsoft Research, Gandhi first thought putting computers in the hands of the small impoverished farmers would be the solution. But being a quick study in his newly chosen field of agriculture, Gandhi learned that rural areas – whether in the U.S. or abroad – often cannot easily access the wealth of data on the internet.

        Instead, Gandhi launched the idea of producing short, localized videos to demonstrate helpful tips and techniques on the farm.

        “Farmers are visual,” he said. “And we found that they are more likely to trust information from a family member or friend in the same village than an expert from afar.”

Rikin Gandhi

Rikin Gandhi, chief executive officer of Digital Green, (center) shows a farming family in India how a video can demonstrate tips and techniques to make their operation more productive and efficient. (Photo courtesy of Digital Green)

        Rather than trot experts and professional videographers, film crews and scripts to the field, Digital Green equipped local Extension agents in places like India, Ethiopia, Ghana, Niger, Tanzania and Afghanistan with video cameras and the skills to produce short educational videos of the local farmers describing helpful hints for farming methods.

        “There was a disconnect with the audience on professionally produced videos,” Gandhi said. “But when a poor farmer sees another poor farmer describe and show something that helped, the technique is more likely to be adopted.”

        In accomplishing the production of localized videos, Digital Green soon realized the next steps: measuring whether farmers in local communities were watching and then to gauge whether the method demonstrated in the video was being adopted.

        “We found that it’s still important to have a person present when the video is shown,” said Gandhi, comparing the process to that of county Extension agents in the U.S. who routinely conduct field days and other training sessions and workshops.

        Gandhi matched the production of video with data collection for continuous research to find what methods are working and thus help steer new videos and further help identify farmers’ information needs.

        As a result, from its beginning in 2008 through June 2016, Digital Green had reached more than 1 million individuals across 13,592 villages through 4,426 videos demonstrating best practices, according to the organization’s website. More than 574,000 viewers have adopted one or more of the best practices promoted through these videos.

        Gandhi believes that is helping move agriculture in developing countries toward sustainability. He also believes the system can help transform agriculture in certain areas of the U.S. where rural infrastructure is lacking or where small-farm producers need information. To that end, Digital Green is piloting efforts with niche farmers in two California counties.

        The not-for-profit organization has since partnered with or been supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, U.S. Agency for International Development, Microsoft Research and Google, to name a few.

        For those who think Gandhi’s original plan of being an astronaut has been far-stretched, he’s not so sure.

        “A rocket is very complex,” he said. “So are people. I’m trained in a systematic way to think, so we just have to find the leverage point and know where we can intervene to make a difference.”

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