Imagine you’re a farmer in a village in India, with little or no access to the cloud which we all live on these days. There’s a mandi (market) 20 km from your farm, and for any information you need, that’s how far you need to go.
When you harvest your crops, you go 20 km out to a mandi where, say, 600 other farmers are also competing to sell their produce. The middleman is at an advantage – he sets the price, you take it, no matter how unfair or low. You trudge 20 km back to your home with very little money to show for your months of hard labour and care.
Enter – eChoupal. Over a decade ago ITC, one of India’s largest multi-industry companies, launched a unique empowerment initiative called eChoupal. They took a farmer in a locality and trained him to be a Sanchalak (Anchorman/Driver). This Sanchalak gets his own eChoupal kiosk inside his home, connected by phone line or VSAT to a host of up-to-date information like agricultural best practices, crop, seed and fertilizer information, weather forecasts, local and global price indices, etc.
e-Choupal was conceived to tackle the challenges posed by the unique features of Indian agriculture, characterized by fragmented farms, weak infrastructure and the involvement of numerous intermediaries.
Suddenly, and for many years since the first 6 centers were set up in 2000, rural lives were being impacted on an unprecedented scale.
According to ITC, e-Choupal has reached out to over 4 million farmers in over 40,000 villages through 6,500 kiosks across 10 Indian States since its inception. While the farmers benefited through enhanced farm productivity and higher farm prices, the company also benefited from lower cost of procurement (despite offering better prices to the farmer), and eliminating costs in the supply chain that do not add value. Farmers also got the benefit of being connected to over 160 new companies which could ride on the eChoupal infrastructure. The latest addition was the rozgarduniya.com portal that connects headhunters with thousands of jobseekers in rural India.
ITC e-Choupal also won a series of awards, including the Stockholm Challenge Award, Development Gateway Award, and the ICC-UNDP-IBLF World Business Award.
And then, equally suddenly, it just seems to have lost steam.
If you Google for eChoupal today, there’s almost nothing to be found in the last two or three years. No one is talking about it, apart from the odd fondly nostalgic special mention. The website home page looks like a blast from the past. Despite being what someone called a “hard-nosed business model” that also has a great positive social impact, this initiative seems to have fizzled out. There currently seem to be less than 7000 eChoupals, much lesser than the trumpeted goal of 20,000 eChoupals by 2010.
Good things shouldn’t be allowed to fade. So – what happened to eChoupal? What’s the status? Anyone at ITC reading this, and care to let us know? Most importantly, if policy inertia is to blame, can we help? How can we help?